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The Founding Fathers and their heirs wanted to establish and maintain a prosperous republic, yet they welcomed limitations on prosperity as much as they had welcomed restraints on power. This healthy respect for limits offers a way to recover the political and moral realism that contemporary Americans have lost…

Somewhere I recall reading the poet Randall Jarrell’s trenchant observation, made during the 1950s, to the effect that were George Washington to appear in the twentieth century, he would be afraid of the traffic and twentieth-century Americans would be afraid of him. In both instances that fear, I suspect, would have arisen from unfamiliarity and misunderstanding, though perhaps in Washington’s case, a dose of old-fashioned common sense might also have prevailed.

Washington’s generation, and the two or three that immediately followed it, envisioned a country that was very different from what the United States has become. Their hope was not for the United States to be the most powerful nation on earth. They did not, of course, go to the other extreme, seeking to withdraw from international affairs and lapsing into isolation, and they never doubted the wisdom, as Thomas Jefferson said, of showing “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” At the same time, declared John Quincy Adams in his Fourth of July oration, delivered in 1821, the United States should not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

This moderation and prudence in foreign affairs rested on the assumption that the Declaration of Independence was unique in the annals of history, and that the events which took place in America in July of 1776 could not be repeated in other times and other places. A century later, many Americans were changing their minds. They believed not only that what happened in America could, but that it also must, be imitated—that, in fact, it was the mission of the United States to spread its institutions, culture, and values throughout the world. The future of humanity depended on it.

The Founding Fathers and their heirs also wanted to establish and maintain a prosperous republic. Yet, they welcomed limitations on prosperity as much as they had welcomed restraints on power. They did not desire, nor even could they have imagined, a people animated solely by the quest for wealth. If the United States was not to be the most powerful nation on earth, neither was it to be the most affluent. In their judgment, riches were not synonymous either with freedom or virtue. If anything, the opposite was more likely to be true. Abundance occasioned luxury, decadence, and vice. Given their sage understanding of human nature, could members of the founding generation have anticipated that opulence would not only produce an improved standard of living but also bring a significant increase in unhappiness, anxiety, and despair? In answer to that question, the rising suicide rate speaks volumes.

More than 240 years removed from the Declaration of Independence, many Americans on this day of remembrance and commemoration will entertain fantasies of returning to a more uncomplicated and auspicious past that never existed. Although understandable, especially among men and women who have long felt themselves left out and left behind, who justifiably see themselves more often as the victims than the beneficiaries of progress, this sentimental reverie forecloses any hope of undertaking a measured and realistic evaluation of American problems and prospects.

As a consequence, Americans remain ensnared in a confused, tedious, and inconclusive debate about the character, meaning, and future of national life, all the while vacillating between suspicion and contempt, cynicism and sincerity, resentment and intolerance. None of these perspectives acknowledges the grateful recognition of the Founding Fathers that life is a gift from God, not an affront to human desires. Reaffirming both folk wisdom and Christian orthodoxy, a healthy respect for limits, woven into the fabric of the Republic from the beginning, offers a way to recover the political and moral realism that contemporary Americans have lost.

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1 reply to this post
  1. ~~ I was born at home — a two room shack with two additions for sleeping — in 1940 in Gahanna oHIo, to a share cropping family subsisting on five acres about a mile behind the owners, out on the “big road”. We never had electric til I was 15, nor indoor plumbing til I was 16. From age 8 til I was 15 Mom & I ran a 50 acre “farm” in Meigs Cty oHIo while Dad worked in Columbus, only coming down

    I could go on, but the gist of my story is simply that I came in on the edge of Appalachia, and the tail end of “the past” I think you refer to in your comment:
    “…many Americans on this day of remembrance and commemoration will entertain fantasies of returning to a more uncomplicated and auspicious past that never existed…”.

    The “fantasies” you refer to I prefer to think of as fond memories of a child- and early man-hood which I embrace, respect, and cherish. I’ve walked in the shoes of those who went before, and can quite emphatically state we dont need to bring back GW to realize how uncomfortable folks would be in this, our age; our Grand Parents, even our P’s would be confounded and astonied, by the meaninglessness and the lack of purpose and direction of our lives in this present “civilization”.

    All we hafta do is reflect on our own lives 20, 10, or 5 years ago — or as recently as last week, to realize the changes being wrought by all the Cultural Change Agents loose in this society.

    If we persist in beating the dead horse of this present iteration of the “peculiar institution” by our continued concentration on differences twixt the austere preferences of the founders, and our own greedy, manipulative, and self-serving death-styles, we’ll never understand the forceful reasoning behind our societal destruction.

    Our concern should be, not the change itself, but the “why” of it all, and when — IF — we come to that point of introspection, and realize we have the Bible, History, Personal Experience, and Common Sense to use as guides to a true understanding of cause and effect, we’ll discover this isnt anything new under the sun.
    But then, someone more gifted than I has already addressed the issue quite relevantly, for his time, and ours.

    Thanks for the otherwise salient article; we appreciate your work….

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