Readers are perhaps familiar with my old daddy, as he pops up from time to time in my columns. He’s gone now, some forty years and it seems at the same time inconceivable and very real. Not hard to remember his face or his unselfconscious full-body-hug or the unique way he always smelled of tweed and tobacco.
America has its own old daddies, we keep referring to as founding fathers, but we don’t really believe it. Not all that much history taught anymore about how we came to be a nation.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation, a lady is said to have asked Dr. Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin, already 81 at the time, gave the pre-Churchillian reply, “A republic madame, if you can keep it.”
If we can keep it. We’d like to keep it. Sometimes it seems we don’t try all that hard, no matter the flags we fly on our car antennae or the mumbled words of the Anthem before a first pitch or opening kickoff. But we mean to. Our republic was new to Franklin, the world’s greatest unproven experiment and he saw it with the clarity and skepticism of an experimenter.
We see it as our heritage, something that’s always been there, the same-old same-old.
James Madison, our 4th president is particularly interesting man to listen to, for his continual warnings about the danger that war places on a republic.
“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
And he went on at another time to expand on that sentiment a bit. These 146 words are worth the reading, then reading again, sleeping on and getting up in the morning to go back over with a hot cup of coffee.
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended. Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war…and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
One last mention from Madison,
"The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad."
Real, pretended or imaginary. If we dare fast-forward thirty presidencies, Dwight Eisenhower, aside from his famous warning against the military-industrial complex, admonished us
“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”
The vain search. One can only assume, by the great amount of attention these men gave to the dangers facing America, that they feared the nation would not overcome them. Paraphrasing Jefferson, he said that the framers must grab every freedom possible at the moment of birth, because citizens would quickly become involved with making money and neglect to demand anything further. Along those lines, he saw other economic difficulties
“I place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared. To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.”
“When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny.”
This from a man who sat in the seat of power and yet encouraged a healthy governmental fear of the people they governed. There’s not much spin in that, not a great deal of fumbling around to put a different face on things.
Teddy Roosevelt, another man who sat there, saw the dangers of presidential awe,
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
As did John Adams,
“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
“Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.”
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”
My old daddy often angered me when he laid down the law, but I came to realize (almost too late) that he wasn’t trying to save himself, but me. I was a hard save, but he never quit on me.
It’s the same for America’s old daddies, founding and otherwise. They hadn’t a thing to save themselves from. They’d done their work and what they said to us, in just the fraction of their great writings I’ve quoted here, were meant to keep us safe.
They didn’t ask us to look up from our work but just occasionally. Didn’t require a constancy of attention to their voices. They’d written in their own hand, without need of spin or poll or speech writer, the guidelines for contemporary freedom.
All they ask is that we look sharp and pay attention when times are dangerous.