A Vision of the Spirit and Promise of Our Founding Fathers
by Scott L. Vanatter
The things of politics and public policy are of deep import. It takes time, experience, and careful and ponderous and even solemn thoughts to inform whether and how we act. Politicians, by their words or policies, either expand or contract the frontiers of our freedoms. We, The People, need to encourage and benefit from its progress, or mourn and suffer its decline.
The more we as citizens stand informed and aware, then the better able we will be to advocate for those principles which will tend to the greater public good. Then we can act with confidence in this great undertaking. As Lincoln called it, the last best hope of mankind.
As George Washington laid out in his first inaugural address,
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” (George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789)
We are fortunate to live in a sacred part of the country. We tread every day where great souls once did great things. The following words come from one of the heroes of the second day of the battle of Gettysburg. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, then a college professor taking leave to lead a regiment from Maine, later to become the college president and then governor. He said this about the battlefield there, but the ideas he employs apply to ANY great place, or any great set of circumstances [even yours]:
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
I cite this because this is the type of “vision” we need to effectively maintain the last best hope, and successfully maintain and transmit our freedoms to our posterity.
When I was younger, and delved into politics, I was perhaps invested 80:20 — or, more likely, 60:40 decades ago — into the Contest, the Competition, the Fun of it all. More so than the impact of positive results we needed for the benefit of the county. But as I became a grandfather, the ratio of Fun to Needed blessings turned upside down — or, rather, to its proper proportion. Now, I am fully invested 80:20 in the better reasons to be involved, the effectiveness of our government for our posterity (more than the fun of the contest, the intrigue over the contest of ideas.
The following definition culture describes how we create and define our American Culture.
“Culture is an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life.” (Geertz, 1973)
If we abandon the establishment of what that “inherited conceptions” are, then we lose the best of what the Founders bequeathed us. A candidate for president once said that, “It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound.”
Lincoln said we could trust the people to make wise decisions if we can get them the facts. If we can get them the facts in the correct setting and context, and help build a vision, if you will, in their minds and hearts, then we can trust the people. As most quality and effective politicians have. Reagan had a deep trust in the people and in America’s potential and future. We need not despair for our future, if we work together for the common good. If we get them the facts, in the context of the story of who we are as Americans – and the purpose of our founding: to vouchsafe “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
So, this begs the question: Which facts? What story? What vision?
Our objective is to urge us on to invest ourselves in becoming more informed and active citizens – that we might keep this great nation free. We need an increasing and compelling vision of why the story of our Founding is important.
“Our forefathers left us a free government which is a miracle of faith – strong, durable, [and] marvelously workable. Yet it can remain so only as long as we understand it, believe it, devote ourselves to it, and when necessary fight for it.” (Ezra Taft Benson, June 2, 1978)
I suggest, again paraphrasing, we must catch this vision of our Founding and the Founding Fathers – and Mothers. And we can – at least in a couple important and kind of neat ways.
I am not speaking to the issue of actual spirits of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) lingering here. But I do know the spirit OF their great lives DOES live here. At least through our imagination we can see through the years and though the fog of our modern world to see and truly appreciate these “great deeds.” We can go to these places in our mind’s eye, by engaging our minds and hearts into this living history. This Vision can impel us on in our own quest to do what’s right and improve the world.
Both George Washington and John Adams only to name two felt keenly this overwhelming need to be of service. Why? Why did they feel such a passion to serve? To create something which will last, with the other Founders — to create such things as, a written Declaration of Independence, to win that Independence, then to establish a means to keep it — through a written Constitution.
Yes, the great Washington held slaves, but he freed them upon his death and provided for many of them an annuity till they died. He and Jefferson both desired to do away with Slavery, but could not figure out how to do it. Though this was a troublesome thing for blacks (and for women for similar reasons), the founders created, as Martin Luther King termed it, a Promissory Note to those people not immediately covered in the rights and privileges of the Constitution – but which were announced to the world in the Declaration.
On this topic, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He went on to say, that the time had “come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
The paradoxical nature of both the Declaration and the Constitution plants the seeds of an effective and sure way to vouchsafe – ultimately — to ALL peoples of the world their God-given Natural Rights, by securing what stability and rights which could be agreed upon by the great minds of the day; this in an atmosphere of competing and contending interests. This nation was created – with purpose – formed and crafted on respect for individual liberty of conscience.
A note on religion, or having none at all, George Washington wrote:
“The bosom of America was to receive . . . the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges . . . if they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of ANY sect, or they may be Atheists.”
And so this promise goes to all. America still stands as a model and a beacon of liberty and hope to freedom loving peoples across the world.
Now, I will list a few of my favorite Founding Fathers — a kind of Top Ten:
Honorable Mention: Abigail Adams, faithful counselor and Friend to her husband, John Adams. I’ll also mention their able son, John Quincy Adams. He is a fascinating transition between the Founding Fathers and our day. As a young teen he apprenticed in the most extraordinary diplomatic positions. Later he formally represented the United States across Europe. He was the real author/creator of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. After serving as president he served for 16 years in the House of Representatives.
10. Benjamin Franklin, printer, writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat — the first American (and the polar opposite to Adams’ tact in their diplomacy overseas).
9/8. Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, urging us on — and acting — to light the fire of Independence. Samuel Adams played a critical role in the earliest days of the Revolution, sparking the people to desire Independence.
7. George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights.
6. Thomas Paine, English pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical, classical liberal and intellectual for rationally putting forth strong reasons for Independence — and in sustaining us with inspiring words in our deepest trials. Common Sense. The American Crisis. John Adams remarked that, “without the pen of the author of Common Sense the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Washington had the following words written by Paine read to the soldiers encamped at Valley Forge:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.” (The American Crisis, Thomas Paine, 1737-1809, written 1776)
5. Alexander Hamilton, a self-made man, for setting the stage for America to change from an agrarian society to a modern industrial nation.
4. James Madison, Father of the Constitution.
3. Thomas Jefferson, a Renaissance man for the complex, comprehensive, and compelling life he led — and for the stirring way he formally announces our Independence to the world.
2. John Adams, for pushing, and pushing, and pushing some more – all the way through to Independence; Jefferson called Adams the Atlas of Independence. With Jefferson, the two of them were called the North and South Poles of the new Union. George Washington let it be known that this stalwart, Adams, was his desire to succeed him as U.S. President. [I believe Washington desired Adams’ for his firm belief in a strong executive, desiring to give the new nation a bit more stability. Then, we’d get to Jefferson.]
1. Of course, George Washington, the only truly indispensable Founding Father. He won the war; then laid down military power. He inspired almost superhuman trust among his fellow Founders that we could overcome our differences and come together to craft a Constitution; he turned down talk of monarchy. He was the glue which held the Constitutional Convention together. He was trusted to hold the executive power, to hold the country together; then again, he laid down political power. His friend Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee called him, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.” Unparalleled. He was the one they all looked to in times of trouble; he was the glue that welded together those strong personalities of our Founding. He was the rock upon which this country was built.
THE DEBT WE OWE
I respectfully submit we owe a debt to our own ancestors, to our Founding Fathers, and to our posterity to carry on this sacred fight for Liberty.
And with Martin Luther King, we then can say, and sing with gusto the song we sang here as we began this meeting:
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’ And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring . . . From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
OUR OWN LEGACY
Now, think of Chamberlain’s stirring words once more, where it is your great grandchildren coming to see where you lived, and to consider what you taught and lived by:
“In [the] great deeds [of yours] something abides. On [the] great fields [where you labored] something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate [the] ground [you trod] for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar [your great grandchildren], and generations [of our posterity] that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field [of your labors] to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision [you had burning within you will] pass into their souls.”
I conclude with an interesting and kind of a neat challenge my wife extends to the student teachers she brings into inner city DC. After having taught for 15 years here in Northern Virginia, she now works for a university helping train, oversee, mentor and launch these new teachers into a career of teaching. Her challenge: That they somehow creatively introduce George Washington to their students every year — no matter what subject is being taught.
My challenge: That somehow we introduce George Washington (and the important principles of the founding of America) to our grandchildren every year. Yes, we also need to be vigilant in monitoring our public servants. And yes, we need a healthy and positive Vision of America to propel us onward in so great a cause.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom… and that government of the people… by the people… for the people… shall not perish from this earth.” (Gettysburg Address)
After returning to France, Lafayette acquired prominence as the commander of the Paris National Guard when the Bastille fell on July 14, 1789. After ordering the destruction of the Bastille, Lafayette wrote to Washington:
“Give me leave, My dear General, to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition, with the main key of that fortress of despotism. It is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an aid de camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.”
It is my challenge that we all become missionaries of liberty to, at least, our grandchildren — if not our neighbor, and the whole world.
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A version of this piece was presented by Mr. Vanatter in a May 10, 2012 speech to a group of Rotarians in Northern Virginia.