Evolutionary psychology teaches us that it may take as many as 1,000 generations for even an exceptionally beneficial genetic mutation to permeate an entire species. It is not surprising, then, that a mere ten generations after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, American human nature has (apparently) changed negligibly, if at all.
This point is brought home to me graphically — even sonorously — when I read speeches and other documents (the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court decisions, etc.) produced by some of our finest thinkers and orators. They describe not only the weaknesses of humankind’s fragile intellect, far outmatched by basal emotional impulses, but also the ramifications these weaknesses create in a fragile society. Their wisdom is ageless, and we ignore it today at our own great peril.
I start, deliberately, with a fairly recent address by a not-so-famous gentleman named Felix G. Rohatyn. An investment banker by trade and a major figure in helping New York City survive its financial crisis in the 1970s, Rohatyn addressed the graduating class of Middlebury College, Vermont, in May of 1982. He identified “income and class disparities on the one hand, regional disparities on the other” as among “the most serious threat[s] to our democratic form of government.” Furthermore, “The basic test of a functioning democracy is its ability to create new wealth and see to its fair distribution. When a democratic society does not meet the test of fairness, when, as in the present state, no attempt seems to be made at fairness, freedom is in jeopardy.” (As this is written, the State of California is considering draconian measures to balance its budget by severely curtailing or eliminating many social programs for the aged and the disabled.)
Possibly channeling the California legislature of the 21st century in advance, Rohatyn claimed that “the critical issues we face today are not the levels of interest rates or what kind of package finally comes out of budget negotiations…Our fascination with numbers must not obscure the real issues, [which include] the rapid growth of a permanent underclass in America…without real hope of participating in the future of the country; …the decline of our traditional manufacturing sectors;…illegal immigration;…and nuclear proliferation.”
Although he lost the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956 to the popular World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson should be remembered for his quiet eloquence. “We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by ‘patriotism’ in the context of our times?…I venture to suggest that we mean a patriotism that puts country above self…The public interest must always be the paramount interest…The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shining armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different — the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety.”
I wish some of today’s politicians and lobbyists — and the people and corporations that employ them — would read a few words delivered by Judge Learned Hand at the “I Am an American Day” celebration in New York City in 1944 and 1945: “What, then, is the spirit of liberty?…The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. [T]he spirit of liberty which weights the interests of other men and women alongside its own without bias…Even in our own interest we must have an eye to the interests of others; a nation which lives only to itself will in the end perish.”
Finally, President Andrew Jackson: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” And no list such as this would be complete without Alexander Hamilton: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
Readers are invited to submit their own favorite examples of wisdom that is well ahead of its time or ideas regarding how well today’s society is responding to the admonitions of the ages.
Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.