In his acceptance speech, Virginia’s governor-elect, Bob McDonnell, may have quoted the founding fathers more extensively than the last four U. S. presidents combined have in their entire political careers. But then, he also may have made more such references than many teachers do in their working lifetimes.
Among pedagogues, a notable exception to this trend is Colleen A. Sheehan, author of James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government. “Our core of self –government has been on the wane for a century and grows weaker every day,” Sheehan told an audience at the Heritage Foundation on October 6, 2009.
She points out that presidents once talked more about the Constitution. “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears 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,” John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961. “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.” Yes we are.
Sheehan indicates that the epidemic of historical amnesia that America has been experiencing has been building for some time. “Can we treat the Constitution as if it were something gone by?” poet laureate Robert Frost asked the Class of 1956 at Sarah Lawrence. “Can we interpret it out of existence?” In the words of a famous man, yes we can!
What makes history fascinating is not so much the differences in eras as the similarities. Elites seize on the former, usually to discredit historical icons. These same worthies conveniently ignore the latter parallels, perhaps because the comparisons do not suit their purposes.
“In order to relieve public credit sinking under the weight of an enormous debt we invent new expenditures,” Madison wrote. “In order to raise the value of our money, which depends on the time of its redemption, we have recourse to a measure which removes its redemption to a more distant day.”
“Instead of paying off the capital to the public creditors, we give them an enormous interest to change the name of the bit of paper which expresses the sum due to them; and think it is a piece of dexterity in finance by emitting loan certificates [italics the author’s], to elude the necessity of emitting bills of credit [ditto].”
“No expedient could perhaps have been devised more preposterous and unlucky.” Come to think of it, many Capitol Hill staffers and Executive Branch officials could profit by studying the works of the sage of Montpelier.
Indeed, they don’t make congressmen the way they used to. Remember when U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, said earlier this year that he couldn’t read the health care bill his party had concocted because it was too long?
When Madison served as the “de facto leader of the new House of Representatives,” he read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, among many other volumes, Sheehan informs us.
“Every political order has a way of life that is ever in the process of growing stronger or becoming weaker,” Sheehan writes. “Like individuals, it has a particular ethos or character, a kind of unique identification print; unlike the DNA print of a human being, however, the print of a nation can become clearer and sharper over time, embedding itself in the land, or it can become blurred and distorted, and perhaps expunged.”
“A nation can be destroyed by either outside forces or inner deterioration, but it can be preserved only by strength from within, by a citizenry conscious of its own purpose and commitments.” Currently a political scientist at Villanova, Sheehan treaded a path into her present position which few conservatives get to follow.
In addition to her stint as a Bradley fellow at the Heritage Foundation, she also served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. “A land that is able to maintain itself must have the courage and strength to fight against that which would destroy it, and even more importantly, it must know what is worth fighting for [italics the author’s],” she warns in her book. “If the people of the United States today find common agreement in their commitment to human freedom, it is not because they all mean the same thing by the same words.”
“In fact, on some issues that Americans believe are of fundamental importance, there is a marked difference of views, or at least a lack of consensus of settled opinion within the country.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.