Battling Hard Times: Some Help From the Founders

Battling Hard Times: Some Help From the Founders
Engraving from 1881 commemorating the first presidential cabinet: (L-R) Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson, Edmond Randolph, Alexander Hamilton, and President George Washington. (DigitalVision Vectors/Getty)
Jeff Minick

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?

We might take some lessons from the heroes of our American Revolution.


The 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 one man who had the most to lose, at least financially, was George Washington.

Appearance Counts

It means “dignity, seriousness, or solemnity in manner.”

And George Washington had gravitas in spades.

Washington wasn't the most intellectual of the American Founders. Unlike Jefferson or Madison, he never attended college. He never became proficient in Latin or Greek and mourned his “defective education” for his entire life. He was an autodidact who turned to surveying and military service after his adolescence. Later, he became one of the wealthiest men of his time.
Despite his lack of higher education, Washington understood the vital importance of decorum and appearance in the public square. Early in life, he composed his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” which was essentially an outline of manners and correct behavior. A tall man, he took pride in his dress and carried himself always with dignity, impressing his contemporaries by his propriety and reserve. Though lacking the educational advantages of his older half-brothers, he taught himself the value of dignitas, the old Roman virtue of dignity and pride. This command of himself enhanced his command of others.
To conduct oneself with such dignity is a mark of strength.

Intelligence and Willpower

Henry Knox (1750-1806) was remarkable for his vision and intelligence. He first joined the Continental Army in 1775 and eventually became Secretary of War. (Wynnter/Getty Images)
Henry Knox (1750-1806) was remarkable for his vision and intelligence. He first joined the Continental Army in 1775 and eventually became Secretary of War. (Wynnter/Getty Images)
Like Washington, Henry Knox of Boston was more than six feet tall, an impressive height in his era, and weighed a hefty 250 pounds. At age 9, he left school to work in a bookshop, where the proprietor treated him like a son and allowed him to borrow books for reading and study. Knox eventually opened his own shop, which was popular with the British officers and officials in the city, and from his conversations with them, from his reading, and from his participation in an artillery militia, he became well-versed in the arts of war.

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.

Lessons learned from Henry Knox: Vision and determination are keys for interior strength.


Dr. 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.

Grit and self-sufficiency are what we can learn from these women.

Never Say Die

Compared 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.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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