Life Lessons from the Founding Fathers

“We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.” ~George Washington

If you are searching for personal development inspiration, your go-to resources aren't likely to be the political leaders of Colonial America.

Patrick Henry's shout-out to “give me liberty or give me death,” or Benjamin Franklin's admonition that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” were appropriate truisms for the times but not life changing concepts —  at least not for this era.

The founding fathers still represent the ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but for most of us, they speak to us distantly — as the formal, white-wigged characters from the pages of our history books.

In recent years, I've become increasingly fascinated with our founding fathers — maybe because they have started to jump off the pages of  history books and emerge as real people for me.

My interest was piqued when I read an amazing biography of John Adams, by David McCullough. This beautiful book opened my eyes to the brilliance, complexity, and humanness of these few men who changed the course of history.

I went on to read biographies of George Washington, including His Excellency: George Washington and The General & Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of a Marriage and a Revolution. I also read American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

I learned from these books that the brilliant men behind the Revolution not only masterminded and facilitated our independence and freedom as a nation. They were also deep and spiritual thinkers, men of great integrity, as well as flawed people struggling with the same search for individual meaning and purpose that all of us do.

Since we are soon celebrating Independence Day, I thought I'd share  life lessons from three of our founding fathers, ideas that still apply to all of us, hundreds of years after the words were composed.

George Washington

A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends.

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.

Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience

Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of everyone, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse.

My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.

I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one's life, the foundation of happiness or misery.

From thinking proceeds speaking; thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous!

A sensible woman can never be happy with a fool.

Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.

Thomas Jefferson

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.

Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.

Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Happiness is not being pained in body or troubled in mind.

He who knows best knows how little he knows.

How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.

I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.

I cannot live without books.

I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.

I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way.

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.

Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.

Never spend your money before you have earned it.

No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.

Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.

Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.

John Adams

I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.

In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.

As much as I converse with sages and heroes, they have very little of my love and admiration. I long for rural and domestic scene, for the warbling of birds and the prattling of my children.

If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?

Liberty, according to my metaphysics is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power.

Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.

There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.

Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.

The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know…Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly [with your God]. This is enough.

Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.

There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt.

Oh posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains, to preserve it.

On July 4, we'll celebrate the freedoms that our founding fathers envisioned for this country and for each individual. We'll acknowledge their wisdom, forethought, and the sacrifices they made to win those freedoms for future generations.

They were men of vision, passion, and self-determination. They were also individuals, husbands, fathers, friends — unique personalities whose experiences and beliefs shaped them. Perhaps their words will help you fully realize the blessings of freedom in your own life.

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Comments

  1. I absolutely LOVE this post. I am a public high school teacher by day and have several of these qoutes on the walls of my classroom. Prominant among them is Washington’s, “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” I teach US government and economics to seniors. And it is always so rewarding to see how many 17-year-olds can still be inspired by the words of men who lived 200 years ago.

    I know I am continually inspired by their words.

    Thank you for reminding us all that the founders of the rights and freedoms we enjoy here in the US, those same liberties that have been carried to so much of the world since, still have a relevant voice today that can help us reach for the potential burried somewhere within each of us.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Ken,
      I am so glad you like the post. It is refreshing to see a high school teacher so engaged and enthusiastic about teaching and inspiring students. We need more like you! I had no interest in history in high school, probably because I never had teachers who inspired that love of history in me. Fortunately, I did in college, but my main interest was British history. Only in the last few years have I “discovered” the founding fathers. What an amazing group of men (and their wives as well).

  2. What a timely and inspirational post–and a great pic too. I have read many on your reading list and share the same interest. Men and women who can still teach us worthwhile lessons today. Thanks for this.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It took me a while to find the right photo for the post, but I like this one too. Did you read the John Adams book? It was my favorite, and I loved Abigail Adams. What an amazing woman.

  3. What a great collection of quotes. I shared it on Facebook. This took a great amount of work (albeit enjoyable) to read and collect this info. Thanks for sharing.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you so much David. I really enjoyed researching the information.

  4. What a great post! These are real gems from the past and wouldn’t it be great if the wisdom found here could somehow be absorbed into the minds and hearts of today’s children?

    All the best,

    Jon

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Yes, it would be great Jon. Perhaps some kids are fortunate enough to have teachers that bring these historical figures to life for them. That’s what it takes — an understanding of the real people behind the history.

  5. Wow what an excellent post, there enough there to meditate on for a lifetime- no kidding. Thanks Barrie for a well researched and very stimulating read.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are so welcome Stephen. I guess eternal truths are just that — eternal! I wonder if there are any truly great political leaders left like those three founding fathers I mention.

  6. What a great post! I too have become “enamored” with our Founding Fathers & am always inspired by their wisdom. Thank you for highlighting this! Their biographies make fantastic reading!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Joni,
      Yes, some of these books almost read like novels — they are so engaging. I also really loved the book on Lincoln and his cabinet called Team of Rivals. He wasn’t a founding father of course, but that’s one of those books that gave me an entirely new perspective on the human being rather than just the leader.

  7. henry ndiritu says:

    what a great post. it is very inspiring and uplifting.

  8. Ray Moon says:

    God knows if I had a memory it would be for this post. It is wonderful and I will share it with my pastor, in hopes he will share it with the congregation. These are all so true, and will always be so. Thanks, Barrie. You are so important to me!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Thank you so much Ray — you’ve made my day! I am so thrilled that it was meaningful for you. That’s why I write! 🙂

  9. Excellent, timely post! Personally, I’ve always been a huge fan of Benjamin Franklin — I highly recommend his autobiography (http://www.earlyamerica.com/lives/franklin).

    A few of my faves of his:

    Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.

    Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.

    Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.

    I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.

    For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.

    Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

    Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

    There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier.

    Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Scott,
      I must admit, I lost some of my love of Franklin after reading how he treated John Adams in the Adams biography. But I know there is so much more to him. Thank you for the recommendation of the book and for the wonderful quotes. They round out this article nicely! I will try to forgive Franklin for his disservice to Adams and read his biography! 🙂

  10. Barrie, Thank you for the great book ideas and for making these men come to life. I was never very interested in history, it did seem very distant and unnecessary. But I love learning about people, learning how they triumphed, paved the way, and overcome, even how they struggled. It is more meaningful to me now (all grown up :). I think it would be great to sit down and talk with one of our founding fathers, and not for political tips, but for mutual storytelling about living life. Thank you for making these men come to life.

    And, how do you have the time to read all these books?!

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Marci,
      I felt the same way for a long time. I was really interested in British history, but American history didn’t intrigued me until I started reading some of the biographies. Another great one is Undaunted Courage about the Lewis and Clark expedition. I love to read, so I don’t have to find the time. I have to find ways to not read so I can get other things done! 🙂

    • I definitely agree with this. It was until after school that I grew an appreciation for history. I think I just had bad teachers. I also always felt history class was one-sided and biased, so that turned me off. But if you have the opportunity to pursue curriculum on your own (and look at both sides) there is a tremendous amount you can learn from the past.

  11. chaceburg says:

    I like this article. This is very inspiring. Thank you for the quotes. I will definitely post them to my Facebook and other social network accounts.

  12. I personally think there is too much talk about the Founding Fathers in modern day politics, but since today is independence day I will obviously let it slide. 🙂

    Undoubtedly many of the FF were great political scientists for their time (and philosophers too). The American Revolution was a historical exercise in freedom and the constitution was a wonderful attempt at constructing a sane and rational government.

    I love reading quotes by the FF too, and I often find them very inspirational and motivating. At the same time, I can’t forget that many of these men also owned slaves, so it is tough to say their morality was completely admirable (I realize they were different times, but still…it’s slavery).

    Anyway, I still loved this post. The FFs always provide good food for thought.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Steven,
      I agree that these were flawed men. Jefferson in particular was very confused — he spoke against slavery but owned them and fathered several children with a slave. (I doubt it was her idea!) But in a way, this dichotomy makes them more interesting and real. One day in the future, our great, great, great grandchildren might say, “they were brilliant, but look how they polluted our Earth and bankrupted our country.” There is brilliance and buffoonery in all of us.

  13. If you enjoy reading about the principles and values of our founding fathers, I would like to recommend an easy to read book that is full of great source-referenced quotes from our founding fathers. The book is titled In Their Own Words: The Wisdom and Passion of Our Founding Fathers
    You can view some sample pages from the book at Rediscovering America

  14. Hey! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading through your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same topics? Many thanks!