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Words from Winterbilt

February – the Presidents’ month & lessons

Shannon Bohrer

(2/2017) It’s February, one of my favorite months of each year. I like living where you experience four distinct seasons each year. One has the experience of each season, while looking forward to the next. In my little mind, February means that winter is past the midway mark and while still enjoying it, I am also looking forward. I guess in some ways it analogous or similar to life. I believe one should appreciate the present position they are in, reflect on the past - and at the same time look forward.

Of course February is also special because it’s president’s month. We have Lincoln’s birthday, President’s day, Washington’s Birthday and my birthday. I believe we are fortunate to live in a free country and we can celebrate our Presidents. There are many countries that do not want to celebrate some former leaders. The Unites States of America is 241 years old this year. And a large part of our continued existence as a free nation is because of our founding fathers. They created the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, two documents of immeasurable importance. February is a good month to reflect on the wisdom of former Presidents and the documents they created. What are some of the lessons from them?

The Declaration of Independence includes; "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,"

Those words were written in 1776 and for over 240 years we have celebrated the document, the words and the founding fathers that wrote them. I particularly like that the government derives its "… powers from the consent of the governed." We have the right to vote, to give our consent.

The Constitution was created after we won our independence, but that did not diminish or overshadow the Declaration of Independence, it added to the implied and implicit intent of the founding fathers.

The Constitution includes; "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America"

From my perspective the wording in the Constitution mirrors the meanings in our Declaration of Independence and cements the purpose of our democracy by using the words; "We the people," basically telling us it is our country. The purpose of the government with the Constitution is clear; "…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessing of Liberty to ourselves…" Words with noble meanings.

The opening words in both documents are very meaningful and they give us the perspective and vision of the founding fathers. The words and intent has not changed and the meaning of those words is just as important today as they were when written - maybe even more so today.

In our Constitution we also have the Amendments, which were deemed to be necessary to ensure ratification by the states. The very first Amendment gives us the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press and the rights of people to assemble and petition the government. The insights of the creators of the document to include so much in that first Amendment are instrumental to our continued democracy.

Our first president George Washington, said: "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

Knowledge is power and without a free press, I don’t know if our democracy would have continued for all this time. We are often told that we should not believe the press, yet it is our free press that ensures all of our freedoms and holds those in power accountable. Of course lately, we have segments within the press that produce phantom news stories, so it is good to be skeptical. But it was the free press that exposed the fake news.

In January of 1838, long before he was elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on "The Perpetuations of our political institutions." Part of the speech reads;

"…At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

I find those woods very powerful, not just in 1838, but also in 2017. And I believe he was correct. As a nation we seem to have segments with social habits of being fearful, especially of others. I believe it is healthy to question the motives of politicians and groups that want to divide, rather than unit. I agree with Mr. Lincoln, that if our nation would ever fail - it would be from within.

While it is good to be skeptical of the press and the government, maybe we should be mindful of President Franklin Roosevelt’s words; "Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."

In some ways it does not matter who in in charge of our government, we know that the leadership will change, just as the seasons change. During my lifetime I have heard a lot about how bad our government is, as if it should be expected. And yet our government continues to fulfill the words and meanings in our Constitution. The process has been long, fought with both progress and setbacks, and we still have a long road ahead of us.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said; "This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

We as a nation seem to be good at dividing ourselves – rather than uniting. Our history is our lesson and it is important to understand where we came from, where we are and the direction we travel. Our history is our map forward. Fear, anger and mistrust can divide us, could that be our enemies from within?

Read other articles by Shannon Bohrer