What do you give a 241-year-old lady for her birthday? Might I suggest a grateful nation who shows her the love and respect she deserves by acting like grown-ups? We gladly celebrate with cookouts and fireworks, but I wonder how many of us pause to remember the true meaning of America’s birthday on the 4th of July. Birthing her was not mere child’s play—it was a deadly proposition.
Our Birthday Girl, America, must surely wonder if there are any grown-ups left across her fruited plains. What must she think as she watches us take our disagreements to such a disgraceful level: raging hatred, violence in the streets and even death threats to our leaders? We no longer engage in civil discourse, respectfully disagree and honorably handle our disputes like adults. We’ve become a bunch of spoiled brats who selfishly pursue our own agendas at the expense of the highest good for our nation—and that goes for the reds, the blues and everything in between.
It’s even been suggested that we’re on the verge of another Revolution. But I submit that what’s happening today looks more like the tumultuous period of The Terror in the French Revolution, not the noble and honorable quest of the American Revolution.
“You have forgotten your first love,” John scolded the Ephesus church with his apocalyptic pen. Allow me to borrow that phrase to scold all of us on behalf of America: We have forgotten our first love. We have forgotten who we are, and who we were meant to grow up to be as Americans.
But there’s hope for us, if we will pause to remember. There’s a group of children we can look to for how to grow up and handle a Revolution. Before they were Founding Fathers, they were Founding Children. So how were the seeds of the American Revolution planted in the hearts and minds of mere children, and how might the answer help us today?
As children, the young Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette did something our children don’t do today. They studied the past.
I don’t mean take AP History and study a barrage of dates and facts. These children studied how ancient civilizations governed, what the world’s most brilliant philosophers thought and why man acts as he does across time.
Sitting on the desks of these mere children you would find the works of Plutarch (to learn the positive and negative influences made by the great ancient Greek and Roman leaders), Montesquieu (for ideas on liberty like "government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another"), and Locke (for brilliant insights into freedom with words like a "long train of abuses" – quoted verbatim by an older Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence.)
You would also find on their desks the Holy Writ, to learn what God thought about how they should live.
Seeds of knowledge and understanding were planted in these mere children so they knew how a healthy government should operate to serve its people, and how its people should in turn conduct themselves. They studied the mistakes of mighty empires like Rome and the intellectuals of Greece, learning what went wrong. They clearly understood their God-given natural rights and their long-held rights and responsibilities as proud Englishmen.
And that is why they valued freedom and liberty. They learned from history how precious freedom truly is, and how vigilant a people must remain to hang onto it.
As ten-year-old Patrick Henry watched the battle for religious freedom between the Church of England and the Dissenters waged under his own roof, the seeds of Revolution for religious freedom where planted in that young patriot’s heart and mind. More seeds were planted as other issues like taxation without representation slowly crept onto our shores, and Patrick and other young patriots knew something had to be done.
Because they knew their history, they could smell a tyrant coming 3,000 miles off to take away their freedoms. But they also knew how to address such threats to their liberties by first pursuing a course of civility.
Twelve year-old George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation into his notebook to learn how to treat others. Seeds of conduct were planted in our nation’s first commander-in-chief, such as, Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile, and Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. George Washington grew up knowing that “a good moral character is the first essential. It is highly important not only to be learned but to be virtuous.” Can you imagine if such seeds were planted in America’s children today?
For over a decade our Founding Fathers exhausted every possible avenue of resolving their conflicts with England before they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Signing that document was the same as signing their own death sentences for treason.
The last thing they wanted was war. In fact, only one third of the population wanted Independence. One third wished to remain loyal, and one third was undecided. There’s nothing new under the sun, is there?
The seeds of Revolution were planted in the hearts and minds of a generation of children, but they were not the seeds of anarchy, self-serving ambition, hatred and violence. They were the seeds of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, the fear of God, respect and civility. Those seeds grew up inside those mere children into a noble and just cause to preserve liberty and birth a nation: America.
Of course, they made many mistakes in child-rearing this new country. No new parent is perfect. But America was given life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each successive generation to enjoy, coupled with the responsibility to protect it.
I recently had the privilege of planting the seeds of history in twenty kids from seven states at Cowpens National Battlefield for Epic Patriot Camp. I asked them if they ever stopped to consider the high price the founders paid to give us a reason to celebrate July 4th. They honestly answered that they did not, but wanted to do so from now on.
As Emily Boer was leaving camp, she picked up a copy of the Declaration of Independence at the museum store. When she finished reading it, she exclaimed, "Everyone needs to read this document! It's the best document ever written!"
Have you ever read the entire Declaration of Independence, America’s birth announcement? This mere child did, and seeds of patriotism were planted in her heart and mind. Imagine if we all read it.
On this July 4th let’s plant some new seeds of patriotism, history, respect, civility, and wisdom in ourselves and in our children. Then maybe by her 242nd birthday, America’s heart will swell with pride and joy over how much her children have grown up.
Jenny L. Cote is the author of "The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key" (AMG Publishers), a book designed to encourage kids to get excited about learning the history of Patrick Henry’s life and quest for liberty.