Thanksgiving is perhaps our most solemn national holiday. It’s an occasion for counting our blessings as Americans, and for reconnecting with the countless benefits of family, friends, food and freedom.
On this Thanksgiving, one of our nation’s great leaders, Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., has assembled a treasury of the wisdom of our nation’s founders. How timely is his new book, “America: The Founders’ Vision.”
It’s hard to think of a more appropriate holiday gift, and it’s one that should appeal to everyone. Graham has gone to the mother lode of wisdom: the words of John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and others for the essence of what it means to be an American.
Graham was born in Louisville in 1933. He attended Male High School, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Studying law became a path not to Wall Street but to international service for the American people. As a former senior U.S. diplomat, he has become a leading authority in international arms control and non-proliferation, being involved in all the major arms agreements of the late 20th century.
He served five presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, and has been both a registered Democrat and Republican. His father, Thomas Graham Sr., was a leading Democratic politician in Louisville who made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1948.
But his cousin, Melvin Laird, was Nixon’s secretary of defense and, despite differences in ideology, remained close to the Graham family. (Not all serious all the time, Graham loves horse-racing. His dad was a longtime member of the board of Churchill Downs and his mom was a terrific handicapper. He’s attended virtually every Derby in his lifetime.)
In this autumn of international discontent, fed in part by nuclear saber-rattling by the North Koreans, guidance from Graham is especially valuable. And because he uses the words of our founders — not the distorted rhetoric of our national political dialogue in the era of Donald Trump — there is a timeless and reassuring quality to the prose he chooses.
Among the sections of this book that are most instructive is one dealing with the founders’ attitudes about the people who should be entrusted with leadership in America.
This is from Samuel Adams, discussing “the moral character of the President and other public servants”:
“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extent, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote much of the Declaration of Independence and was known for his honesty: “The whole are of government consists in the art of being honest.”
In Graham’s section of the book dealing with his specialty, foreign policy, he recalls these timeless words from George Washington in his Farewell Address (1796): “Observe good faith and justice toward all Nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
These leaders of our infant republic gave much thought to preserving liberty. Certainly free speech and press were vital to that cause, as simply stated by James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights: “It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be a permanently a free people.”
Most of the founders in this volume were slaveowners, a taint that is difficult to ignore. But a number of them, including John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson, struggled mightily with a nation half-slave and half-free.
John Adams, who was a crusty New England abolitionist, made his views clear. So did his son, John Quincy Adams, among the most effective 19th century opponents of slavery.
The younger Adams wrote this to “the coloured people of Pittsburgh, Pa.,” in 1843: “We know that the day of your redemption must come. The time and manner of its coming we know not. It may come in peace, or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or in blood, let it come.”
Most of the founders were men, a historical fact. But Graham has wisely expanded the chorus to include one woman, the formidable Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, who was a voluminous writer and thinker:
“I feel anxious for the fare of our monarchy, or democracy, or whatever is to take place. I soon get lost in a labyrinth of perplexities; but whatever occurs, may justice and righteousness be the stability of our times, and order arise out of the confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.”
The wisdom that Graham expresses through his selection of quotes is remarkable. His earliest experience with a president came in 1962, when, as a young congressional aide, he met with John F. Kennedy aboard Air Force One at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In addition to President Kennedy, who was assassinated 54 years ago today, Graham expresses great admiration for the late Gerald Ford, whose unelected presidency was short but put the nation on solid ground after Watergate. One hopes that Graham will consider assembling a similar volume with words of wisdom from some of our 20th century leaders.
Surely this exchange from Benjamin Franklin was in the mind of Ford when he took office in the shadow of the Nixon Resignation.
“A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic’,” replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it’.”
And so we still do have a republic, despite its continuing challenges. May we all give thanks for that today.
Keith L. Runyon is the retired editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal, where he was a writer and editor for 43 years.
America: The Founders’ Vision
By Thomas Graham Jr.
Foreword by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
192 pp., $24.95