Commitment To Posterity

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As we commemorate the anniversary of the founding of our nation we are conscious of a paradox: we have almost miraculously maintained the continuity of those institutions which the Founding Fathers created, but in large measure we have betrayed the principles that animated them. These principles are as valid as ever: that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed; that those who make government may alter or abolish it and institute new governments; that the power of all governments is limited by the Constitution; that the civil is always superior to the military, that the purposes of government are to establish justice and secure life, liberty, and happiness to the people; and that these principles are rooted in the very nature of things and are therefore designed to survive all the vicissitudes of history.

On appropriate occasions—such as the Bicentennial—we still pay lip service to these principles, but we do not practice them; and the reason that we do not practice them is that we no longer really believe in them, or, if we do, only for ceremonial and filiopietistic purposes.

Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the abandonment by the American people—and by their government—of that sense of fiduciary obligation to posterity which was one of the animating principles of the Revolutionary generation.

The Founding Fathers knew, with Milton, that “fame is the spur,” and they were animated by a not ignoble passion for fame. That passion assumed belief in posterity and dictated a concern for it. In a secular world posterity was a substitute for immortality; in an age of reason posterity alone could be the judge.

How this note echoes and re-echoes in the writings of the men of the Revolution—even in those, perhaps particularly in those, who had no physical posterity! Remember Tom Paine’s plea for independence: “’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time …” Listen to Washington’s appeal to his officers in the crisis of Newburgh: “you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’ ” So the “Pennsylvania Farmer,” John Dickinson, had said: “Honour, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.” Just so George Mason of Gunston Hall—he who had drafted the Virginia bill of rights—admonished his children to “transmit to posterity those sacred rights in which they themselves were born.” How revealing John Adams’ letter to his beloved Abigail after he had signed the Declaration of Independence: “… through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.…and that Posterity will tryumph in the Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.” Another of the signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, recalled that “I was animated constantly by a belief that I was acting for the benefit of the whole world, and of future ages.…”

We the People.… secure the blefsings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

No one recurred more instinctively to this theme than did Thomas Jefferson; we need only recall that reference to “our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation” in his first Inaugural Address or, at the close of his long career, his gratification that he and his comrade-in-arms Madison had dedicated themselves to “vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued for preserving to them, in all their purity, the blessings of self-government, which we had assisted in acquiring for them.”

This commitment to posterity lingered on into much of the nineteenth century; thus in John Marshall’s description of the Constitution as “intended to endure for ages to come”; thus in Henry Clay’s tribute to that same Constitution that it “was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity—unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”