Suzanne Fields

Most of us revel in the freedom to celebrate the Fourth of July by burning snakes, lighting a match to Roman candles and watching the rocket's red glare, munching on hot dogs, fried chicken, and potato salad. The reasons why are pushed to the back of memory. A birthday party, after all, is a birthday party. Nevertheless, in a season when it's the fashion to deconstruct the Founding Fathers, to consider their flaws and not their profundity, it's only charity to pass along illuminating stories that testify to the ways they did what they did to make it possible to change the things that from time to time ought to be changed.

Put aside whether young George Washington actually chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree. (He apparently didn't). But George the man did lead a remarkable group of young men to create an original constitution over four hot months in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Silent George sat in a chair (not a throne) and rarely said anything, letting the young men work things out. He imposed one singular rule that probably wouldn't work today. He told them that no scribblers would be allowed to watch the proceedings, because if every item under discussion made its way into the newspapers nothing would be settled. Keep your handwritten notes to yourselves, he warned.

When someone dropped his notes, and they found their way onto George's desk, Mr. Washington asked whether anyone wanted to claim them. No one did. He ran a tight ship with no leaks. That alone was reason enough to make him the first president of the barely united states.

John Adams, who followed him to the first office, stressed the need for a virtuous citizenry. (Talk about something that wouldn't fly today.) "Pure Religion or Austere Morals," he said, will keep the ship of state afloat. Rather than stress individual rights and individualism as the accepted modus vivendi, he preached that the common good depended on a communitarianism, civic participation through community groups. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this idea still rooted in American life when he visited America a half-century later, but such sentiment lives now only in nostalgia. Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," observed only a decade ago that Americans increasingly bowl alone, evidence of the decline of community spirit.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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