We can learn a lot from studying the American founders, not just about politics and law, but also about life. Of course they had their flaws. But they were reared in a culture that was more morally serious, more religious, and more acquainted with suffering. We, in contrast, have been raised in a culture that is morally slack, religiously indifferent, and accustomed to comfort and ease. It can therefore be an elevating experience to turn to the founders’ writings, even their reflections on the challenges of ordinary life.
A good friend of mine recently called a fine example to my attention, an example provided by the Great Chief Justice, John Marshall. Marshall’s closest colleague on the Supreme Court was Joseph Story. In the summer of 1831 they exchanged letters. Story had the sad task of informing his friend that one of the Story children had died of an incurable illness. Marshall wrote back that he and Mrs. Marshall had suffered the same experience in the course of their life together. The loss of children was not uncommon in those days before modern medicine.
A few months later, Marshall closed another letter to Story as follows:
“Present my most respectful good wishes to Mrs. Story. I indulge the hope that both of you have recovered firmness enough to receive the dispensations of providence, however severe, with a mindfulness of the great duties which still remain to be performed. With esteem and affection yours truly.”
This remark breathes an attitude towards life that we don’t seem to encounter so much today. There is the recollection that whatever comes, however hard it is to bear, is a dispensation of providence, and so must be bearable with the help of God. Moreover, there is a sense that ordinary life is full of lofty responsibilities that we must fulfill right up to the end. Marshall was not here writing to Story about the work of the Supreme Court but about family life, his life and Mrs. Story’s. He affirms that that life has “great duties” that must be performed. Marshall was not a Catholic, but he had evidently absorbed from America’s dominant Protestant culture something of what modern Catholics call “the universal call to holiness”–the idea that even everyday life is an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to serve others to the best of our abilities.
This exchange of letters, by the way, can be found in the Library of America’s John Marshall: Writings.