Brion McClanahan

The Founding Fathers also understood that a sound republic depended on an educated, virtuous, civic minded citizenry, and their government and society reflected their values. Patrick Henry often reminded his fellow Virginians that the “ancient constitutions” of their forefathers provided the best example for the future. He was guided, as he articulated during his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” speech, by the lamp of “experience.” John Dickinson, an important but forgotten founder, considered “Experience to be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” These men broke from the British Empire in order to preserve the traditions of their communities, not create something new. They participated in government because it was their duty to serve, and they often resisted. Both George Washington and George Mason, for example, preferred retirement to politics, but humbly served when called and gave up power willingly. And, since this generation tended to be suspicious of government, government did very little. Forgotten founder George Clinton, arguably the most popular governor in New York history and no relation to Bill or Hillary, often celebrated that New York freeholders paid no taxes for eighteen years while he was in office. The founding generation disagreed on many things, but the right of self-determination and limited self-government was not one of them. Most viewed their state as their country and believed people had the right and duty to determine their own destiny, government included.

Moreover, the Founders were not egalitarian romantics with lofty views of human nature. They were men of their times, but the leaders of this generation had a sound understanding of classical history and the nature of man, without question better than the current crop of “educated” Americans. When current college freshmen have a difficult time recalling basic historical concepts or events, thanks in large part to public “education,” one has to wonder if current or future leaders could match the intellectual might of any of the Founding Fathers. Could contemporary Americans honestly rely upon federal or state “leaders” to write a viable constitution or make decisions without conducting a public opinion poll? When image is more important than substance, probably not. In contrast, the founding generation produced the framework for two federal unions—the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution—and authored a host of state constitutions. History and the nature of man, of course, have not changed since the founding generation, only its interpretation and the willingness of modern Americans to seemingly embrace government involvement in our lives.

So, how does this apply to our society? If the United States had been “remade,” and it has, so too have American citizens. Americans have become less independent since the time of the founding generation. We owe thousands to large corporate banks, live in rented or mortgaged homes, and spend 110% of our income each year. We spend hours watching sports on television, ignore our history and civics, shun the vote, and trounce our Constitution. We have given our rights away often without protest to various levels of government and pay half of our money to these same governments in order to “level” society. We have forgotten the republican (not the same as the Republican Party) ideals of simplicity, frugality, civic participation, and virtue, and have failed to retain simple methods of survival, believing that the trough will always be full, our bellies always fat and our wallet stuffed with money (or credit). We have, in essence, become decadent serfs to Uncle Sam and in the process have been lulled by “bread and games.” A people with reckless habits can expect no more from their government and government often reflects society.

The ability of Americans to understand and emulate the founding generation holds the key to a prosperous future. Battle lines have been drawn. If Americans continue to accept larger and more powerful government, bailouts, government handouts, nationalized industries and restrictions on individual liberty, they move closer to dependence and serfdom and farther from the founding principles of the United States. But, the Founding Fathers would argue that every step Americans take toward decentralization, individual responsibility, and personal independence is a step toward salvaging the republic. July 4 is about independence from a king, freedom from oppressive government and high taxes, and the power of self-determination. All Americans would do well to remember that lesson. We can “remake” America or preserve the founding principles of the United States, but we cannot do both.

Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author of "The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution" and the forthcoming "9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her."