New Thought Editorials > The Character of the American Founders

 

Summer 2010

The Character of the American Founders

Every year around Independence Day, our attention may go to the founders of our great country, the men who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to create the nation we are privileged to enjoy. As I have written before, only under the form of government created here could New Thought have come into being. Our government as assured by our Constitution allows the greatest amount of individual freedom, especially our God-given rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Our ancestors had come to this land seeking, among other things, freedom of religion; which our Constitution later guaranteed, though some misinformed people have tried to turn it into freedom from religion. This is not at all what the founders had in mind, and they made this very clear in writings such as the Federalist papers and their personal correspondence that explained where they got their ideas and what the various phrases in the Constitution actually meant.

Because the founders understood that people are not perfect, they set up "a government of laws and not of men". They had learned the hard way that the Articles of Confederation did not go far enough to ensure a government with sufficient power to govern, so they provided a balanced center in between no law (anarchy) at one extreme and ruler’s law (100% tyranny) at the other. They warned against the political extremists who would pull the American eagle away from the balanced center towards tyranny by forming a central government so strong that it might become a monarchy such as we had just fled from, or some other form of statist government run by elitists who would interfere with individual freedom under the pretext of knowing what was best for everyone. This government of laws operates with an exquisite set of checks and balances to prevent abuses by any of its three branches. The Constitution provides for amendments, which have been used among other things to include voting rights for women and minorities. But it was never intended to be a "living document" to be changed or reinterpreted at the whim of political extremists.

The founders, especially George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, were men of extraordinarily great character. They put their lives on the line and made enormous personal sacrifices for the sake of their country, reflecting their deeply held Christian beliefs. In their writings they stressed the importance of good character, and they made clear that they believed in a good God and an abundant universe, with a moral code supplied by that good God. They supported various churches even though they may not have agreed with all their teachings. They sought a closer walk with God. They prayed. Washington stated in his Farewell Address, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Franklin wrote to the president of Yale:

Here is my creed: I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion.

Jefferson wrote with satisfaction that four denominations in Charlottesville, near his home, having no buildings of their own, were sharing the courthouse as "the common temple, one Sunday in the month to each".

In the early days of New Thought, its founders took for granted this character ethic coupled with their freedom to depart from much of the practice of traditional Christianity. Later, critics such as Richard Huber in The American Way of Success lamented the loss of the character ethic in New Thought. As I wrote in New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, "Happily, another writer [Stephen Covey] has made a study of the success literature and noted the absence of emphasis on the character ethic. Unlike Huber, he offers a simple remedy: put it back." We can do this by emulating the example of our founders. Books based on their own words and including quotations from their writings arranged by subject are a good way to start. Three that I recommend are The Real George Washington, The Real Thomas Jefferson, and The Real Benjamin Franklin, by teams of authors, published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies.