Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My hand trembles, but my heart does not

From The Jefferson Lecture by David McCullough, delivered in 2003.
Lord Bolingbroke, the eighteenth century political philosopher, said that "history is philosophy teaching by examples." Thucydides is reported to have said much the same thing two thousand years earlier.

Jefferson saw history as largely a chronicle of mistakes to be avoided.

Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, has wisely said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.

One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn't walk about saying, "Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes!" They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have.

Nor were they gods. Indeed, to see them as gods or god-like is to do disservice to their memories. Gods, after all, don't deserve a lot of credit because they can do whatever they wish.

Those we call the Founders were living men. None was perfect. Each had his human flaws and failings, his weaknesses. They made mistakes, let others down, let themselves down.

Washington could be foolhardy and ill-tempered. Adams could be vain, irritable, Jefferson evasive, at times duplicitous. And even in their day, many saw stunning hypocrisy in the cause of liberty being championed by slave masters.

They were imperfect mortals, human beings. Jefferson made the point in the very first line of the Declaration of Independence. "When in the course of human events..." The accent should be on the word human.

And of course their humanity is not evident only in their failings. It's there in Adams's heart-felt correspondence with his wife and children, in Jefferson's love of gardening, his fascination, as he said, in every blade of grass that grows.

Washington had a passionate love of architecture and interior design. Everything about his home at Mt. Vernon was done to his ideas and plans. Only a year before the war, he began an ambitious expansion of the house, doubling its size. How extremely important this was to him, the extent of his esthetic sense, few people ever realized. He cared about every detail -- wall paper, paint color, hardware, ceiling ornaments -- and hated to be away from the project even for a day.

The patriotism and courage of these all-important protagonists stand as perhaps the most conspicuous and enduring testaments to their humanity. When those who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their "lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor," that was no mere verbiage. They were putting their lives on the line. They were declaring themselves traitors to the King. If caught they would be hanged.

Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who suffered from palsy, is said to have remarked as he signed his name, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."

Hopkins was a grand old figure who had seen a lot of life. You can't miss him in the Trumbull painting. He's at the back with his broad-brimmed Quaker hat on. In after-hours he loved to drink rum and expound on his favorite writers. "He read Greek, Roman, and British history, and was familiar with English poetry," John Adams wrote. "And the flow of his soul made his reading our own, and seemed to bring recollection in all we had ever read."

We must never forget either how hard they worked. Nothing came easy. Nothing. Just getting through a day in the eighteenth century meant difficulties, discomforts, and effort of a kind we seldom even think about.

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