Jocks, Nerds, and Little Jemmy Madison

800px-James_Madison,_by_Charles_Willson_Peale,_1783December 15th marks the 223 anniversary of the adoption of our Bill of Rights. James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, was instrumental in the adoption of those first ten amendments that we now consider fundamental to the protection of our liberties.

Madison, one of the youngest of  our Founding Fathers, was considered by many of the Founding Fathers to be the most intellectual of the group.  He was also a nerd.  At least that’s what my daughter tells me. She was working on a middle-school project about the American Founding Fathers and asked me for a character sketch of the Father of the Constitution. After my brief description she concluded “Hmm. Sounds like a nerd to me.”

She’s probably right. James Madison was bookish, introverted, a hypochondriac, and not much of a fashion plate. And, what you may not know, is that he is still alive today. In the halls of middle schools across America, James Madison is routinely slammed into lockers when he walks down the hall.  He often elicits giggles in class.  The girls barely notice him. The teachers adore him. He’s brilliant, but socially awkward. You know the kid. In fact, you know most of our Founding Fathers. They can be found in middle schools across America today, just like the one my daughter attends. Perhaps you’ll recognize them from your own middle school days, if you only look a little closer.

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America and Rome: Legends of the Fall

When people find out my area of expertise is Ancient Rome, the conversation eventually turns to the similarities between Rome and America usually culminating with some version of the question “Do you think America will fall like Rome did?”

Such questions are indeed appropriate. The American Founding fathers borrowed heavily from the Ancient Romans, asking themselves as they founded a new nation: “What caused the success of the Ancient Romans and can we copy it?  And oppositely, what caused the Fall of Rome, and can we do something to avoid it?”

In latter posts, I hope to discuss specific areas of imitation and innovation.  For this post, the point I wish to make is this:  America does have a great deal to learn from the flow of Roman history, but if we were to compare America’s trajectory to that of Rome’s, we would discover we are not at the end of the story, but in the middle, at a far more critical juncture

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Time for a New National Anthem?

I have to admit, I cry when I hear our national anthem played at the Olympics. Well, maybe not cry, but it does stir my emotions.  I love those few bright moments watching a young athlete take the podium, representing the best of their country.  I love it when they cry.  For Americans, our flag and anthem are outward and visible reminders of the promise of our nation – liberty, equality, the rule of law, and opportunity.      The symbols mean something.   I’m moved when others understand that something.

And while I love our flag,  I’m not a great fan of the national anthem.  The Star Spangled Banner was made our official anthem by President Hoover in 1931, largely at the request of John Phillips Sousa.  Written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, the Star Spangled Banner began as a poem in honor of the brave men of Fort McHenry who withstood British bombardment during the war of 1812. Keys was onboard a British ship effecting the release of some American prisoners when he witnessed the nighttime bombardment of the fort, rocket’s red glare and all.  When the dawn’s early light came, the American flag was still flying, giving proof that the fort had not surrendered.  So moved was keys by the sight that he sat down and wrote a poem entitled the Defense of Fort McHenry.  The poem was quickly set to the tune of an English drinking song (which may explain why it’s so difficult to sing) and became a popular anthem at patriotic events for over a century until it was made official.

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Were the Founding Fathers Liberal?

When America was 225 years younger than it is today, there were no liberals and no conservatives. And there was no liberalism and no conservatism. Such terms, and the clusters of political views they represent, were unknown in America at least through the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. How Americans eventually divided into liberals and conservatives, and how liberalism and conservatism came to represent distinct political worldviews, are questions too big to answer fully in this tiny blog space. But we can make some headway by looking at the word “liberal” as it was understood in the era of America’s founding.

At that time, “liberal” was almost always used in a positive sense and almost always referred to the virtue of liberality. A person was liberal not by having a particular set of political beliefs but by possessing this particular virtue. Following the ancients, especially Aristotle, Americans understood liberality first as the virtue of free and rational generosity. Liberality was the capacity to give of one’s own free will and to give with purpose–in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. Giving that lacked these qualities was not virtuous. Bestowing a hundred dollars cash on a homeless alcoholic, for example, would not be an act of liberality. It would be an act of prodigality–a vice, not a virtue. Continue reading