In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin 2006), Pulitzer winning American historian Gordon Wood makes the bold assertion that we are not going to get leaders like the founders again, and for this he gives a provocative and, at least to me, convincing reason: that the forces unleashed at the founding have in effect prevented that we’ll again get leaders of the quality of the founders. These forces democratized politics, extending them to the “common man,” and in so doing they deteriorated the discourse – and with this the ideas – with which men like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams engaged.
On the book itself, I heartily recommend it. It is a learned and highly readable collection of brief biographical treatments of the founders, including the black sheep Aaron Burr and that genius pamphleteer of a Brit, Thomas Paine.
“If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves” (28).
Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.
Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011). But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?
In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.
More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?
“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American History, University of Chicago, 1952), 52.