Life Lessons from the Founding Fathers
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“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.
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.
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.
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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