In “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” a movie based on James Michener’s novel about the Korean War, Adm. George Tarrant watches his pilots fly off from the aircraft carrier’s pitching deck to attack the enemy and asks, “Where do we get such men?”
Where did they come from, the men and women who founded this country, fought and died in its wars, suffered privation, often struggled through crisis after crisis, and created a land of opportunity never before seen in human history?
Take Colonial Virginia as an example. How could a backwater colony of the British Empire produce an array of men like George Washington, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason? Throw in luminaries from the other colonies—Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, among others—and we find ourselves gobsmacked by the talent and genius of that generation.
Few of these Founders had won formal university degrees, yet they gave us our liberty, our Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution. They had studied writers such as John Locke, they knew the Bible, and they had delved into the histories of Ancient Greece and Rome. And amazingly, they gave us a dynamic republic.
Just as importantly, these Founding Fathers also swallowed and digested the biographies of those who had preceded them, especially the Ancient Romans, and sought to emulate them. They adopted men like Cicero and Cato the Younger as their Republican models, and gleaned details about other famous Romans they admired from books like “Plutarch’s Lives” and Livy’s “History of Rome.”
The writers of “The Federalist Papers,” for instance, used the pen name Publius, thereby honoring a Roman who had helped to overthrow an oppressive monarchy. George Washington brought Joseph Addison’s play, “Cato,” to the pitiable winter camp of Valley Forge to inspire his troops. American statesmen of that time made frequent references to the parallels between the Roman Republic and the one they wished to establish in America.
In short, they believed that they might not only learn from the triumphs and virtues of these great personages from the past, but that they could copy their nobility and ideals, and by so doing face up to crises with their same stoic courage and wisdom.
Like the Founders, if we study the lives of our ancestors, we too may find ourselves uplifted in vision and ambition. We can find prototypes from the past that will help us live the best of lives.
Moreover, we can select to emulate what qualities we wish from our predecessors, as if picking from a buffet of examples. We can admire the joie de vivre and boundless energy of Theodore Roosevelt without agreeing with all his political policies. We can copy the disinterested attitudes of John Adams or George C. Marshall, meaning they attempted to see things as they really are and with as little prejudice as possible, without necessarily adopting all the other attributes of these men.
Contemporary models of the good and the virtuous also exist, people often found in unexpected places. Some film stars, for instance, have humbly committed themselves to noble causes. In his autobiography, “Grateful American: A Journey From Self to Service,” Gary Sinise, who won the hearts of Americans as Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump,” recounts his trek from a life of self-indulgence to helping American veterans. In “Audrey Hepburn, Elegant Spirit,” the actress’s son Sean celebrates his mother’s life and her commitment to various children’s causes.
In “The Truly Great,” Stephen Spender ends his poem with these lines:
“The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while towards the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
Taking the best from the men and women of the past can help us to do the same.