A week ago we celebrated the 237th birthday of the United States of America, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed.1 For liberty-lovers across the country, it’s a day to remember the great principles this country was founded upon, yet the remembering is starkly contrasted by the reality of just how our nation has strayed from those principles.2
In amongst eating fabulous food and fellowshipping with family and friends, I had a few minutes to stop and reflect upon the importance of the day. And while the question often crops up, “Would you have signed the Declaration?” I realized that before answering that question I needed to ask another: why did they sign?
What is it that causes a man to gamble his entire life – work, family, fortune – on the toss of a dice? The delegates to the Second Continental Congress were representatives of thirteen independent colonies, each with their own background, social structure, and culture. In many ways, the only thing that united them was their common dislike for the mother country of Great Britain. No man risks everything on shallow convictions, yet deep convictions are not formed overnight.
Our founding fathers, those who put all on the line for future generations, were students of the classics, well-rounded and widely-read men. A good foundation in history was essential, beginning with Cicero, Thucydides, and Plutarch, and science not ignored (Newton’s Principia could be found in the libraries of many men). Political theory, however, was where most centered their efforts, with the ideas of John Locke, Algernon Sidney, Nathaniel Bacon, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon3 being most influential to the founding generation.
But the founders did not read such classics in isolation. They were taught by mentors, men who had read before them and could guide their reading. The letters, journals, diaries, and personal papers of the founders are replete with discussions about, and references to, the classics. Lockean phrases even found their way into the Declaration.
It was because they knew the story of history and understood the importance of life, liberty, and property; and because they understood the proper role of government in upholding those values; that, when Great Britain became destructive of those principles, they had the tools necessary with which to dissolve the bands which had connected the colonies to the mother country, and to institute and establish their own government.
So now we come to the second question: would you have signed? Or should I ask, could you have signed?
It’s easy for those of us who love liberty to get frustrated at the current state of the union. We become increasingly annoyed as we scroll through the news, or read commentaries on the news. We shake our heads (and sometimes our fists) at IRS targeting and NSA spying, wondering what happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave. We call for a second American Revolution and wonder just how bad things have to get before the pitchforks and torches come out, noting all the while that the tyrannies battled against in the original War for Independence pale in comparison to those we live under today. We gripe and complain and gripe and complain some more, probably annoying our Facebook friends with endless streams of links to articles about this or that violation of rights.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder whether our approach needs a major overhaul. Instead of concentrating our efforts – our time, money, and brainpower – on the things we can’t change (because let’s face it, the chances of throwing out all 535 bums in Congress and replacing them with true statesmen is, essentially, nil), perhaps our time would be better spent changing the one thing each of us can change: ourselves.
Yes, you. (I’m talking to the person who looks me in the mirror each morning.)
We like to quote the founding fathers. We look up to them as heroes of a bygone era, when liberty was a thing to be cherished, valued, something worth dying for. We long for a new founding generation to arise, to restore this nation back to what it once was, a place where liberty flourished and freedom rang.
But are we prepared to be that new generation? Have we (have I) spent the time studying – reading history and the classics – that is necessary to gain a leadership education equal to that of the founders?4 Are we equipped to step into the shoes of those we want to vote out of office? Do we have the skills and conviction to do a better job than those currently in Congress? Do we have the courage to do the right thing, even when it’s hard and unpopular?
While it’s unlikely any of us will face a decision equal in magnitude to the one that confronted the founders, our nation is at a crossroads. Whether it takes the road less traveled or not depends, not on millions of voters across the country who simply go to the polls on election day; but on you and I, an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.5 And that begins first in our own minds, when we take the time to study, learn about, and educate ourselves in the principles of liberty, to live them out, and then – and only then – to spread the word as we are able.
Right now I’m working through Uncommon Sense, by Stephen Palmer. He directly addresses many of these issues, and has challenged me to consider the individual trees, rather than becoming discouraged at the blight that is raging through the forest.
Will you join me?
Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it. – Thomas Paine
P.S. – There’s a twofold reason this post didn’t come out last week. First, it wasn’t ready 🙂 But far more important, the lessons contained herein aren’t limited to a certain day. This isn’t about Independence Day – only. It’s not about the Founders – only. It’s about you and me, and how we choose to spend our time – all year long.
- By two people. Yes, I know, most delegates didn’t sign until August. [↩]
- Even more sobering are the numbers of people who don’t have a clue why we celebrate Independence Day: http://youtu.be/SRkFDcX_72c [↩]
- Trenchard and Gordon collaborated on Cato’s Letters in the 1720s, a series of letters about liberty that were printed in a newspaper and are said to be even more influential to the ideas of the founders than Locke. [↩]
- See A Thomas Jefferson Education, by Oliver DeMille [↩]
- Samuel Adams, paraphrased [↩]