#13 – Reflections on American Leadership and the US Constitution

After finishing a great read on the life of Benjamin Franklin, I have been consistently inspired by how incredibly gifted and astute our founding fathers were. Their foresight and the ability to craft complex compromises that still stand and protect America’s citizens today is incredible, being the single force that has enabled and propelled our nation to develop into what it is today. After enjoying the read on Franklin, it led me down a path of other great American leaders who were truly able to see the big picture, understand what made America unique, and enable its citizens to have hope and believe in the values that were critical to our country’s foundation.

Franklin puts it well in his final speech at the closing of the Constitutional Convention in 1789 which took place in Philadelphia. His honesty, humility, and incredible self-awareness speak volumes about who Franklin was.

” For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others[1]

While even doubting his own views, Franklin knew what they had accomplished was incredible.

“I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded”[2]

Washington in his first inaugural address, April 30th, 1789, understood the importance of being the first President, and the great care he had to take in setting a precedent, given the general anxiety of US citizens after just throwing out the British Monarchy.

“no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order”[3]

Washington reflected on the special nature of America, invoking religious undertones, on a theme that would be repeated in many inaugural speeches years later.

“Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency[4]

Lincoln years later, constantly came back to the core values of our US constitution. After the battle of Gettysburg in November of 1863, Lincoln delivered one of the most monumental speeches in American history;

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal[5]

During the dark days of the Great Depression and reflecting upon the general mood and spirits of the American people, FDR delivered a soaring speech in his first inauguration on March 30th, 1933:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men”[6]

FDR stressed the importance of our constitution as the foundation in which America is great.

“Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations”[7]

Years later, after escalations in tension with Russia, and multiple global conflicts (Korean War, rising tensions in Vietnam)… JFK reminds us again, what we stand for us as a people.

“And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”[8]

Where is this leadership today? Lost in the shuffle of all the political rhetoric and noise, have we lost our grounding and foundation? Have we lost what has made us so special?

These great American leaders and our incredibly flexible and dynamic US Constitution  were the core reasons the US has been able to out innovate and out pace the rest or the world. Creating an environment that promoted equality, opportunity and liberty.

Hopefully, we will not do too much damage in these next few years…to ruin the foundation and core values that make America special.

 

References

[1] http://www.pbs.org/benfranklin/pop_finalspeech.html

[2] IBID.,

[3] https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/inaugtxt.html

[4] IBID.,

[5] http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[6] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14473

[7] Ibid.,

[8] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8032&

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