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Commitment To Posterity

July 2024
7min read


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.”

How explain this ever-present consciousness of posterity and of the fiduciary obligation that was owed it? It was not, to be sure, confined to America; it was part of the philosophy, and the psychology, of the Enlightenment, but nowhere else did it flourish as it did in the new American republic. This was natural enough. After all, America was, quite literally, the future. It had come late on the historical scene; it was the one place on earth where man might carry on new experiments in government, economy, society, even in morals, under circumstances that were auspicious. If there was to be a secular millenium, it would be here. That was what the Englishman Tom Paine meant when he said that the American was “a new Adam in a new Paradise”; that was what the Frenchman Crèvecoeur meant when he wrote that Americans are “a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.”

The future—it came to be an article of faith—belonged to America. Here, in this new world, man could at last vindicate those talents that nature and God had given him but that had heretofore always been frustrated. For now, at last, man was free from the tyranny of the Monarch, the Priest, and the Warrior, the tyranny of hunger and want, of ignorance and superstition, the tyranny even of the past, of history. “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” wrote Jefferson, and in this he spoke for his countrymen—then and now.

Only posterity could fulfill the dreams of the future—that axiom remained true for generation after generation of immigrants to whom America was, in very fact, the future, and for generations of native-born Americans, too, who joined in the “marching song” of the pioneers—

Then o’er the hills in legions, boys Fair freedom’s star Points to the sunset regions, boys

—and started life anew on distant frontiers. Those who came from the Old World to the New, those who followed “fair freedom’s star,” looked to posterity to vindicate their great gamble, and not always in vain.

Over a century before independence it had been said of Virginians that “they had no need of ancestors; they themselves were ancestors.” That might have been one of the mottoes for the new country, harmonizing well with Novus Ordo Seclorum and Annuit Coeptis . For one reason Americans looked ardently to the future was that they had so little past. Crèvecoeur had remarked, in the Farmer’s Letters, that the wretched emigrant from the Old World quite literally had no country: ”…in Europe they were as so many useless plants … but now by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished.” No wonder, then, that they chose to forget their ancestors and themselves become ance eors. A few years later the novelist James Paulding put it well: “It is for other nations to boast of what they have been, and muse over the history of their youthful exploits that only renders their decrepitude more conspicuous. Ours is the more animating sentiment of hope, looking forward with prophetic eye.”

This reliance on posterity to fulfill the American—and the human—destiny was translated into law and official policy. Thus the Constitution was indeed designed to “endure for ages to come.” Thus the new system of substituting coordinate states for what had heretofore been subordinate colonies was applied not only to Vermont and Kentucky, which were part of the original thirteen states, but to all the immense territory westward to the Pacific. Thus the most generous land policy in history was designed to facilitate the creation of new commonwealths and to provide economic and social opportunity for newcomers who might realize the “American dream.” Thus the religion of education was invoked to lift the level of enlightenment for every new generation. All of these were designed to fulfill the obligation to posterity and to vindicate the American conviction that the future would always be better than the past.

That our own generation no longer believes deeply in posterity or feels any genuine obligation to it is self-evident. The natural resources of the country belong to no one nation but to our descendants “to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Earlier generations exploited them, to be sure—bemused as they were by the illusion of infinity; but it is our generation that has visited the most nearly irreparable destruction on rivers and lakes and oceans, on soil and air, and on those resources of oil and gas and minerals upon which the future depends for its very survival. Jefferson thought that no generation had a right to impose its debts upon future generations and proposed wiping out all public debts every twenty years. That was not very sensible, but it was certainly more honorable than our own policy of piling up a debt of some six hundred billion dollars for posterity to pay. We know now that atomic leaks can poison whole communities and that atomic weapons can end life on this globe, and our leading atomic physicists predict an atomic war by the year 2000; but though we already have enough atomic bombs to destroy mankind many times over, we go on our insensate way, piling up arsenals of atomic weaponry.

In small things as in large—and the small are often more illuminating of popular attitudes—we demonstrate our indifference to the well-being of our children and of posterity. We spend billions on automobile highways but cannot afford bicycle paths as impoverished countries like England and France do—for the safety and health of our children. We tolerate on television a continuous diet of violence and vulgarity that blunts the moral sensibilities and corrupts the intelligence of our children; even Denmark, which exercises less censorship than any other country on earth, bars violence in television that children might see. Instead of providing that healthy exercise and play which are available in most European countries as a matter of course, we condemn our children to be voyeurs of sport and exploit them in the lethal competition of Little Leagues and competitive school games largely for the entertainment —and vanity—of adults.

How explain the evaporation of the sense of fiduciary obligation to posterity? There are practical and historical considerations: that the “homeless and tempest tossed” who, through the years, turned to America as the land of the future no longer seek “the golden door”; and that geographically the nation is complete, the frontier is gone, there are no new commonwealths to be created and no expectation that there will be new Utopias. We have lost our faith, too, in millenialism, religious and secular alike. We no longer believe in the religion of education, or that education will assure progress and happiness to future generations; in education and politics the high hopes of earlier generations have given way to disillusionment. We no longer embrace the notion of progress except perhaps in the material and the scientific arenas, and we are afraid of innovation in the political arena. Who now says what James Madison wrote in The Federalist :

Is it not the glory of the people of America, that …they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?…Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. …

Probably the most decisive of all the forces that contribute to the neglect or the repudiation of posterity is also the most elementary and the most obvious: that with the threat of a nuclear holocaust hanging over us, there is no longer any genuine conviction that there will be any posterity, and therefore there is no compelling need to think or to plan far into the future. This may well prove to be the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

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