Some graduation gifts for your seniors
The last day of school is upon us.
You may wonder, as I have, what high school graduation gift you can give that will be meaningful to passage into adulthood rather than something “shiny.”
My own thoughts turned to one of my favorite subjects, the weak job our system has done teaching recent generations about the birth of our country against impossible odds, how unique and glorious it was at the time to assert the people could govern themselves, and the impressively balanced republic system our founders established instead of a democracy. I wonder how many Americans now know the difference.
I wonder how many know enough about the balances of power in our Constitution to recognize recent brazen violations that have brought our country to a point of peril.
Here are three of my gift ideas to encourage graduates to learn more about our roots as Americans.
1. “The Federalist Papers: Modern English Edition Two” by Mary E. Webster.
On May 6, Peter Berkowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal his dismay that even America’s top universities treat The Federalist Papers as ancient and irrelevant.
Between October 1787 and August 1788, 85 essays were written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and the Constitution’s primary architect, James Madison, promoting state ratification of the Constitution. Under the anonymity of the pseudonym “Publius,” 77 of these essays were published in New York newspapers.
Properly titled The Federalist, these essays were an effort to publicly explain the rationale for various parts of the Constitution and influence future interpretation of its purpose, a treasure trove of political thinking of the day.
The Federalist covers the separation of powers of the branches of government, state sovereignty, taxation, national defense, war, foreign policy, the structure of the legislature and executive and judicial branches, the principles of individual liberty and much more.
In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote why he opposed the Bill of Rights, that he feared that by enumerating a list of rights, some day parties might argue that list to be the only rights the people had.
These essays are a priceless looking glass into the intent embodied in the Constitution.
You might wonder why our nation’s best law and political science schools, at the undergraduate and graduate level, do not require study of The Federalist. If you find a sensible answer, please let me know.
Every American who has even a small library – a collection of important core volumes – should have The Federalist. Since the original is in language of the times and difficult to read, a translation to current language is more friendly to casual reading, especially by teenagers.
2. “To Try Men’s Souls” by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.
As a politician, Newt Gingrich is fingernails on my chalkboard, but he is an excellent historian on America. This book is a fine historical fiction read on General George Washington leading his men across the Delaware River that cold winter storm night of Christmas Eve, 1776, to attack the enemy at Trenton.
Every one of us that call ourselves American should know, in painful detail, the circumstances leading to that event and the sacrifices made on that night.
In 1775, the year before declaring independence, the Continental Congress ordered the formation of a Continental Army and appointed George Washington of Virginia the commanding general. From a population of three million, Washington was able to raise a citizen army of 30,000 though they were untrained, poorly armed and equipped, poorly fed and mostly unpaid by a Congress that was derelict just as they are today.
Washington had a few early successes, but he was fighting the strongest military force in the western world with his small rag-tag Continental Army. When the British drove them out of Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan, events that made possible their escape from the overwhelming British were so improbable that there is talk even today of divine intervention.
The British chased Washington out of New York through White Plains, across the Hudson River, south through New Jersey toward Philadelphia, the British defeating them at every point they stopped to fight.
In late December, 1776, the tattered remains of the Continental Army reached the Delaware River separating New Jersey from Pennsylvania. They commandeered the only boats available locally and escaped across the river.
Many of Washington’s troops had been killed or wounded. Some departed when their enlistment was up, some deserted. With just 5,000 troops remaining, only half were able to fight while the British remained strong.
They camped in temporary safety with little shelter in a winter so severe the Delaware River would soon freeze, but for now had patches of floating ice. Washington had no reinforcements, no stores of shoes or winter clothing, no replacement of weapons or powder or equipment, very little food, no money to pay his men the wages they had earned, and no reply to his many letters to Congress pleading for help.
With his army falling apart and defeated at every turn, Washington knew if he didn’t produce a victory very soon the American Revolution was over and he and every other leader would be hanged for treason against the King.
Washington devised a most audacious plan. His men were exhausted, demoralized, hungry and freezing. They listened in disbelief as Washington told them they would re-cross the river back to New Jersey in the night of Christmas Eve and attack the enemy before dawn at Trenton. He was making one final, desperate attempt to keep the Revolution alive.
All of us should know the story of what happened that night and how the Revolution did not die because of one man’s daring vision and determination.
This book brings alive the misery these men endured that winter storm night, many in makeshift uniforms so worn they were rags at that point, all hungry, freezing and exhausted, some leaving blood trails in the icy road as they walked barefoot to the fight.
Those who read this book will be part of a diminishing number of Americans who appreciate the miracle of the birth of our country against all odds.
They will also be one of few who understand the famous painting of the crossing, by Emanuel Leutz in 1851 and now hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While others look at the painting and, ho-hum, move on to the next, or perhaps think how haughty Washington looks standing so self-important in that boat, your reader will know that Washington was intentionally making himself visible to his miserable men, trying to inspire them onward to their near-impossible task. The reader will also know their true misery didn’t begin until they reached the New Jersey shore.
As Memorial Day approaches, it is fitting that we remember those who did the dirty and hard work, sacrificing mightily while the vast majority did nothing, while a third of the country wavered in their loyalty, waiting to see which side would prevail. One might wonder whether the citizens deserved the freedom won for them at great cost – just like today.
3. “John Adams,” an HBO 7-part miniseries, putting on film the book by David McCullough.
I cannot say loudly enough what a gift this miniseries is to Americans who will take the time to watch and absorb this version of our nation’s beginning as the backdrop to the story of John Adams’ life. It doesn’t take long to realize Adams would have been nothing without his wife, Abigail.
One of the things I enjoyed about this production is the absence of the typical reverence for our founders. As shown in this long film, they were serious, educated, determined people who were also plagued with the same vanities and weaknesses we all have. They fought amongst themselves like cats and dogs, separating into factions that mistrusted and hated each other. Sound familiar?
Every American should see this production. Two years ago I required my teenage daughter to watch all seven episodes over the summer, and for each episode I composed a series of questions for her to answer, just to make sure she paid attention. My email address is below, and if you ask I will send you my series of episode questions, with answers for parents.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]