Thursday, August 7, 2008

Non-Trivial Pursuits

Despite the important role they played in history, the founding fathers remain little known or appreciated by ordinary Americans. For example:

Which of the founders grew marijuana? That would be George Washington, who cultivated hemp at his Mount Vernon estate, to be used in making rope rather than to smoke. We shouldn't confuse him with Thomas Jefferson, who grew opium poppies for more medicinal purposes.

Which of the founders had the biggest feet? Again, George Washington wore size thirteen shoes. That's why John Adams, his successor, was elected to just one term in office. Adams had such big shoes to fill!

Who called John Adams "an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad?" Ben Franklin said that. And why? Because Adams suggested that the office of the presidency have a title capable of inspiring suitable awe. He proposed "His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of the Liberties of the Same." For that bit of ridiculousness, the portly Adams was jeered as "His Rotundity" by his enemies in Congress. James Madison sensibly suggested the title "Mister President" would do just fine, and that's what we've called our chief exec ever since.

But the reason for learning about our nation's founders isn't just to accumulate trivia. It's to value and cherish the freedoms that go along with self-government. You know, we often tell children that anyone in this country might grow up to be president. And we tell kids that because we really believe it. It's truer today than ever in our history. This November when we go to the polls, we'll have the first opportunity ever to cast a ballot for a black man. A woman very nearly captured the Democratic party nomination. What a shift in consciousness and culture in the last forty years.

But not so great a shift as the one instituted in 1787. Before then, the prevailing wisdom held that kings and autocrats reigned over their subjects by divine right. Monarchs were appointed by God to be obeyed. The framers of our Constitution, on the other hand, asserted that rightful governance is grounded in the consent of the governed. Not a self-appointed aristocracy or priesthood, but the people should decide.

So whoever we vote for, Republican or Democrat, male or female, black or white, we are united in our belief that "we the people" should choose our own rulers. It's our government and our right and responsibility to keep it accountable. That's a legacy we've inherited from our founders, and it's no trivial pursuit.

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