Words of wisdom live on

“I cannot tell a lie,” is the famous quote attributed to George Washington in the story of how as a young boy he had barked a cherry tree sapling with his new hatchet and when asked by his father, readily admitted to the deed. Even though many claim it all to be a myth, there is compelling evidence of its truth given the time it was written and personal and primary source interviews. A good account for next year when his birthday rolls around again, exploring this era nonetheless for the last columns with “A unanimous decision” and “Washington’s wisdom through the ages” led to a string of other interesting stories and quotes of Washington’s contemporaries. Just for fun and a quick review of early American history, consider how much is still familiar or remembered, keeping in mind that some is as basic as fourth grade.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” should ring a bell from early days of school. Who said this? It was during a time and place that would make an exciting movie today with intrigue and suspense. Young Washington may not have told a lie as a boy, but during the Revolutionary War and interestingly portrayed in a recent National Geographic television show, clever strategies were necessary for such things as convincing the British there were more troops in certain locations; all involving spies, double agents, and even invisible inks. Remember that New York City was held by the British for most of the war. Early on in the war it was of course the young Nathan Hale that was said to have voiced those famous words as he waited at the gallows for being discovered as a spy and hung for it by the British in New York City.

“Give me liberty or give me death” is another well-known quote from the same era. The Stamp Act of 1765, one of the most hated laws imposed by the British Parliament, caused much outrage in the colonies. Although a speech against the British given by this same person was considered treasonous regarding the Stamp Act, it was several years later at the Virginia Convention when Patrick Henry issued the call to arms in another speech with the “liberty or death” ultimatum, with its anniversary next month. Very successful in many roles including governor, he is remembered as a key revolutionary leader and identifying colonists not as New Yorkers or Virginians, but as Americans.

“I have not yet begun to fight” comes from the water. The Continental Congress created the Continental Navy in 1775 as a means to not only control the highway of shipments of food and other goods during the war, but also as a necessary battlefield. It was John Paul Jones who is credited for the spirit of defiance when his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was being destroyed by the British ship, the Serapis. Asked by the British captain if Jones was ready to “strike their colors” (give up), Jones replied that the Americans would still fight. In the end, after a wild battle, the Serapis actually surrendered to Jones. During the war, Jones also took the fighting overseas with daring raids off the British coast. Buried in Paris, his grave was rediscovered in the early 1900s, and his remains were reinterred in a marble crypt under the chapel at the United States Naval Academy. The story of this find in a neglected cemetery in France also holds enough intrigue for a book or movie in and of itself.

“These are the times that try men’s souls” has been repeated often when people have found themselves in troublesome situations. Also from the war years in our fight for independence, the author of these words, Thomas Paine, wrote a collection of articles called, “The American Crisis,” advocating a self-governed nation. George Washington found the words so inspiring that he had part of the essay read to his troops. Paine’s essay from December 1776 goes on to say, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right not only to tax but to bind us in all cases whatsoever, and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.”

The wisdom and fortitude of so many of our founding fathers and ancestors are chronicled in volumes of works with barely a scratch of the surface addressed today in this column. Looking back helps people appreciate past sacrifices. Additionally, as George Washington said, it behooves us to look back and “derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.” Study it out and see the parallels of today with topics both good and bad. As far as taxation, Thomas Paine noted in “Rights of Man” in 1791 that even in “advanced stages of improvement” around the world that “we still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised, to furnish new pretenses for revenues and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without tribute.” As far as bearing arms, in 1775 Paine said, “Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.”

Make it a good week and reflect on what and who has made our country great.

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