Intellectual Curiosity and Reason:
I am reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now in which he goes over the transformations in thought brought about by the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. Our Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Madison, Paine, etc. were the intellectual children of the enlightenment thinkers (Hobbs, Locke, Rousseau). The leaders who established our greatness were intellectuals and spoke several languages. The Jefferson library is a reflection of the workings of his mind. They knew history and thought deeply about the flow of civilization.
Pinker says there were four themes of the enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. What our founders did was to attempt to make those ideals the foundation of a system of government, which had never been done before. No King, no Divine Right, no adherence to religious dogma that characterized every prior government and no religious wars that had burdened Europe for centuries. Freedom of speech, press, and religion as foundational thoughts that were the essence of enlightenment thinking. As imperfect as their creation was, they were only human, it nevertheless established the expectation that you had the right to equal treatment under the law. It didn’t establish the reality of those expectations, but there would be no “good trouble” if those expectations were not established. The American story is the story of striving to achieve them.
It is an odd thing to say, but if you feel that you are not treated equally and you are upset about that, you owe that emotion to the expectations authored by Jefferson, Madison and Paine. If you lived in sixteenth century Europe the expectation of equal treatment would never occur to you and you would be spared that feeling of injustice. Cognitive dissonance is the root of progress.
2. Servant Leadership:
George Washington, who did not want to be president and did not campaign for it, established the ideal of the leader as servant of the people, unlike the reverse that had been true for millenniums. At the Constitutional Convention at which he was clearly the most revered man, he sat at the back of the room and only spoke twice and did not take sides in debates, which were many. Both times he spoke it was to remind the delegates to collect their papers. How is this then leadership? Sometimes leadership is to be present, to listen, to encourage, and to be a force of example rather than a dominant force. Sometimes strength is silence.
In my opinion every citizen should be required to read, no study, Washington’s Farewell Address in which he voiced his two greatest fears for the new nation: entanglement with and influence by foreign powers, and what he termed the “spirit of party” that he already saw emerging around Hamilton and Jefferson. He always encouraged unity and feared disunity. Every good general knows that you are strong when united and weak when divided.
If we want to make America great again, we must again have leaders who view themselves as servants and not as the center of greatness themselves, leaders who unite and do not divide.
3. Thomas Paine and the Age of Reason:
As Washington’s troops crossed the Delaware in a blizzard, some barefoot, hungry and freezing, he had the captains of each boat read aloud passages from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. It was the inspiration for the revolution. And then Paine wrote the Age of Reason in which he literally tears the Bible apart, pointing out contradiction after contradiction, and repeated genocidal madness allegedly in God’s name. Paine was a Deist, one who believes in God but finds the perfection of God in His own Creation, nature, and believes that the Bible and the religions of the day were an insult to God’s own perfect work. Imagine if you will, a modern politician having the nerve to write a blistering critique of the Bible. At the same time Jefferson was re-writing the Bible himself. Could a politician survive such a thing today? But, at the founding of this country the belief in reason, science and humanism were the foundation of what did make us great.
Thomas Paine was a man of incredible intellectual courage. After the American Revolution he wrote The Rights of Man in defense of the French Revolution, left for France and served in legislature and even in French prisons until rescued by James Monroe, then Ambassador to France. He was more dedicated to the ideas of constitutional government and natural rights than he was to any country. He influenced the course of government in the United States, France and Britain. He was a leader of thought and a revolutionary of ideas. This too is a form of leadership.
We were not made great by rugged individualists doing their own thing. The pilgrims and other odd religious groups who came to these shores relied on their collective power, their community. And, when the Europeans moved west, they did so in groups that supported one another. Farmers worked together to build barns, to share seed, and to create collective marketing organizations. The term “farmers cooperatives” became common in the mid-west states. Communitarianism built the social fabric of the nation. Communal social effort has always been our strength. It was not the heroic charismatic leader, but the ability to enable to the collective power of community.,
5. Public Education:
Free and compulsory government funded education created the middle class in America. This was an American invention. In the early 1800’s, beginning in New England, public schools were established. Without public education only the wealthy could attend school, cementing the divide between an upper and lower class. This government funded social service expanded to the idea of land grant colleges and university so that today every state has a University of Georgia and a Georgia State or Georgia Tech universities. This was all established by our government in the shared believe that educated citizens were required for a democracy and for economic progress. One might call this a great experiment in “social engineering.” If one believes that government funded, and even required, services is a dictatorship of socialism than you can thank this socialism for creating this country as we know it.
I’ll stop. Those are some of the things that leaders did that I believe did make America great. As we consider our own standards of leadership, our expectations of leaders, perhaps there are some lessons for us in this history.