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Recalling America’s Founders: Honor and Duty in a Dark Age

By Mark Weber | [Edited text of a talk given on July 6, 2013, at a meeting in southern California of the American Freedom Party.]

Many times over the years I’ve been asked a question that’s been put in many different ways – a question that comes down to this: “What’s the use?” I’m asked: “How can you still have hope for America? I don’t see any reason for optimism, so why carry on? The forces we’re fighting are just too powerful. Compared to the vast wealth, power and influence of our enemies, our resources are pitiful. Everywhere you look in America, things are getting steadily worse. The situation is hopeless, so why bother?”

Our response to the question “What’s the use?” is especially appropriate on this weekend, which marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, our country’s “birth certificate.” July Fourth is traditionally an occasion for looking back at our history, and for thoughtfully considering what we as Americans have done, where we are today, and where we’re headed.

There’s no denying that the situation in today’s America is discouraging, and that the prospects for the future are bleak. In spite of this country’s relative prosperity, the awesome military might of America’s armed forces, and the great natural beauty and vast natural resources of this great land, there’s a broad sense across the US that our society is on the wrong path; that things are just not right.

Public opinion polls show that Americans do not trust the Congress, the mass media, and other major social- political institutions, and that in recent decades this trust has fallen to historically low levels. Americans, and especially younger citizens, are cynical about the pledges and slogans of both major political parties, and do not believe the promises of politicians to turn things around.

In spite of the fitful economic revival of the last few years, Americans are not upbeat about the future. Surveys show that most Americans believe that life for their children and grand-children will be less secure and prosperous than it has been for them.

A recent public opinion poll shows that, while most people here say they’re proud to be Americans, a substantial majority — 71 percent — think that the signers of the Declaration of Independence would not be pleased with the US today. And the percentage who hold that view has risen steadily since 2001.

The American national anthem calls the US the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But the truth is that in every country through the ages – and certainly in today’s America – only a small minority is very courageous, or willing to risk life or livelihood to fight for much beyond themselves and their families.

That was obvious, for example, in the rise and fall in recent years of the noisy “Tea Party” and “Occupy Wall Street” protest movements, which lacked dedicated leadership, clear focus and competent organization.

It takes no courage to drift with the crowd. Weaklings are always quick to cheer those who have fame, money and power. Even a coward will support a cause that seems victorious. In any society, the portion of the population that has the wit to understand and the heart to care is always a minority. That’s why I’m glad to be here today with men and women who think about what’s happening in our country, and, more importantly, who care about our world and our future.

We’re gathered on this warm Saturday evening because we share a deep concern for our people and our posterity.

When one recalls what so many of our ancestors have risked and suffered, and the great sacrifices made by so many of our forebears, and when one considers how little, comparatively, we actually risk or give up, it’s difficult for me to have much respect for those who say “What’s the use?” It’s worth keeping in mind that very few of even the most outspoken dissident activists have ever been beaten or physically disabled, and that even the most smeared and vilified of those who defy the ruling elite lead more or less “normal” lives.

Of course, we are very mindful of the dismal trends in today’s America, including the steady “third-worldization” of the US, and we empathize with the pessimism of so many about this country’s future. But because we understand the reasons for these grim trends, and the forces behind them, we recognize that the ever more obvious symptoms of social decay are inevitable in a nation as unhealthy as today’s America.

We understand that a nation guided by false principles, wishful thinking and unrealistic notions about society and history cannot and will not survive; that a society as inwardly sick as this one will not last.

A healthy nation has a cultural life that reflects and reinforces the values, heritage and interests of its people. But in today’s America control of the mass media and cultural life is held by people whose interests, agenda and ideology mean, inevitably, the steady, inexorable breakdown of society. As Vice President Joe Biden openly acknowledged at a meeting on May 21, just a few weeks ago, America’s mass media and cultural life are controlled by a Jewish minority group that makes up no more than two percent of the US population. And this unhealthy grip on our nation’s cultural life has been a reality for many years now, regardless of whether the president has been Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama.

Mark Weber

At the same time, no one should be fooled about the seeming might of those who hold power and influence in today’s America. An unhealthy society, characterized by deceit, false principles, and an unrealistic ideology, will not and cannot endure.

Especially on this weekend, it is well worth recalling that the men who put their names to the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 proclaimed to the world that they were risking everything. “We mutually pledge to each other,” they boldly declared, “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

Because the struggle for American independence was as much a civil war as it was a struggle against a foreign enemy, it sometimes divided families. For Benjamin Franklin, one of the most prominent figures in the struggle for independence, it meant a permanent break with his son William, who sided with the British and served as the last royal governor of New Jersey. The split was irreconcilable, and after the end of the fighting, William went into exile in Britain, where he remained until his death. Because the daughter of another signer, Francis Lewis, married a British officer, Lewis never again spoke with her. And the family of another signer, William Hooper, was split down the middle.

At least eight of the Declaration’s signers risked their lives on the battlefield in the war for independence. The British looted the country mansions of at least four of the signers. The great home of one signer, Carter Braxton of Virginia, was burned to the ground by British troops.

George Wythe, another signer, lost nearly everything he owned in the fight for independence. William Hooper later wrote of his privations during the struggle: “The loss of property I treat with contempt, and in this the British have struck deeper than I suspected – but the dread of my family suffering from want – Oh my God!”

Thomas McKean, another signer, later recalled his ordeal during the war for independence. He was, as he wrote, “hunted like a fox by the enemy,” and “compelled to move my family five times in a few months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna” river, only to have them there harassed by hostile Indians.

The cause that those 56 men – and so many others — pledged everything to fight for, was a worthy one. But the concerns and issues that bring us together here this evening are much weightier and far more important.

What’s at stake today is not mere political independence, or freedom from unjust rule by a monarch in a faraway land, but a struggle for our future as a honorable, prosperous, ordered and cultured nation; a struggle for all that makes life worth living for anyone with a sense of principle, heritage and self-respect, for anyone who cares about the future beyond his own all-too-short lifetime.

Long after the war for independence had ended, and the USA was firmly established, a few looked back in their old age and wondered if they had done the right thing in 1776. Benjamin Rush , a Declaration signer, was saddened by the how society had changed. He lamented that America had become, as he put it, “a bedollared nation” – that is, a society concerned above all with individual self-interest. In a letter to John Adams in 1808, he wrote: “I feel pain when I am reminded of my exertions in the cause of what we called liberty, and sometimes wish I could erase my name from the Declaration of Independence.”

Adams responded immediately. He wrote: “You and I, in the Revolution, acted from principle. We did our duty, as we then believed, according to our best information, judgment and consciences. Shall we now repent this? God forbid! No! If a banishment to Cayenne [in South America] or to Botany Bay [Australia], or even the guillotine, were to be the necessary consequences of it to us, we ought not to repent. Repent? That is impossible. How can a man repent of his virtues?”

This outlook was echoed by another renowned American, Robert E. Lee. “Duty,” he wrote, “is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”

On this anniversary of American independence, it is altogether fitting that we recall the sacrifices and the outlook of the men who acted boldly out of principle, and risked everything in following the dictate of their conscience.

May that same spirit of honor and duty inspire us today.

Mark WeberMark Weber is an American historian, author, lecturer and current affairs analyst with a specialized knowledge of US foreign policy, international relations, the Second World War, and, more broadly, of twentieth-century European and American history.

Weber is also director of the Institute for Historical Review, an independent, public interest research and publishing center in southern California that works to promote peace, understanding and justice through greater public awareness of the past. In particular, the IHR strives to increase understanding of the causes, nature and consequences of war and conflict.

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