Tag Archives: slavery

Compassion and empathy in the U.S. Constitution?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Empathy and compassion are two admirable human qualities that seem to be in short supply in today’s politically polarized world. Each one of us can change that tone if we try.

Declaration of Independence, U.S. ConstitutionAs the Independence Day holiday approaches each year, I reread the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. This time I mainly focused on the First Amendment. Here’s what it says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

When written, the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and petition were paramount to the effectiveness of not only the Constitution but to the life of the young Republic itself. That is why they are listed first.

In that straightforward paragraph is the recipe for freedom for the country’s population without hindrance from the government, as the founders and the people they represented had personally endured. They remembered too well the frustration of pleasing a king and conforming to a state-endorsed religion. Here, all were, are, and should be free to practice their religion or no religion, speak openly, gather freely, and petition their leaders unhindered by any authorities.

I see more than several sacred freedoms listed in these hallowed and cherished documents. I detect both empathy and compassion intentionally interwoven into the tapestry of documents that formed our great country.

Empathy is a teachable tool for compassion. If I am to be tolerant of others despite obvious differences, I have to listen to what their priorities, requests, and suggestions are. In that manner, I learn to be empathetic towards others no matter how I personally feel about the issue.

Mind you, I’m no expert on American history, the Constitution, or even empathy and compassion for that matter. I’m sharing from the viewpoint of my own personal experiences, both in receiving and giving of those two admirable traits. No more. No less.

national symbol, bald eagle

Our national emblem.

The Founding Fathers knew that this budding nation needed structure so that all who entered its borders would be treated equally. That concept wasn’t entirely accurate when the Constitution was written. Permitting slavery was an obvious exception. That’s why we have amendments, to change with the times, and like it or not, the times always bring change. Witness the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery after the Civil War.

The Founding Fathers devised our government with three separate but equal branches. The President and his appointees comprise the Executive Branch. Congress is the Legislative or law-making division. The Supreme Court is the third element of the federal government, the Judicial Branch.

hiking trail, Virginia

What path will we take?

None of the three branches has any more power over the other two branches of government. Historically, their influences tip, like a farmer milking on a three-legged stool. But when the job is finished, the stool returns to balance. That is by design.

As our country and its citizenry again approach this Fourth of July holiday in celebration of being a free democratic republic, we have important questions to answer. Can we, will we honor the wishes of our Founding Fathers by actively and intentionally living out the ideal they created? Can we be compassionate and empathetic to all persons we meet?

How we express our freedoms individually will shape the path and tenor collectively that this great nation takes. The question at hand today is this: Will compassion and empathy continue to be the thread that connects these precious First Amendment rights?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

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Traveling the Constitution Route, then and now

Montpelier by Bruce Stambaugh

Montpelier, home of James and Dolly Madison.

By Bruce Stambaugh

White, pink and yellow floral displays, both wild and domesticated, brightened the cold, steely overcast morning, invigorating our drive along Virginia’s historic Constitution Route.

Pastels predominated in the form of flashy forsythia bushes and clusters of buttery daffodils, showy pink magnolia petals, peach, cherry and redbud blossoms. Serviceberry bushes and flowering ornamentals showed their whites against winter’s dormant and dull remnants.

Familial signs at the gates of long lanes announced the names of many old money mansions of the sprawling plantations that now operate as horse and cattle farms all along the serpentine trail, officially known as Virginia Route 20. Mint Meadow, Gaston Hall, Hershey Hill, and Somerset were only a few of the rolling farms’ monikers.

Blooms at UVA by Bruce Stambaugh

Ornamental trees were in full bloom in Virginia.

Miles of fences, some white as the tree blossoms that kept them company, others stained soot black, still others meshed wire, lined the curvy route between Montpelier, James Madison’s home, and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural wonder.

Most of the meandering highway on the 40-minute drive closely followed the very route that these two founding fathers and United States presidents had traveled by horseback or carriage more than two centuries earlier.

At one of the lazy s-curves, with a greening meadow on the east side and a dense deciduous woodlot on the other, a Bald Eagle flew across in front of us. Its talons clutched a trailing tangle of leafy vines, likely the softer lining for its bulky stick nest.

Though we were traveling at a much faster pace in a much faster world, I couldn’t help but sense the history that had happened along this path and at the dignified homes we passed. Only now farmhands groomed the horses and fed the cattle instead of slaves.

Madison statue by Bruce Stambaugh

A lifesize statue of James and Dolly Madison accentuates the beautiful backyard at their historic homestead, Montpelier in Virginia.

At Montpelier, a spreading magnolia in full-bloom served as the backdrop for a life-sized bronze statue of James and Dolly Madison. Though slight in stature, both were giants in establishing the democratic and social courses for our fledgling republic.

The ingenious Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, and the meticulous Madison, the father of the Constitution, regularly rode the Constitution Route to each other’s homes to both socialize and pontificate.

To walk in their footsteps and see first hand their magnificent homes, slave quarters included, and to learn more about their magnificent minds and accomplishments was beyond inspirational. It was humbling and moving.

Exploring there was a refreshing retreat from the current turbulent and often selfish political times in which we find ourselves. Silently I wondered what these two great men would say about today’s state of affairs. At each location, the informative visitor centers helped answer that pondering.

Montpelier slave quarters by Bruce Stambaugh

Excavating the living and working areas of Madison's slaves at Montpelier is underway.

Jefferson and Madison, both learned visionaries who lived at opposite ends of the Constitution Route, were united in determining the direction the Constitution should take, that all people are created equal and endowed with specific freedoms.

Virginians will quickly point out that both men played prominent rolls in developing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Their joint influence is revealed in the law: “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” That concept was the first point Madison made in the Bill of Rights.

The two homesteads were fascinating to tour. The dedicated commitment of Jefferson and Madison to form, frame and cement certain rights, including the choice of religion sans government endorsement or coercion, made the Constitution the jewel in the crown neither president ever wanted to wear.

Monticello by Bruce Stambaugh

Thomas Jefferson's masterpiece, Monticello.

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