Echoes from the past

Tomorrow is March 4, 2013. Like many dates however, it is not just a regular day from a historical perspective. There’s March 4, 1793 as well as 1797, 1801, 1805, 1809, and for the most part following the same pattern through 1933. These four-year intervals mark the dates of each of our president’s inaugurations. It wasn’t until the 20th Amendment was added to our Constitution that this date changed to Jan. 20. In honor of such important days in our history, a look back at the ideals of some of these men is both interesting and continues in the spirit of some recent columns on our founding fathers with “A unanimous decision,” “Washington’s wisdom through the ages,” and “Words of wisdom live on,” which together examined men such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine.

March 4, 1801 and 1805 should not be overlooked when going back in time, for these are the inauguration dates of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Definitely one of our founding fathers, he was the author of the Declaration of Independence at the young age of 33. Not an inspiring speaker such as Patrick Henry, he nonetheless was powerful with his words. At the Continental Congress, “he contributed his pen rather than his voice to the patriot cause,” as noted at whitehouse.gov, a site which has summary pages of each president. Like many founding fathers, Jefferson was not a federalist in that he was wary of a centralized government that could potentially trample on state and individual rights. First vice president under John Adams, he went on to serve two terms and is well known for the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803.

“When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty” is just one quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson. This strong sentiment of a government “by the people” is also evident with another quote of, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government” along with, “Even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Sentiments such as these were a natural consequence of having lived through the Revolutionary War and why our Constitution with the Bill of Rights was so valued with the balance of powers and guaranteed rights of the people.

With history having a way of repeating itself, the framers of the Constitution made attempts to protect people from what seems to be the inclination of mankind to seize control over others; when given some power, wanting more and more. Of many sources, one quote attributed to Jefferson expresses this reality with, “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.”

Moving on, March 4, 1809 and 1813 mark the anniversary dates of our fourth president, James Madison. Also a founding father, he is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” although as referenced at whitehouse.gov, Madison said it was not “the offspring of a single brain, but the work of many heads and hands.” He is most known for being the president during the War of 1812 with the British even setting fire to the White House and the Capitol.

Who hasn’t heard of his wife Dolley, maybe even more famous than James? A fair question on the television show “Are you smarter than a fifth grader” could be about her concerning this time. Fifth-graders know the story of how while her husband was away, the British were advancing toward the city. She gathered important government papers and as many valuable items as she could. It’s remarkable that she rescued a life-sized portrait of George Washington. Fastened to the wall, she had to break the frame to remove and roll up the canvas painting. Not to be surpassed by other quoted founding fathers, one bit of sage advice from James Madison related to education and self-government is, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

It is nearly impossible to overlook what so many of the founding fathers said about bearing arms, the Second Amendment to our Constitution, right after the First Amendment with basic rights that Americans cherish, but probably take for granted. Perhaps these quotes jump out because of the parallels of today with so much in the news related to gun control. Wherever people fall within the spectrum today, the people who were instrumental with the founding or our nation had strong feelings. According to the source “BrainyQuote,” James Madison said, “Americans have the right and advantage of being armed unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Thomas Jefferson has been credited for saying in part, “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they encourage rather than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

The study of our nation’s history is a never ending task, but the pursuit of which can bring great satisfaction and appreciation for those who forged a path for us. The key is to choose to be aware of the past and present versus apathy and idleness. Thomas Jefferson said it so well with, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.” In other words, ignorance and freedom don’t coexist together. Make it a good week and reflect on what and who has made our country great. As far as our presidents, most of them were inaugurated on March 4. All you need to do is choose your favorite one.

Send comments on this column to lifestyles@observertoday.com