These words have recently popped up in some online articles:
Hard times make strong men.
Strong men make good times.
Good times make weak men.
Weak men make hard times.
Let’s assume for argument’s sake we’re in hard times right now. Making a case for that assertion is relatively easy. We’re still dealing with a pandemic after almost two years of lockdowns, masks, and diminished liberties, we’re facing rocketing costs at the supermarkets and gas pumps, our federal government is spending money like some crazy uncle who just won the lottery, and our traditional culture appears besieged everywhere. Every day seems to bring more bad news, and the swirl of headlines leaves most of us breathless and dizzy, like some kid who has just spent a few too many moments spinning around the backyard.
Next, let’s suppose, again for the sake of argument, that we live in hard times because many of our leaders—and even many of their followers—are weak men and women. If the above adage is true, then that should take us back to the first line of the equation: “Hard times make strong men.” The sentiment behind that line is good, but where are we to find examples of such strong people? Perhaps our tough circumstances will produce such leaders, but would it not help if all of us possessed some examples of strength to guide us?
The Romans looked to their ancestors for such guidance. The knights of the Middle Ages relied on ballads and tales of such heroes as Arthur and Roland to stiffen their hearts and will. Where do we find exemplars who have the power to fire up our willpower and our resolve?
PrinciplesThe birth and establishment of our Republic may seem inevitable to us today, but that was hardly the case at the time. The men and women who fought by sword or by pen for freedom were, as they well knew, subject to imprisonment, poverty, and even execution should they lose their struggle for liberty.
The men who had signed the Declaration of Independence, for example, patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Hancock, understood they were signing their death warrants should the forces of the British Empire defeat them. Not only might the victors hang them as traitors, but the livelihoods and well-being of their families would also be jeopardized. Seeking their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” came with the possibility of utter ruin.
And George Washington had gravitas in spades.
Intelligence and Willpower
As soon as the Revolution began, Knox and his wife, Lucy, fled the city, leaving his shop to be sacked by Loyalists. Impressed by Knox’s artillery fortifications above Boston, Washington approved the young man’s plan for bringing the cannon and mortars captured from the British at Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston. In the dead of winter, Knox directed wagons, oxen, and hundreds of men 300 miles through the frozen countryside, and eventually returned to Boston with 56 artillery pieces, which were then used to drive the British troops and ships from the city. It was one of the greatest feats of the American Revolution.
HeroesDr. Joseph Warren, the general who died as a foot soldier at Bunker Hill; Nathan Hale, who bravely faced his execution as a spy; the wily Swamp Fox Francis Marion; “Mad Anthony” Wayne; these and so many others were strong men in hard times. They bled and died and fought, and won their freedom.
Here we take as one exemplar neither a warrior nor a politician, but a mother and wife: Abigail Adams.
Wife of John Adams, a Founding Father who later became the second president of the United States, Abigail was an early advocate of education and rights for women and an abolitionist. With her husband away for months at a time handling various duties, Abigail raised her children, saw to their education, and managed the family farm. She wasn’t afraid to express her opinion, writing to John when he was attending the First Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” and corresponding with Thomas Jefferson. To the end of John’s life, she remained his closest adviser.
Abigail Adams is emblematic of all the women forced to manage farms, businesses, and families while their husbands and fathers were away fighting the war.
Never Say DieCompared to the trials of our spiritual ancestors, our own troubles seem mild. So far, we're not called to choose between Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death.” The 21st century has brought an erosion of our liberties, but even today, some health professionals have risked their positions and professional condemnation for speaking up for personal freedom and choice during the pandemic. Parents appear before school boards seeking answers as to what their children are being taught or why they must wear masks in the classroom, and are attacked by authorities. Some business owners have bucked up against government mandates and regulations, and have suffered the consequences.
No—those old words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” still abide in many American hearts. And if at times we feel in need of inspiration or the temptation to give way to despair, we can revisit those who preceded us in the great experiment that is our Republic and take strength from their deeds and wisdom.