THE HUMANISM OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
By Burleigh Cushing Rodick
Dr. Burleigh Cushing Rodick was the honored guest and featured speaker at the Annual Meeting of the New York Society Friday evening, May 10, 1968 at The Harvard Club,
His remarks were so well received that we saw
fit to re-print them here. Author of several books, his history: APPOMATTOX, The Last Campaign received the SAR Citizenship Award.
Dr. Rodick was born in the shipbuilding town of Freeport, Maine, a direct lineal descend-ant from John and Priscilla Alden. He attended Bowdoin, Harvard and Columbia Universities; engages in writing, teaching, lecturing.
Your Excellency, Governor Jones, Compatriots and Honored Guests:
Your speaker naturally appreciates this honor even though he may not deserve it. This Order is greater than any of us. Its span is much longer than our little lives.
Our founding fathers had a public conscience that laid the basis for an evolving social order in the new world. We were the heirs of the great English renaissance. When its creative fires burned low in the homeland they were rekindled in the great new land across the Sea. John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared that "with God's help, we shall light a candle in the wilderness that shall never be put out."
As representative of this colorful age we should never forget Sir Walter Raleigh, who was our real founder and whose spirit still dwe among us. He established the first English settlement at Roanoke 1584. We know that he was a valiant fighter for English and Protest humanism against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Far in advance of his age, he pleaded for representative government, separation of chur and state, and universal suffrage. In his opposition to the Stuart army he was also a humanistic philosopher. After his long confineme in the Tower of London, he was finally informed that the day had bee set for his execution. He replied: "The world itself is but a large prison from which some are daily called for execution."
English and American school children know that he met his cleat with a jest upon his lips. Touching the edge of the executioner's axe he exclaimed: "It is sharp medicine but it will doubtless heal all my diseases."
Less well known is what happened in his cell on his last night on earth. Despite his association with the gay Elizabethan world was a true Christian. On the night before he died, he wrote certain lines on a blank leaf of his Bible. They still evoke such an echo acro the years that it is difficult to recall them without emotion:
Even such is Time that takes in trust. Our youth, our joys, our all we have, And pays us but with age and dust, Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust, My God shall raise me up, I trust.
The spirit of Raleigh lived in our pioneers who subdued this con tinent. Let us hope that it is not top fanciful to say that it lived in Boone and Crockett and the defenders of the Alamo. In Kit Carson and John C. Fremont. In Robert E. Peary and the conquest of the, North Pole; in our men who are venturing into the far reaches of outer space.
Let us glance briefly at the spirit of our colonial founders and their humanism. Their limitations as fallible human beings were more: than balanced by their contributions to our culture. They inherited some of their austerity from Luther and Calvin. During the Englislx Civil War a Cavalier declared to a Roundhead: "Our sins are the sins of men: drinking, gambling and licentiousness. But your sins are the sins of devils: pride, arrogance and self righteousness."
Hawthorne, who was a Mayflower descendant, felt that the Amer ican colonial founders in the seventeenth century were sometimes harsh, gloomy, and fanatical. Harriet Beecher Stowe felt this was du, to their sense of isolation and the dangers of the wilderness. Perhaps it is not unfair to suggest that we still have traces of their austerit in our attempts at censorship. Some experience with college people would also lead me to suggest that they are more willing to listen to appeals based on taste and aesthetics than those founded on cornpulsion.
This problem of a sound balance between freedom and authority is still very much with us. It is disrupting our colleges and universities. May I depart from the sad picture by speaking in a lighter vein? Last summer I was having a Sunday morning breakfast with my church group in Westchester. On my left was the leader of the women's organization and on my right the rector. It was surely not a smoking room atmosphere. The woman was telling me about her experience on a European bound plane. The hostess was taking orders for liquid refreshments. She came to a table occupied by two clerics: a Romanist and an evangelical Protestant. The Romanist ordered a dry martini.
The Protestant clergyman was shocked. He declared:
"Why, I'd sooner commit adultery."
"Well," replied the Romanist: "I didn't know we had that choice."
If some of the early Puritans were gloomy and fanatical we should remember that it is unfair to judge one age by the social customs of another. Each age creates its own social climate. We might paraphrase Thomas Paine and say that the worship of obsolete social customs is the worst of all tyrannies. Let me repeat that the great contributions of our Founders far outweighed what some might feel were unwise social restraints.
We suggest that we face the religious problems of our day with a renewed look at our tradition of separation of church and state. The problem is very much in the news. We suggest that our guide lines have been well established.
A young clerk in the law office of Sir Edward Coke became so disgusted with the Stuart tyranny that he migrated to America and became the founder of what he termed "soul liberty." His name was Roger Williams. His colony—Rhode Island. Parrington, in his Main Currents of American Thought, pays him this tribute: "England gave her best when she sent us Roger Williams, a great thinker and a bold innovator, the repository of the generous liberalism of a vigorous age, he brought with him the fine wheat of long years of English tillage to sow in the American wilderness."
Our own Thomas Jefferson continued this great humanistic tradition. He was the author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the founder of the non-sectarian University of Virginia, which he declared was to "be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind." He also wrote to a friend in 1800: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." This spirit of humanism lived again in our first social welfare legislation during the age of Jackson. It lived in the social conscience of Theodore Parker and other New England clergy-men in their opposition to slavery. It lives today in the religious humanism of our clergy and their courageous stand for the rights of our ethnic minorities.
Finally, it seems to me that we should ask ourselves how we may be worthy of our great Anglo-American heritage. I venture to suggest the following:
First: To the extent that we profess faith in our heritage would seem to follow that we should cherish our neighbors' perso, liberty as much as we do our own. This is the faith of our Declarati of Independence that declares that all men are created equal. It implicit in our Bill of Rights, and explicit in our oath of national all giance when we pledge "liberty and justice for all."
Second: This means that no national group should be permitt to use its powers in such a way as to subvert the liberties of any other group.
Third: One of the bases of our Anglo-American culture is our. Christian heritage. It was the faith of Raleigh and Roger Williams and Jefferson and Lincoln. Frederick Douglass declared that Lincoln was the only white man he had ever met who did not make him feel conscious of his color.
Fourth: The study of our Anglo-American heritage should alway make us conscious of the fact that history is the study of that other" living whom we call the dead, and that nothing in the past is alien tc`' him who would seek to understand how the present came to be what it is.
This is too grave a consideration for jesting and yet I cannot refrain from citing the case of the Brooklyn school boy who refused to memorize certain vital dates. When his teacher chided him for this,' he replied: "Well, my parents always say `let bygones be bygones."' This youngster was not a philosopher while Santayana was. He declared that "those who do not know their history are destined to re-peat it."
Last of all: If we are to be artists in human relations, and I imagine that is the great art of life, doubtless we should never wholly despair of our human condition and the way it evolves. "In the moral world we are ourselves the light bearers, and the cosmic process is in us made flesh. For a brief space it is granted to us, if we will, to en-lighten the darkness that surrounds our path. As in the ancient torch race, which seemed to Lucretius to be the symbol of all life, we press forward torch in hand along the course. Soon from behind comes the runner who will outpace us. All our skill lies in giving into his hand the living torch, bright and unflickering, as we ourselves disappear in the darkness."
"Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie—Dust unto dust
The calm sweet earth that mothers all who die As all men must.
"But rather mourn the apathetic throng
The cowed and meek—
Who see the world's great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak."