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A little American history could be enlightening

Often the people, places, and things that we love most in this world become so familiar to us, so much a part of the tissue of our own lives, that only their end or impending loss reminds us of how much we truly value them. The descent of a loved one toward the grave, the loss of a family home by disasters natural or financial, the theft of some family heirloom: only when we suffer such misfortunes do we suddenly awake to the awful realization of what the loss meant to us, how much these treasures were a part of the tissue of our lives. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it very often does engender in us a blindness to the worth of those everyday people and objects which we take for granted.

This very human failure to appreciate fully the gifts bestowed on us by providence or by past sacrifice may extend to the national level. It is difficult today, for example, being citizens of a country built 200 years ago on a foundation of freedom, to recognize how revolutionary are the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When written, those words, composed though they were by a slave-holder, were utterly new to the great bulk of mankind, and they have since electrified the hearts of men and women around the globe. We take for granted “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but for those who do not possesses these commodities, or who have lost them, these few words, coupled with the idea that the truths behind them are “self-evident,” continue to light a flame in the hearts of all who love liberty.

Give our current political antagonisms — the recent declarations by a few that the Constitution is dead should trouble all, left and right, who value freedom — perhaps it behooves us to turn the pages of a few American history books and recollect why “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” should remain at the heart of the American dream.

History, which is as much an art as a science, offers us a great choice of texts in looking at Revolutionary and Early Republic America. In addition to the best-sellers by David McCullough — his John Adams is particularly valuable for its insights into the Founders’ views on liberty — we can turn to a variety of other resources. Readers who lean left may prefer to peruse Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn looks at events through the eyes of the working classes, women, and minorities, an examination flavored lightly by Marxism, while those on the right would doubtless prefer Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, another hefty book which takes a more traditional view of American history while debunking some of its recent interpretations (Ideally, our leftists would open Schweikart while right-tilting readers would take a look at Zinn).

In Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis purports to “serve up the real story behind the myths and fallacies of American history.” He clears up some of these misconceptions, but his smart-aleck attitude and politically correct viewpoints will put off those readers who actually do know something about American history. The “Dummies” and “Idiots” guidebooks — U.S. History For Dummies, for instance, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Founding Fathers — offer the cheeky attitude without the sharply slanted views.

Larry Schweikart, a professor of history at the University of Dayton, has recently issued a book that might enlighten citizens of all political stripes. What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (ISBN 978-1-59523-074-4, $26.95) needs to be read cautiously, for the author, as we may conjecture from the title, attempts to look at the writings of the founders of the Republic and then draw conclusions as to what they might say about our own contemporary woes. The chapters of the book are titled in the form of questions — ”Is The Government Responsible For Protecting The Land And The Environment?” “What Is The Purpose Of War And Should It Be Avoided?” and so on — and Schweikart, of course, tends to reply to these questions from a conservative viewpoint.

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What makes the book valuable, however, is not the author’s political beliefs, but what he tells us of the Founders. He gives us their unvarnished views on topics like debt, war, and the limits of government. Here, for example, in discussing whether government should have care of the physical health of its citizens, Schweikart spends several delightful pages entertaining us with the dietary habits of early patriots. John Adams, for example, “pounded down a pitcher of hard cider with every breakfast” while Ben Franklin, who as usual offered good advice, wrote that “if thou are dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign that thou hast exceeded the due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.” In other words, citizens who are expected to work, live, and sometimes fight in an atmosphere of freedom ought to be able to judge for themselves a standard of health.

Winter is coming, and winter evenings are a time for long thoughts. We might all benefit ourselves and our country by turning those thoughts, even briefly, toward the treasures of the past and by remembering that what we will be comes from what we are, and that we are comes from how we perceive what we were.

What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems by Larry Schweikart. Sentinel HC, 2011. 256 pages

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