Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't know much about historeeee...

You may not remember the old pop song with that refrain but it could be the theme song of way too many people. My sister called the other night and told me about a meeting she went to in her town. The discussion got pretty hot and heavy and one woman pulled out her pocket-sized copy of the Constitution and waved it around as she made her points, disagreeing with whatever was being said.

Now my sister is not the shy retiring type that I am -  ;-)  - and so she asked her, "Did you actually read the Constitution?" "Well, no...but I know what it says..." and went on with her harangue, misquoting and mangling the document -- rhetorically not physically.

To my sister and me, it was a reminder us of being dragged off to tent revivals by our grammaw where various lay preachers would thump the good book, tell us what it said, and threaten us if we doubted them.

The problem with the thumpers is that in the words of the founding fathers, the constitution, or the bible or other holy books, you can cherry pick phrases that agree with your beliefs and ignore those that don't. If your audience doesn't know any better and hasn't studied the details themselves, you can say just about anything. Psychologist know that if the idea is repeated often enough, you will come to believe if, even when faced with hard facts to the contrary.

Here's an example from a letter to USA Today (7/1/10) from a writer commenting on the passing of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Our Founding Fathers did not intend congressional positions to be life-long ones. They felt that it was the duty of our leaders to give of their time and manage their states temporarily, and that this was in the best interests of their constituents...
We have senators...[who] have become professional politicians.

He goes on to support term limits AND age limits.

There are many good arguments for and against term limits...but how the founding fathers "felt" is not among them. There were among the founders those who saw it as their duty (or privilege) to serve in government for a while and then return to private life. George Washington is a good example.

But not all the "fathers" followed that path nor believed it was the best path. Three examples from three different political philosophies come to mind. Patrick Henry was one of the most powerful professional politicians in Virginia and served in a variety of positions in the state including the governorship. He was a strong "states rights" defender and foe of the new federal Constitution because it removed the absolute power of the states.

John Adams started out as a lawyer but was soon drawn into the Continental Congress and became a professional politician, serving as a representative in the Continental Congress, and as a diplomat in France and England. With the establishment of the new federal government he became Vice President and then President. He was a Federalist and only left office when defeated by Jefferson in the election of 1800.

James Madison beginning in his mid-twenties was only out of public office for a couple of years. He served in county and state legislatures, the Continental Congress, worked with Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin to engineer the Constitutional Convention, served in the new Congress, was Secretary of State under Jefferson, and finally served as a two-term president. Although starting out with a strong nationalist/federalist bent, he moved away from this by Washington's second term and worked along side Jefferson to found the Republican Party (which later morphed into the Democratic Party.)

My point is that the letter writer didn't know some basic history, which he could have discovered in a  history book, on the web, or (in the olden days) in school. But that seems too hard. I recently set my Google Alerts to look for references to the Founding Fathers -- everybody adopts them to prove their points. I'm on a quest to confront ignorance with facts.

The founding fathers were as complex, complicated, and conniving as any modern politician or leader. They were humans. They had their points of greatness and their follies. We should admire them, not because we can find some words they uttered that fit our political views but because of what they did, sometimes in spite of themselves, to create a system of government that works and is self-correcting through the will of the people.

Before you adopt their words to prove yourself right, read the entire body of their work. Learn what books they were reading and what philosophers influenced their thinking. Know what was going on in the wider world and in their world.

Learn a little more about historeeeee....
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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, President , Advantage Leadership, Inc.

Want to know a little more about historeee and contemporary leaders? Check out Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Available on Amazon.

Want to read a couple of chapters first? Send an email to with "Chapters" in the subject line.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Proclaim Liberty July 8, 1776 & 2010

Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof ...thus begins the inscription of one of the America's favorite icons. Visiting the bell again a few months ago I was struck by all the languages and cultures that were swirling around the bell in its museum across from Independence Hall. As I snapped this picture, I realized what an important symbol this is, whether the many myths about it are true or not.

On July 8, 1776, so the story goes, the bell which hung in the tower you can see in the background, rang out for the first time to summon the people to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Imagine yourself standing there in front of what was then the Pennsylvania State was hazy, hot, and humid...they you heard those inspiring words for the first time...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Even when we're not living up to them, this is the essence of who we want and strive to be.

The insurgents who had been meeting as the Continental Congress had signed this declaration and were officially in rebellion against the established government. This wasn't some lame manifesto with more slogans than substance. The signers were committing treason and were ready to put it all on the line...Listen to how they closed it:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

In the end, it really doesn't matter whether the bell was actually hanging in the crumbling tower...What does matter is that both the signers and the people knew that they were declaring LIBERTY. At that moment, every person in the colonies had to make a choice...were they with the rebels or with the King? For many, this was a wrenching choice and it tore many families apart. Ben Franklin's own son sided with the British and they never spoke again.

If you haven't read the Declaration since high school, take a look and read it today, hearing it fresh for the first it to your kids and grandkids...suggest your friends read it.

As you do, let those words sink in...all men are created equal...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Tea Partier, Green Partier, something else or nothing...Ask yourself a few of questions:
  • Are you really Behaving as if all people are created equal?
  • Are you really Behaving honorably?
  • Are you really Behaving as if Liberty for everyone is what it's all about?
The Declaration's signers left us many traditions and, as I wrote in my last blog, one was for contentious debate. What I want to suggest is that we don't need to venerate that tradition. If we're really being faithful to our best traditions -- our ideals -- our guiding values -- then we'll recognize that the Declaration is for all of us, no matter what our political persuasion; that those who believe differently from us have the LIBERTY to do so; that when we demonize our opposition and claim a 100% lock on the truth, we are violating the sacred trust the founders passed down to us.

Enjoy the 234th anniversary of that first reading of the Declaration -- enjoy reading it again yourself -- and treat your fellow humans a little better.
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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, President, Advantage Leadership, Inc.
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Want to know more about the founders and framers and how we can apply their positive and negative lessons today? Half off sale continues to celebrate all of the important anniversaries linked to the Declaration and the creating and ratifying of the U.S. Constitution. Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers at 50% off is available ONLY on this HIDDEN web page. This is a limited offer so get your copy today. If you'd rather buy it on Amazon and miss out on this offer, click on over.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Feudin', Fightin' & Fussin' on the Fourth

I'm sick of it! Right Wingers, Left Wingers, and No Wingers...Get your facts straight...or I'll call down the wrath of Founding Fathers Past!

Got your attention? Here's what set me off on this beautiful 4th of July holiday...everybody trying to appropriate our founding fathers and mothers for their own purposes...Prove your point with logic, facts, and reason or get off the stage. (See my special offer at the end.)

What folks say: Politics are more divisive than ever...there was a time when we used to disagree without being disagreeable...viciousness in opposing parties is something new...let's bring back civility...

Folks, here's the fact...we have never been a country of sedate, soothing debate. Our founding fathers and mothers were brilliant and courageous but when it came to politics, it was no holds barred. The point was (as it still is) to prevail. They didn't cuss as much, but they were not above sexual innuendo, lying, or character assassination when it came to political opponents.

Ron Chernow (author of the excellent biography, Alexander Hamilton) wrote a delightful article in the Wall Street Journal. It starts,

Americans lament the partisan venom of today's politics, but for sheer verbal savagery, the country's founders were in a league of their own.

Chernow points out, "Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the founders were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence." They didn't stop at criticizing one another’s politics; their barbs were often personal.

John Adams called Hamilton the "bastard son of a Scotch peddler," while James Callender exposed Hamilton's affair with his friend’s wife. Newspaper man Samuel Adams, seen as a great patriot in his own day and ours, was not above the fray. "Truth was his first victim...To radicalize the populace Adams had adopted a total disregard for it. In his writings he employed slanderous lies, unvarnished propaganda, and rabble-rousing rhetoric. He whipped the people of Massachusetts and many other colonies into an anti-British fury."

The favored form of political trash talk was the pamphlet and newspaper column, written under classical Roman pseudonyms or derived from clever puns. They hammered away at one another with great relish and no restraints. They would have embraced Tweeting and Blogging as great inventions and set out with glee to rip one another apart.

Thomas Jefferson, whose stirring prose in the Declaration of Independence animates this 4th of July and embodies our most noble ideals, shrunk from doing his own dirty work. As the formation of our first parties heated up, (Hamilton headed the Federalists and Jefferson, the Republicans) he called on his buddy, Jemmy Madison, "'For God's sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him (Hamilton) to pieces in the face of the public.' When Madison rose to the challenge, he sneered in print that the only people who could read Hamilton's essays with pleasure were 'foreigners and degenerate citizens among us.'" Jefferson who applauded Callender's attacks on Hamilton was not so enthusiastic when Callender turned on him exposing his affair with "dusky Sally," his slave and half-sister of his deceased wife. (quote from Chernow)

In the records of debates in the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying conventions, the rhetoric escalates, with wild accusations flying that might make some of our media mavens of mayhem blush. Remember, this was an era when people would be called to the "field of honor" (challenged to a duel) for an implied slight. Calling someone a liar to his face was such a justification. Listen to this exchange during the debate over the power of large states and small. Gunning Bedford, a "fat, tempestuous delegated from Delaware" drags his bulk in front of the delegates and in a frenzied harangue spits out, "I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?...Is it come to this, then, that the sword must decide this controversy, and the horrors of war must be added to the rest of our misfortunes?..Sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand."

Madison, one of the most brilliant debaters and politicians of the era, summed it up, "If men were angles, no government would be necessary." The debates roiling the late 18th and early 19th century were fierce. Federalists and Republicans accused one another of treason. They could turn on former allies over night. Madison and Hamilton engineered the Constitution Convention and co-authored the Federalist Papers (with contributions from John Jay) in its defense. Madison pushed Hamilton's financial reforms through Congress. (He twisted enough arms behind the scenes to secure passage so he could argue and vote against it in public to maintain his constituents back home. Sound familiar yet?) After the new parties formed, Madison assailed his former ally, never missing a chance to paint him in ignoble terms.

I don't like the partisan bickering, shouting, and backbiting. AND I admire Hamilton, Jefferson, Adam, Madison, and the framers and founders. My gripe is about our lack of historical knowledge, our tendency to make stuff up, and the habit of partisans of every stripe to lie to defend their cause. Let's face the brutal facts -- ones we like and ones we don't -- and debate with a goal of coming to consensus or close to it.

That was Washington's great desire. He truly hated the partisan wrangling, the unbridled press, and the inability of people to rise above their passions. Though he occasionally fell victim to his own monumental temper, mostly he was that wise, impartial leader we all admire. So on this wonderful 4th of July, while we're barbecuing, watching fireworks, or hitting the mall, let’s ask ourselves this: Am I following along in our country's long tradition of bashing and demonizing those with whom I disagree, or am I trying to follow Washington's advice and have "restraint in tongue and pen?" If you are going to evoke the founders and framers, read some real history and get it right!


Want to know more about the founders and framers and how we can apply their positive and negative lessons today? CLICK HERE: Half off – 4th of July sale – Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Available ONLY on this HIDDEN web page. This is a limited offer so get your copy today. Rather buy it on Amazon (and miss out on this offer?)
® Rebecca Staton-Reinstein (all quotes fully cited in Conventional Wisdom except one about Sam Adams from Eric Burn’s Infamous Scribblers.