“For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character). Read all »
On this July 4th, I’m reading Authentic Patriotism by Stephen P. Kiernan. You should too. Here’s Kiernan about the origins of this very day, 243 years ago:
The colonists rebelled not only to free themselves from the yoke of British rule but also in order to reject the stratification of British society. They fought to bring to life one of the Enlightenment’s highest ideals: a new and nobler definition of what a human being is.
According to progressive thinkers of the eighteenth century, people did not need to bow to someone whose sole claim to superiority over them was birth… In the New World, in other words, merit alone would count. A man should advance not because of which family he was born into I but by virtue of his intellect, character, exertion, and luck.
Kiernan writes about what transpired in the spring of 1776 in New York Habor:
There George Washington and the fledgling colonial army had gathered after an unexpected victory in Boston. At the time the colonies did not possess a navy, not even a single ship. To demonstrate his power, the king sent warships to New York that May and June, foremost among them the sixty-four gun HMS Asia. Soon the British added two fifty-gun ships, the Centurion and Chatham, then the Phoenix with its forty guns, next the thirty-gun Greyhound with an army general aboard. These ships also bore tens of thousands of troops. The king then added the Rose, as well as the Eagle-another sixty-four-gun ship, this one commanded by the fearsome Admiral Lord Richard Howe. Colonists spied five lore ships arriving one day, eight another, twenty another. By late June the harbor and its outer reaches were crammed with some four hundred ships, including seventy-three warships and eight ships of the line with fifty or more guns each. It was the largest military force ever dispatched by any nation on earth.
And what did the colonists do that July? How did they reply to his terrifying display of power and glory?
They declared their independence. They cataloged their grievances, explained their reasons, and announced their permanent separation from Great Britain. The bonds were dissolved, the ropes that tied the colonists to the monarchy permanently cut.
It was not mere impudence that this act of rebellion displayed. It was character. It was determination. The king had failed to realize that every step he took to suppress the colonists, to intimidate them, to reinforce their inferiority, only invigorated their growing conception of what a human being is.
Having personally met the first person sent to prison for the crimes surrounding the Watergate break-in – the delightful, humble and wise Bud Krogh – I know that you can’t paint people with too broad a brush. So here are some words you might find meaningful whichever side of the aisle you find yourself on? Or maybe these are words you might find challenging, no matter what side of the aisle? Well, either way, here goes: Chuck Colson, of Watergate infamy and now a widely read Christian writer, on the rising populist anger as expressed in the tea party:
… The inevitable consequence of all of this should deeply trouble Christians, who, of any segment of our society, understand the necessity of a strong government. The Bible teaches that God ordains government, appoints leaders, and requires obedience so that we might live peaceable lives. Why is this? God recognizes that even a bad government is better than no government. No government leads to chaos and mob rule. When order breaks down, justice is inevitably undermined. As Augustine of Hippo argued, peace flows from order, and both are necessary preconditions to the preservation of liberty and some measure of human dignity and flourishing.
This is why great leaders of the faith throughout history have held government in such high esteem. Some, such as John Calvin, considered the magistrate the highest of vocations…
“The tea party movement may have a lot of traction in America today, but it makes no attempt to present a governing philosophy. It simply seeks an outletâ€”an understandable oneâ€”for the brooding frustrations of many Americans. But anti-government attitudes are not the substitute for good government.We should be instructing people enraged at the excesses of Washington and the growing ethical malaise in the Capitol to focus their rage at fixing government, not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
We Christians are to be the best citizens, praying for our leaders and holding them in high regard, even as we push for the reforms desperately needed to keep representative government flourishing. Only when we funnel frustrations into constructive reformation can we expect a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
(Photo credit and – as is often the case when we find a good article – thanks to Lea, Queen of All Things Internet.)
“You must pardon me, for I have grown not only gray but blind in the service of my country”: George Washington and our civilian-controlled military
John R. Miller writes in Sunday’s New York Times about how George Washington played a key role in forming the cherished American principle of civilian control of our miliary (thanks to Luke for finding this):
On March 10, an anonymous letter appeared, calling for a meeting of all officers the next day to discuss the grievances. Within hours came a second anonymous letter, in which the writer, later revealed as Maj. John Armstrong Jr., an aide to top Gen. Horatio Gates, urged the troops, while still in arms, to either disengage from British troops, move out West and â€œmockâ€ the Congress, or march on Philadelphia and seize the government.
When Washington learned of the letters, he quickly called for the meeting to be held instead on March 15 â€” to give time, he said, for â€œmature deliberationâ€ of the issues. He ordered General Gates to preside and asked for a report, giving the impression that a friend of the instigators would run the show and that Washington himself wouldnâ€™t even attend. He spent the next few days planning his strategy and lining up allies.
But just as the meeting of approximately 500 officers came to order, Washington strode into the hall and asked permission to speak. He said he understood their grievances and would continue to press them. He said that many congressmen supported their claims, but that Congress moved slowly. And he warned that to follow the letter writer would only serve the British cause.
The officers had heard all this before â€” the letter writer had even warned against heeding Washingtonâ€™s counsel of â€œmore moderation and longer forbearance.â€ The crowd rustled and murmured with discontent. Washington then opened a letter from a sympathetic congressman, but soon appeared to grow distracted. As his men wondered what was wrong, Washington pulled out a pair of glasses, which even his officers had never seen before. â€œGentlemen,â€ he said, â€œyou must pardon me, for I have grown not only gray but blind in the service of my country.â€
The officers were stunned. Many openly wept. Their mutinous mood gave way immediately to affection for their commander.
Real leaders consider how to minimize the coarser aspects of human nature to lead; Opportunists want to grow the coarser aspects of human nature to gain power.
George Washington was a real leader:
“One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”–George Washington’s farewell address
These days we elect a lot of opportunists.
In her New York Times “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog, Maira Kalman treated us on New Year’s Day to By George. The picture above is her take on Mt. Vernon. Since I’m highly partial to George Washington, his 110 Rules of Civility, and spirited colorful art, this was bound to wow me. If you don’t get all the way to the end, know that this will come out as a book in October. I’ll see you at the bookstore…
(Hat tip to Eagle-Eye Luke.)
The Village Square has always been all about George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. We have found them wise and often a bit witty. We have a hard copy of the rules in a little red book we have more than a few times read at our Dinner at the Square events.
I just had a wonderful opportunity to talk with University of Virginia’s Ted Crackel about The Civility Project at U.Va., which will release a revised list of rules, in the spirit of Washington’s original. It is particularly wonderful that students are putting together the list. You can actually submit ideas for rules on their website: The Civility Project: George Washington Meets the 21st Century.
This isn’t any ole vanilla re-do of Washington’s rules, however. It’s got gravitas:
The Civility Project will be undertaken with organizational guidance from The Papers of George Washington, a Founding Fathers project based at the University’s Alderman Library, and with the inspiration of Judith Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated Miss Manners column in the Washington Post.
Martin and Theodore J. Crackel, editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, met in 2005 when both were being honored at a White House ceremony. So when the Washington Papers staff recently discussed the idea of basing a project on our first president’s famed “Rules of Civility,” Crackel knew right away whom he wanted to enlist.
“I am absolutely delighted to have Judith Martin working with us on this effort,” Crackel said, noting that the columnist will play an active advisory role. “We in the project and the students involved couldn’t have a better adviser.”
We probably won’t sleep nights waiting to hear the results…
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.
They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
So they agreed where they could, disagreed where they had to and kicked a lot down the road a bit (toward us, in fact).
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another. Even our understanding of the founding document we all revere is riddled with fundamentally different viewpoints.
The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born. Not knowing that Jefferson had passed on just hours before, Adams last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives,” providing one of history’s most poignant lessons to us across the centuries.
If we continue to choose the path of this legacy – the uneasy yet unbreakable partnership of opposites that is our unique birthright – it will never be easy. Maybe a big part of our problem is that we’ve grown far too accustomed to easy.
“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders before us, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square in Tallahassee. Contact her at email@example.com
“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind…The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it…If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error…We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal hosted a serious look at just what America dividing apart might look like. In Divided We Stand, Paul Starobin (author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age) writes:
The philosophical tie that binds these otherwise odd bedfellows is belief in the birthright of Americans to run their own affairs, free from centralized control. Their hallowed parchment is Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, on behalf of the original 13 British colonies, penned in 1776, 11 years before the framers of the Constitution gathered for their convention in Philadelphia. “The right of secession precedes the Constitution the United States was born out of secession,” Daniel Miller, leader of the Texas Nationalist Movement, put it to me. Take that, King Obama.
Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.
The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”/blockquote>
From Noah Feldman’s Divided by God:
The revolutionary American idea that the people were sovereign profoundly disturbed the old model: How could the state establish the religion of the sovereign if the sovereign people belonged to many faiths? The framers rose to the occasion. For the first time in recorded history, they designed a government with no established religion at all.
… The early republic was religiously diverse in that it was inhabited by several different Protestant denominations. This â€œmultiplicity of sects,â€ as James Madison brilliantly realized, ensured that no one denomination had the capacity to establish its own state religion at the national level.
… The dominant idea organizing church-state relations in the framersâ€™ era was the liberty of conscience, understood to protect religious dissenters-representing the religious diversity of the time-against compelled taxation to support teachings with which they disagreed.
…In America, the establishment of religion by the government came to be seen as posing a fundamental danger to the liberty of conscience by threatening dissenters with the possibility of coercion. The constitutional guarantee of nonestablishment sought to protect conscience from coercion by guaranteeing a division between the institutional spheres of organized religion and government.
â€œâ€¦You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.â€
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the recent HBO mini-series â€œJohn Adamsâ€ as â€œthe north and south poles of our revolution.â€
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.
They, as others in the foundersâ€™ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus â€“ and ours â€“ the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, â€œpolitics ainâ€™t beanbagâ€ and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another.
Perhaps nowhere is this gap more profound today than on matters where faith and politics intersect.
It was a bold experiment the founders undertook when they broke with hundreds of years of history to form a country without an official religion. Woven through their work was the then radical belief that individual liberty was of the highest value, more important than the interests of government and kings.
Flowing inevitably from this notion was a strong commitment to individual religious freedom. The specifics of the relationship between church and state, however, produced disagreement, much as it does today. So they agreed where they could, agreed to disagree where they couldnâ€™t and kicked the sticking points down the road a bit.
Today our religious diversity is far beyond the imagination of the founding fathers, yet we are still a country with the freedom to worship as we choose.
Despite that astounding achievement, as the 2008 presidential contest put in sharp relief, we still donâ€™t see eye-to-eye about the role of faith in our union, just as we donâ€™t agree about economics, fighting terrorism, the role of government in our lives or really much of anything it sometimes seems.
Maybe more concerning than the basic disagreements, though, is the fact that weâ€™ve largely stopped talking – and most certainly stopped listening – to those with whom we disagree. We naturally surround ourselves – socially, in church, in our television viewing – with those who see it our way.
Lost in the sea of sameness is the healthy – though sometimes difficult – struggle of ideas between â€œneighborsâ€, akin to the struggle that birthed our democracy. It was, in fact, that very diversity of ideas that some founders expected would naturally protect the freedoms they held so dear.
Next Tuesday, The Village Square will fly in the face of this recent trend, ignoring good manners – and possibly good sense â€“ as we continue our Dinner at the Square season â€œFaith, Politics & Neighbors.â€ Our panel â€“ Center for a Just Societyâ€™s Ken Connor, Lawton Chilesâ€™ General Counsel Dexter Douglass, ordained minister and former Lieutenant Governor candidate Allison DeFoor and former FSU Religion Chair Leo Sandon â€“ will debate â€œFaith in the Public Square.â€
With two Democrats and two Republicans on the panel, they likely wonâ€™t agree.
But our foolishness only starts there. To mark the inauguration of a new president, we are inviting you to join us in lunch across the divide by inviting a conservative friend to lunch if youâ€™re a Democrat and a liberal friend to lunch if youâ€™re a Republican.
And, like Jefferson and Adams before you, explain yourselves to each other.
Adams and Jefferson ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.
â€œWhether you or I were right,â€ Adams had written to Jefferson, â€œposterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?â€
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment â€œin the course of human events.â€
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.