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Jay Paterno: America Then and Now

by on July 28, 2011 5:44 AM

This summer I took my family with me to some of the places that I cherish in this country. On a warm Sunday I took them to the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and into Independence Hall in Philadelphia. About a week and a half later we traveled to Virginia to see Monticello and then stroll through the grounds at the University of Virginia.

We've taken them into the White House, to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials as well as the World War II Memorial. In Massachusetts, I have taken my sons to John Adams home. These are places that I, as an American, hold in my heart as special and meaningful. As we traveled, I hoped they'd understand the significance of these places.

In Independence Hall they were excited to walk in George Washington's footsteps. At Monticello it was "cool" to be in Thomas Jefferson's house and run on the same lawn where Jefferson had races for his grandchildren.

But the substance of these places is that they resonate beyond our own country. The events and the words crafted by these men in these places echo through the years and beyond our shores. As we took our tour of Independence Hall we were joined by visitors from around the country as well as from countries like Russia, China, Germany and Brazil.

Why America?

At the Liberty Bell Center I saw a powerful example of what makes us unique. Near the entrance, we stood right in front of a tour group from China. On the grass just yards away, a large group of Chinese people practiced meditation from their spiritual discipline of Falun Gong.

Falun Gong has been banned by a Chinese government crackdown on the spiritual practice. Thousands of miles from home, these visiting Chinese citizens saw a religious freedom they lacked at home.

Less than a block away, Thomas Jefferson had presented words that still ring across the planet: "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."

Thomas Jefferson also wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom establishing a true separation of church and state in the new nation. His words and his legacy really helped create the nation that would allow that group on Independence Mall to openly practice their beliefs without fear.

America has been what John Winthrop called us to be almost 400 years ago. He left for the New World, where he would later become the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He told his fellow colonists as they set sail: "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill and that the eyes of all people are upon us."

Seeing the people visiting our historic sights reaffirmed that for me – the eyes of all people are upon us still.

With the events unfolding in Congress these days, I am reminded of my visit to Independence Hall. In Independence Hall is the chair on which George Washington sat during the Constitutional Convention. On the back of the chair is a sun. After the Constitution was agreed upon, Ben Franklin remarked that, as he had been looking at the sun on the chair, he didn't know if it was rising or setting on the new nation. With the new Constitution finished, he told everyone that he knew that the sun was rising on this country.

This week in Washington, the question is whether the leaders in Congress, exercising their role as one of three separate but equal branches of our government, are setting us on a course where the sun will start to set or whether they can successfully compromise and reach an agreement.

Again I quote Thomas Jefferson from his 1801 inaugural address, one that followed a very contentious election: "But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

The political processes involved in governing right now may not be perfect, but it was set in motion all those years ago. I've often wondered whether Jefferson and Adams even remotely dreamed that the words they emerged with from a rented room in Philadelphia would still resonate across the globe 235 years later.

Did the men at the Constitutional Convention realize that their compromise and their framework would still be our governing document more than two centuries later?

Their framework has been a blessing and a curse to us at times. It allows us unrivaled freedoms and ensures by the separation of powers that no one branch, no one person, can dominate or greatly alter the freedoms we've been given.

Even in these days when Congress has been unable to form a consensus, I am reminded of words that Jefferson wrote to Adams late in their lives. The words capture the essence of America and her people – people who have always maintained optimism based in America's ability to climb ever onward and upward.

Jefferson wrote: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."

As much as I love the history of this country, I, too, prefer the dreams of the future.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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