In this time of war, compounded by the melodrama of electoral politics, July 4th is a good time to reflect upon the blessing of our founding. Go beyond the compelling tales and the scholarly analyses, and our founding is distilled to its most basic: great, unadulterated leadership. I'd like to share a few observations about our nation's first generation.
To be sure, our Founding Fathers were learned men who spent their lives gathering greater knowledge. Our freedom was gained by people cultured by American traditions and experiences and steeped in classical antiquity, the Enlightenment, English legal and constitutional history, and a variety of political theory and logic. The sheer number of brilliant intellectual and military leaders who took part in our Revolution and national framing is astonishing. However, we often fail to realize that deep and rational thought pervaded much of American colonial society, especially in the four or five decades leading to our independence.
The American fight for independence was a constitutional and political struggle, and it was one shared among the masses. Hundreds of pamphlets and essays were published and read throughout the colonies prior to 1776. While the volume of political publications is impressive, the style of writing is most striking. Historian Bernard Bailyn tells us the most remarkable trait about these materials wasn't just that they were polemical, but that they were explanatory. They didn't merely delineate positions and ideas; they also developed the lineage of those issues, providing motivation, understanding, and intellectual underpinnings to the people who read them. The most famous and influential publications came later, as the Federalists argued the case for the new Constitution.
Today, we might think a classic education and such shared meaningful knowledge is reserved for only the most intellectual elite. On the contrary, the founders and colonists who won our independence spent much of their lives enmeshed in the pursuit of knowledge and awareness. They strove to understand their past, refine their guiding principles, and apply them in the construction of a new republic. They provide us with the best example that learning is a constant throughout every great leader's life.
Another important lesson our founders passed to us is revealed in our nation's constitution. A government-and especially a republic-must be based substantially on morality. This requirement of moral society was not only a spiritual or religious matter; it was a practical necessity to ensure a free people. The logic went something like this: To keep people free from oppression, the citizens themselves would be sovereign. Democracy was ingeniously utilized-not as a governmental structure, but as a mechanism to lend the authority of sovereignty to the political apparatus. The people themselves wouldn't enact laws; they would elect fellow citizens to represent their collective interests. Through elections and civic responsibility, citizens would have a wide array of opportunities to influence and control their representatives. Representatives could only govern by consent of the people, and, in exchange, the people would consent to the laws enacted by those representatives.
From our founders we know this: A moral society is one least governed and, thus, most free. The decadent society will be the one that foregoes liberty as government power is bloated to cope with the depravity of individuals.
The fathers of our nation demonstrated several of the most fundamental tenets of great leadership as they related to their founding brethren and where it concerned their individual qualities. They surrounded themselves not just with engaged followers, but with other skilled leaders. James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry had citizens railing over issues of taxation and liberty throughout the 1760s. Later, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and dozens of others in two Continental Congresses built the edifice of a wartime government, albeit an unsteady one, even as George Washington, Horatio Gates, and Charles Lee were fighting an unlikely won war. Later still, the father of our Constitution, James Madison, with the likes of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, moved mere colonies from the realm of wartime rhetoric to a nation dominated by its own historic principles and traditions.
In addition to collaborating with other astounding leaders, many of our founders were leaders who alone withstood challenges to their leadership. They remind us that sometimes people must stand solitary in their own convictions, and the impact of one can be monumental if he possesses the fortitude and persuasiveness to win the day. Madison's Constitution, Jefferson's Declaration, Hamilton's economic system, Gates' success at Saratoga, and Washington's charisma, are just a few examples of how remarkable personal characteristics of the founding Americans impact us still.
Moreover, our founders led without coercion or leverage. They had no legal, moral, or financial hold over one another; they led together and followed one another due entirely to their inherent leadership qualities: character, focus, intellect, intuition, experience. In founding our nation, those men didn't simply steer the course; they navigated it. And while their spirit was dominated by a fierce sense of personal freedom, they were primarily driven by a nation hungry for liberty. They were driven by the interests of others and the desire for all Americans-present and future-to be free.
In the end, our founding fathers were able to win our freedom, creating the most important nation in our planet's history because of one trait: passion. These men put their lives on the line for each other and for freedom-loving people all over the world. They literally offered their lives to one another and their countrymen when they signed their names on a piece of parchment. But their pledge to God and country was also made to us. They gave us the timeless and malleable tools to navigate the United States into a new day of progress, growth, and change while maintaining a heritage of liberty supported by deep faith in community and virtue. Passion is in the heart of every truly great leader.
Happy Independence Day. IBI