For many years, I made it a practice each Fourth of July to honor the ideal of America and the people who brought it forth by studying some of the founding period’s history or by reading biographies of those who helped bring this ideal to life.
Of course my interest is in how America became a land of Freedom and Prosperity, because things could have turned out much differently. We could have ended up an extension of Europe: a land of imported royalty with a social order rigidly stratified by birth, not merit; a continent of petty princes and warring principalities.
But we did not. Our good fortune was not inevitable, but depended on the appearance on the American stage of a most unusual group of individuals.
It is clear that the giants in the generation of our founders do not just appear larger than life in the rearview mirror of history. They were indeed remarkable men who became remarkable because they chose to make themselves so.
Benjamin Franklin, 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence, was older than Washington, Adams, or Jefferson and already renowned at the time for his accomplishments. Bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, swim fins, the library chair, street lights, the carriage odometer, and discoveries about electricity: As a major figure of the American Enlightenment, Franklin’s memory would be revered today even if he had had nothing to do with the founding.
|Our founders were remarkable men who became remarkable because they chose to make themselves so.|
How did Franklin make himself a figure capable of such remarkable accomplishments? The self-taught Franklin describes in his autobiography the course of constant study and self-improvement he set out for himself. The reader of his autobiography will profit from Franklin’s description of thirteen specific virtues he wished to acquire and the notebook he developed to chart his weekly progress.
Among Franklin’s desired virtues were these three:
RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
The reader will enjoy Franklin’s candor as he sets about this project and finds himself to be much more in need of self-improvement than he had at first supposed. For example, Franklin describes the difficulty he had overcoming pride, writing that “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
Even so, we learn from his description that the effort he made in this regard yielded results and his modest demeanor gave him more influence in public debate than he had enjoyed before. It is clear in retrospect that the new republic benefited immensely from Franklin’s learning, industriousness, judgment, and demeanor.
Like Franklin, George Washington had set out early on a life-long program of character improvement. By the age of 16 he had hand-copied a list of 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” a curious list of the manners of the day, reminders of respectful behavior, and timeless advice for character refinement. The discipline he set for himself bore fruit. And by the time he was 23, his commander in the French and Indian wars wrote of Washington’s judgment, dignified demeanor, self-reliance and other traits, each of which contributed to his great leadership ability in the difficult War of Independence.
The Republic’s great good fortune in having Washington as both a war commander and later as president cannot be exaggerated. There were in the revolutionary period those who wanted to crown Washington king. But he resigned his commission at the end of the war and later as president refused to seek a third term.
Not very many years ago I watched a U.S. president leave office after the inauguration of his successor and drone on interminably as he boarded a plane for home about his great accomplishments and the merits of his presidency. It was a performance unlike that of George Washington who left office asking Americans to forgive him for his faults, explaining that they were not intentional but due only to his own shortcomings.
Thomas Jefferson was as remarkable as both Franklin and Washington. Many of his accomplishment are well known; those that are not are simply too numerous to catalog here. But none was greater than the one we mark this week, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. With its powerful claim to self-evident truths about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is in my judgment the finest political document ever written.
It was not an accident that Jefferson’s accomplishments were equaled by his discipline. “Mr. Jefferson was the most industrious person I ever saw in my life,” wrote an old friend.
Jefferson’s views on the improvement of character can be found in a letter he wrote to his nephew who he advised to use every opportunity “to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous … . Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties & increase your worth.”
Each of these three men — Franklin, Washington and Jefferson — for all of their accomplishments, were mere mortals. Each had flaws. But they were remarkable human beings nonetheless.
And they were not alone. British historian Paul Johnson has written that “behind this front rank was a second, and indeed a third of solid, sensible, able men capable of rising to a great occasion. In personal qualities, there was a difference as deep as the Atlantic between the men who led America and Britain during these years, and it told from first to last.
“Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one is always the quality of the people in charge; and never was this principle more convincingly demonstrated than in the struggle for American independence.”
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