Culture > Books

Books: The concept of honor

Books | An anthology of the founders shows our loss

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

William Bennett's newest book offers a breather from the scandal-of-the-day. In the writings of the founders, he gives us a reminder that we can expect higher and better from the highest offices.

Our Sacred Honor is a collection of letters, speeches, and poems from the Founding Fathers (and a few Founding Mothers). The selections range from the Declaration of Independence to personal letters from John Adams to his beloved wife, Abigail. There are George Washington's last will and testament, and Benjamin Franklin's "Rule for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion."

Like the best historical works, Our Sacred Honor gives us more than the important dates and documents. Particularly touching (and therefore educational) are the letters between husbands and wives, parents and children, and dear, lifelong friends. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams suffered an estrangement for some years because of political differences. After they both retired, their friend Benjamin Rush encouraged a reconciliation. Adams was willing; he wrote to Jefferson in a formal, though kindly tone.

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Jefferson responded eagerly and poignantly, "A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man ... laboring, always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead to overwhelm us."

This latest offering from Mr. Bennett hasn't been received as well as his earlier compilations. Two main criticisms have been leveled at him: first, that he's taken a good idea and run it into the ground; and second, that he glosses over the founders' faults in his attempt to revive national virtue.

I have no patience for the "too much of a good thing" charge. If Mr. Bennett's well were running dry and he were giving us thick, expensive collections of nothing very interesting, then maybe such a criticism would be valid. But that's not the case. The letters, poems and speeches of the founders are fresh, succinct, and relevant. Homeschoolers in particular know the continuing worth of Mr. Bennett's collections. Taken together, The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass, The Children's Book of Virtues, and The Children's Book of Heroes comprise a home library of some of the best and most uplifting of what has been written.

The second criticism is more serious and more timely. If Jefferson kept a mistress, are Bill Clinton's antics really so bad? Do conservatives commit an act of intellectual dishonesty to praise the blemished Founding Fathers, while in the same breath criticizing Clinton and his cabinet?

There are important differences, however, that belie moral equivalency. Not only were the founders great men who did great things, but from all the evidence that we have (and opponents were quick to point out their flaws), most were faithful to their wives.

They pledged, as the Declaration says, "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor" to the cause of freedom-and honor was sacred in those days. They also possessed in great measure something lacking today: vision. They could see something higher and better for the nation. In their writings, we can get a glimpse of it, too.

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