Ronald Reagan, who is credited with restoring the American spirit during the 1980s–as well as reestablishing our economic and military might as second to none–warned that the United States place as a “shining city on a hill” would be lost, unless active steps were taken to pass on the vision. President Reagan said in his Farewell Address, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Evidence that Reagan’s warning is coming to pass can be seen in Washington today. The willingness of President Obama and many members of Congress to divide Americans for political gain over taxes, while in no way even beginning to address the country’s true fiscal cliff of pending national bankruptcy indicates we have forgotten the lessons of the 1980s and other times of national renewal. The good news is that we have been here before.
The first era when the United States faced a crisis in spirit came only eleven years after the country declared its independence. In fact, many prominent political leaders, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, wondered if the fledgling nation was going to survive due to the inherent weaknesses found in the Articles of Confederation. In May 1787, delegates from the states gathered in Philadelphia at Independence Hall, where the Declaration had been signed, to take on the great challenge of creating a new form of government. However, after five weeks of deliberations little progress had been made.
In the midst of another discouraging day, Franklin signaled the Constitutional Convention’s President, Washington, that he wished to address the body. He first marveled at how being so far into the proceedings, and “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us” producing as many “noes as ayes” on any given question, how it had not occurred to any of them to humbly ask “the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings.” Dr. Franklin, the oldest member of the Convention at eighty-one, reminded the delegates that during the Revolutionary War, when he and his fellow members of the Continental Congress were “sensible of the danger,” they prayed daily, and their prayers were answered. “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor.”
Franklin continued, “And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men…We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it’ [Psalm 127:1]. I firmly believe this; and I also believe without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by word down to future ages.”
The delegates heeded Franklin’s words, in part, a few days later when the convention recessed to commemorate the Fourth of July. Together they attended a church service, prayed, heard a patriotic oration and participated in other events celebrating the momentous day. When they reconvened on July 5th, the political climate in the room had changed, and the delegates were able come together and create the longest standing form of government in the world today.
Leaders have made calls to renew our national spirit not just by having faith in God, but also faith in our founding beliefs. Abraham Lincoln poignantly said during his remarks at the dedication of military cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863 (when the future of the nation once again stood in the balance), “Four score and seven years ago [referring back to the year 1776 and the Declaration of Independence], our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln concluded his short address exhorting, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, that government of by and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The United States of course survived and secured the God-given right to liberty to all as promised in the Declaration of Independence and went on to become the predominant power in the world in the century to come.
At the dawn of the 1960s, John Kennedy called for a renewal of the American frontier spirit. He said in accepting his party’s nomination for the Presidency, “…I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier.” Then quoting God’s reassuring words to Joshua and the children of Israel as they made ready to enter the Promised Land with its unknown enemies and difficulties, JFK added, “My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age–to all who respond to the Scriptural call: ‘Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.’ [Joshua 1:9]. For courage–not complacency–is our need today–leadership–not salesmanship…For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history. We must prove all over again whether this nation–or any nation so conceived–can long endure…” The United States made incredible strides in civil rights during the 1960s and led the world in innovation, including the greatest triumph of all: putting a man on the moon.
Americans will once again need that same frontier spirit, if we are to change direction and get off the road that leads to Greece. We will have to face the fact that entitlement programs begun fifty and even eighty years ago, now accounting for over half of all federal spending, must be reformed in order for the country to remain solvent. As in times past, our spirit and nation can be renewed, but it will require the same ingredients that have led to renewal in the past: both faith in God and the wisdom He can provide and faith in our Founding ideals of limited constitutional government. Then we will have the frontier spirit required to look to the future and smile.
In September of 1787, as the Constitutional Convention delegates rose to sign the document that would change not only America, but the world, Benjamin Franklin remarked to some nearby that he would often look at the chair in which George Washington was sitting during the course of the deliberations, with its depiction of the sun on the horizon, and wonder “…whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” May 2013 mark the beginning of another season where the sun is rising once again over our land.
Randall DeSoto is the author of WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS which addresses how leaders, throughout United States history, have appealed to the beliefs found in the Declaration of Independence.