Let’s face it, 2016 has been a bumpy ride. Many people are counting down the days until the New Year, but as historians, we must point out the usefulness of looking back, as well as forward. To help motivate you for the year ahead, here are some of the quote memes, featuring thought-provoking words from our Founders, that were designed and posted to our social media channels in 2016. It’s important to note that our Founding Fathers, and Mothers, were not saints. To be sure, they were extraordinary people, but they were just that: people. They had flaws, as we all do. For my money, that makes their insights and writings even more useful.
You have probably heard some of these quotes before, but in case you haven’t read the larger pieces from which those respective quotes were drawn, we’ve provided links to the full text of each source. Also, please forgive the somewhat repetitive color schemes. Assembling this blog has laid plain my penchant for red text. I shall endeavor to be more adventurous in 2017.
These powerful words are part of Patrick Henry’s infamous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” speech. Henry didn’t typically write his speeches, so much of what we know of his oratory, including this, comes by way of what witnesses wrote down, sometimes years later. Read his full remarks here.
Washington wrote this in a letter to clergyman, writer, and scholar Jonathan Boucher on July 9, 1771, as he prepared to dash off to Williamsburg. Washington, always self-conscious about his own lack of formal education, was concerned that his stepson, John Parke Custis, needed to expand his book knowledge before undertaking a “tour of travelling.” Such a journey, which became known as the “Grand Tour” for aspiring gentlemen–and some ladies–was how one acquired a useful knowledge of the larger world. Washington and Boucher had a close friendship, but Boucher was an ardent Loyalist and ultimately had to return to England because of his opposition to the American Revolution. Read what advice Washington offered about his stepson’s education in the full letter here.
Written to her husband, John Adams, in March of 1776, this is Abigail Adams’ most famous line. The larger letter it is drawn from, I would argue, is a must-read for all students of American history. It represents an early call for women’s rights in our country (although securing the right to vote would take another 144 years), and expresses her concern about the relationship between human nature and unlimited power. It’s definitely worth a read.
Lafayette wrote this in a letter to his father-in-law, the duc d’Ayen. The letter continues: “I shall not speak much for fear of saying foolish things; I will risk still less for fear of doing them, for I am not disposed to abuse the confidence which they have deigned to show me. Such is the conduct which until now I have followed and will follow.” Please note, translations of this letter differ slightly by monograph; this was drawn from the work of historian George Athan Billias.
Wise words from our third president on anger and self-control. It is still helpful advice, don’t you think? This is just one of many axioms that Jefferson included in a letter to Paul Clay, the son of his friend Charles Clay, in 1817. Read the full letter for more.
Speaking of sage advice, here are a couple more gems, taken from George Washington’s “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.” Contrary to what many people assume, he did not write them. Rather, these were common maxims that a teenage Washington copied down as part of his education.
The basis of this text is a book of precepts called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation,” which Washington transcribed by hand while still a teenager. Offering advice on everything from personal conduct to eating in public, Washington took the text’s 110 axioms to heart—and historians identify it as an important factor in his early development. If you know a young person who could similarly benefit from its teachings, check out this kid-friendly version.
Another gem from Abigail Adams, this time written to her sister, Eliza Peabody. If you’d like to read more of her correspondence, see “Founders Online,” a free, searchable resource created by our colleagues at the National Archives.
If you took a political science course, you most likely—or should have, rather—read at least a sampling Thomas Paine’s work. The essays and pamphlets that he published during the American Revolution were incredibly influential. That’s not to say his work wasn’t also controversial (his thoughts on the French Revolution earned a stint in a French prison), but his accessible, persuasive writing style made it possible for the masses to read and understand his argument for American Independence. This particular quote is the opening line from the first installment of “The Crisis,” a series of pamphlets published between 1776 and 1783. If you haven’t read it since college, it is another piece that is worth revisiting. Read all of the installments here.
A nice sentiment on life and love, written by Jefferson to his older sister, Mary Jefferson Bolling, in 1787. Read the full letter here.
This quote is drawn from Federalist No. 49, written by James Madison (under the pseudonym “Publius”) in 1788. Read the full essay here.
This quote meme was created in advance of the vice-presidential debate in early October. Adams did not think much of the vice-presidency, but as we pointed out in the post that accompanied this quote, there’s good reason to care about the office. From John Tyler taking over after William Henry Harrison’s unexpected death (just a month after his inauguration in 1841) to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 (after the Watergate scandal) a total of nine vice presidents have had to assume the presidency. Read Adams’ complete letter here.
Hear, hear. Read Jefferson’s complete letter, and then check out Jefferson’s catalog of books (totaling 6,700 titles) which he sold to the American government to replace the congressional library destroyed by the British during the War of 1812.
Remember my earlier point about our Founders being real people with different opinions, personalities, and agendas? This quote offers a good example. Alexander Hamilton’s ongoing feud with Aaron Burr—which culminated in Burr killing Hamilton in a duel in 1804—is well-documented. Yet Hamilton and Burr were not the only early American politicians with beef, so to speak. For more on this topic, see Paul Aaron’s “Founding Feuds: The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts that Forged a Nation.”
Washington wrote this passage on religious freedom in a letter to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia in 1789. Are there parallels to be drawn today? Read the full letter and decide for yourself.
Read Jefferson’s complete letter to John Cartwright here.
Finally, perhaps the most applicable quote of this entire post. Let us all find a way to make 2017 a year of progress, inclusion, and cooperation. Even if our politicians won’t do it, we, the American people, can certainly do it ourselves.