Reflections on Our Nation’s Founding Place

Reflections on Our Nation’s Founding Place

I’ve been in Philadelphia this week for some training. The classes and homework have kept me pretty busy.

But this morning, having completed (and passed!) my course, I had a little time to consider the city and its history. That meant, obviously, a visit to Independence Hall and Congress Hall, where our nation began.

Independence Hall is best known to popular memory as the place where the Second Continental Congress declared the 13 then-colonies independent of England. The same room, however, also was the scene of what became the Constitutional Convention, the secretive meeting at which leading politicians from around the 13 states came together in 1787. In defiance of the instructions many had received from their state legislatures, they abandoned any effort to reform the broken Articles of Confederation in favor of drafting a new structure for this nation’s government.

On the same block sits Congress Hall, where the first Congress under the new Constitution (and several subsequent ones) convened. It was here that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were debated and approved for ratification by the states. It was here that a beloved leader and two-term president sat and witnessed the transfer of his authority to the second man to serve in that office, then quietly walked out the door, entered his carriage, and road home to Mount Vernon.

It also was here that fiery debates about slavery raged while brutal laws were passed. It was here that the same men who approved the strong language of the First Amendment (which begins emphatically, “Congress shall make no law . . .”) adopted the Alien and Sedition Act imposing stiff penalties on those who chose to exercise their First Amendment rights by offering harsh criticism of the government.

These individuals were not gods. While those at the Second Continental Congress pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the cause of independence, some of them deprived other humans of all three for economic gain, and many profited from the advantages of their station in society. They could be petty, and hold grudges, and prefer their pride and a perverse sense of their “sacred honor” to the common good.

They were, in short, just like you and just like me.

They were given an extraordinary moment in history in which to make choices. And they made them, sometimes against their own self-interest. There were times when they rose above personal and regional animosities to build for a future they would not live to see.

One of the great stories of those early years is the dramatic and intensely personal animosity that arose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These partners in pursuing independence became bitter antagonists and political rivals. Their disagreements about theory became the foundation of partisan conflict that gave us the first serious changing of administrative direction and a foundational Supreme Court case that firmly established the “checking” power of the judiciary.

In later years, they would repair their friendship. They would correspond frequently, ultimately with great affection and mutual appreciation. Time tempered their tempers. Wisdom, which both had (though sometimes neglected to consult), would lead them to reconciliation.

I walked away thinking of the present state of our national political debate in the shadow of these extraordinary events and individuals.

I counsel the leaders with whom I work to draw distinctions between behaviors and people, and between purposes and positions. When we focus on the person, or on the position, we have little room to maneuver. Praise or condemn. Approve or disapprove. Nothing much between.

But when we focus on the behaviors, we can be clear about exactly what it is we approve or disapprove, and can foster change. When we focus on our purpose, we can negotiate in good faith, sacrificing what we might have preferred or even thought best for what can survive the process of legislating, avoid the veto pen, and become law, moving us an incremental step forward toward a better government and a better society.

It is fair to say, I think, that our Founders, for all their personal animosity, tended to know a good argument when they encountered it, a fine bit of oratory when they heard it. They knew the difference between stoking emotions and giving reasons. They recognized that leaders should do both, but that merely stirring emotions was not engaging in leadership. They tolerated ambiguity and imperfection, but it seems clear that they generally were honest about those realities, rather than praising or denying them.

And they gave us a country unlike any other at the time. Arguably, still, she stands alone in history.

I can only hope the part we now play sustains that great distinction and will make our Founders proud. Not because we say it is what we are doing, but because it is, in fact, what we will have done.

 

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