It’s July 4th, 1776.
Think about where America was in that moment: Blood in the streets. A revolution against an empire. Families ripped apart because a war forced them to choose sides. Hopeful successes on the battlefield repeatedly followed by dispiriting defeats. The uncertainty of victory, shrouded in the certainty of death and misery and suffering for what could be years…if they were lucky. It had only been a year since George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army, and the hardest years were still ahead for the loose coalition of patriots fighting for self-determination. Fighting, as we would call it today, for their country.
All of this while there wasn’t even a real country to speak of. “America” was just an idea. We were still nearly 13 years away from the election of General Washington as the first American president. In fact, on July 4, 1776, you were more likely to call yourself a “Virginian” or a “Pennsylvanian” than you were an “American.” What does one need in a crisis like that? They need something to turn to, something to turn inward toward that provides strength and solace and a higher calling. In the case of the Founders of the future United States of America, what they turned to was a philosophy called Stoicism.
Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. George Washington staged a reproduction of a play about Cato at Valley Forge in the winter of ‘77/’78 to inspire the troops. Patrick Henry cribbed lines from that play which we now credit to him: “Give me Liberty or give me death!” It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the United States might not have an independence day to celebrate if the Founding Fathers hadn’t been inspired by Cato, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
At the core of the American experiment was liberty. At the core of Stoicism we have not only a love of freedom, but the counterbalancing virtues to that freedom: Justice. Duty. Self-Control. Honor. Selflessness. These are the traits that were required not only in those dark days of revolution, as bloody footprints from starving soldiers marked the snows in New Jersey and New York, but also the traits needed equally now in moments of prosperity and plenty, division and distraction.
So today, while you’re grilling and relaxing with friends, remember that the comfort you enjoy now grew out of a philosophy that was made to embrace discomfort and to do the right thing, whatever the costs. Remember that the American victory over the British came first because a group of American Stoics first found victory over themselves.
Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” The Founding Fathers built a country on that very foundation. They employed the Stoic virtues like a hammer and chisel, like saw and nail, to master their passions, divisions, tempers, interests and strive to be something better—something more—than they were remotely capable of being in the years of their colonial youth.