Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dwarfed by Giants

Saturday morning a friend dropped by the house and loaned me the seven part HBO series, John Adams. Last evening I watched Part II, Independence. I was deeply moved by the portrayal of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, struggling to find a way to deal with the oppression of Great Britain's King George. I decided that while we are still in our 4th of July weekend, and while things were still fresh, I needed to write something.

So far, this acclaimed series lives up to its reputation. The performances of both Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as "dearest friends" John and Abigail Adams, amaze. The quality of the production itself easily compares with the other Tom Hanks produced HBO series, Band of Brothers. And Tom Wilkinson's portrayal of the old sage, Benjamin Franklin, could not have been more believable.

But none of the above are my reasons for writing.

What compelled me to write was not the production itself, the actors, or even the conversion of work to a screenplay. I write because I saw the staggering peerlessness of the men in Philadelphia that summer of 1776. Watching Adams, Dickenson, Rutledge, and occasionaly Franklin debate the principles of independence, liberty, and the natural rights of men brought me to realize just what dwarfs we have for leaders in our generation.

Today, our elected officials wield power over some 300 million Americans. Most would argue that our world is far more complex than it was 232 years ago. And their arguments would be sound.

In 1776, the delegates in Philadelphia held the fate of 2-1/2 million colonists in their hands, a miniscule number compared to today's masses. And yet, upon the shoulders of those men weighed not only their own fate, and the fate of those they represented, but the future political course of the whole world.

Never in history had a nation come into existence so deliberately, so purposefully, so intentionally. What these men did has yet to be replicated. Oh yes, other nations have copied us to some measure, re-designed their system of government, and re-structured themselves in a new way. But none have made so clear and precise a break with intentions as noble, as high-minded.

We are, as noted in my previous blog, a nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Any free nation, with the privilege and opportunity to choose their own leaders, clearly gets the leaders they deserve. And so the only explanation for the dwarfish leaders we have, is the dwarfish people we have become.

Regarding the basic elements of our self-governing system, the spectacular ignorance of the general population in America is more than alarming. We are unskilled in wielding big ideas. We have become reduced to slandering those who don't agree with us rather than debate ideas on their merits.

As a baby boomer, I have watched my share of presidential debates, both in the primaries and in general elections. They make me very sad. Few and far between can we find candidates who stand, unashamedly, on an ideological platform they can passionately defend. They dodge and weave through the tough questions, hoping to supply answers that will leave them wiggle room should the winds shift direction. Few with firm convictions emerge from the pack. Most are simply proefessional opportunists with deep pockets seeking power and influence.

Our founders were reluctant everymen. Farmers, doctors and shopkeepers, they convened in Philadelphia to address the problem of British oppression. Little did they expect when they first arrived that they would break ties with England and form a new nation. They made great sacrifices to do their duty. They pledged everything (their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor), expecting that everything would be lost. And yet they chose this course because they believed it to be the correct course.

In 1825, one year before John Adams passed away (both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence), young neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson stopped by to visit him. Emerson later recorded their conversation in which Adams stated, "I wish people had more ambition. Ambition of the laudable kind. To excel."

Indeed, we stand as dwarfs to these giants.

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At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark for a very thoughtful, insighful writing. It was a refreshing few moments to be bathed in the history that has made our country so rich in heritage. Perhaps that is what is missing from our American character. We are often bathed from dirty bathing holes leaving dirtier than when we entered. I would agree that what has replaced a character that upholds principle and demonstrates true grit, has sadly been replaced by progressive thinking that professionals are experts and we are deceived by our own ignorance that power and influence equals the strength of the man. To the contrary. Because one lacks such qualities one has to substitute buying his way into the seat of governing while selling his own soul.


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