We mourn with those who lost loved ones in the Florida high school shooting. Nothing can justify the shooter’s terrible choice. In these moments of crisis, we cry out for action — the swifter the better.
In our rush to “do something,” the list of rights and layers of conversation built into our republic might feel like impediments. But in fact, they were forged in a time of serial crisis. Those rights, those conversations and the way the Founders produced them can serve us well as we address today’s problems.
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, Parliament and royal officials set about trying to refill the British treasury. Colonists endured an escalating series of overreaches, affronts and deadly skirmishes, any number of which might have justified full revolt. But the colonists would prove to be unconventional revolutionaries. While they did catalog abuses, they worked out a framework of principles that kept those events in context. When the Declaration of Independence finally rang out in 1776, its mixture of grievance, prudence and principle made it an unusual — and unusually powerful — trumpet.
Of course, the Declaration proclaimed but did not secure independence, and as years of war followed, colonials struggled to overcome their regional, economic, religious and philosophical differences. When one spoke of “my country,” he was talking about his home state, not the budding nation of states. After victory at Yorktown, internal rebellions of impatience and the failure of the nation’s first government made for acutely despairing headlines.
The 24 years from 1763 to 1787 — a whole generation — were punctuated by incendiary moments and failed measures. In December 1772, with rebellion simmering and outcomes far from certain, the town meeting of Roxbury wrote, “Our pious forefathers died in the pleasing hope that we, their children, might live free. Let none, as they will answer it another day, disturb the ashes of those heroes by selling their birthright.” They knew the goal, they knew their heritage and they gave us an even richer birthright.
When the Founders met in Philadelphia to consider a new constitution, their situation was pressing, but their perspective was enduring. The founding generation in that room was in fact three generations, ranging in age from 26 to 81. Their ages varied less than their views, and among them perhaps only George Washington was universally trusted, yet they stayed on task together. Essential contributions of ideas and leadership came from each generation and walk of life. Remembering experiences of Greeks, Romans, English barons and pilgrims as well as their own concerns, together the Founders produced a system of government that requires conversations among its levels and branches, while protecting and encouraging even more discussion and initiative in society.
It’s time to relearn how to use that system and engage the challenging conversations that our deteriorating social ecology demands. If school shootings are new in the American experience, so is pervasive fatherlessness. So is omnipresent media violence. So is spiraling drug addiction. Mental illness has been with us longer, and we still don’t understand it as well as we need to.7 comments on this story
This flood of problems will not recede without sustained effort. Grieving students and those suffering in wrecked homes and communities deserve the best we can muster. The easiest changes may turn out to be gun-related, as some businesses and even political leaders are already demonstrating. But if we don’t continue to ask ourselves other painful questions, including those touching fathers, families, culture and addiction, enduring improvement will elude us.
America is still an experiment in self-government, and for it to continue we must confront our problems without condemning each other. A dialogue across generations and viewpoints would echo the crucial conversations that got our nation started. We need to stay on task — together.