February 22, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Centuries apart in fact, but not in spirit

Cynthia DewesDespite the fact that we already celebrated it on President’s Day earlier in the week, today is George Washington’s actual birthday. It is also the birthday of our granddaughter, Hannah, which brings me to mull over the different eras that the two birthday people live(d) in.

Does Hannah live in the same country George did—or even the same world? Hmmm. We all think we know the answer to that, but it’s something to consider without revisionist attitudes. That is, remembering that (George) was then, and this (Hannah) is now, how do their lives compare?

Of course, George was a man in a man’s world. He could be a surveyor, a soldier, an active patriot, while his wife and other women could only be wives, mothers, spinster aunts and maybe governesses. Period.

Hannah has more options in every area than women had in George’s time, including domestic, professional and political.

Physical existence was harder in George’s day. The basic requirements of living—as in food production and preparation, laundry, heating the home and so on—were all labor-intensive, time-consuming tasks.

Today, in Hannah’s world, technology and machinery perform most of our basic chores.

This might lead some to conclude that people are rather superfluous now compared to the old days.

Families needed lots of boys to work the family farm or send down the mine, and lots of girls to keep up the house or care for the chickens and garden. Eking out even a basic existence required many hands. Now, we battle a trend toward Zero Population, aiming only for “wanted” children.

Communication back in the 18th century was slow and undependable. By the time a courier arrived with a vital message, a battle could be over or a government overthrown.

Today, we watch on television at the very moment that terrorists destroy skyscrapers in New York. But whatever despair that George felt when he heard about the latest bad turn of events, Hannah may feel also, although she hears the news sooner.

During George’s time, interaction with the rest of the world was necessarily limited by poor communication as well as by physical distance. The “old countries” of England, France and Spain were chiefly political and trade foils, while most of the world was still beyond our attention. In Hannah’s day, we are part of worldwide governing bodies and a global economy.

When George was around, religion was a major force in most people’s lives. This included Puritanism in New England, deism among the intelligentsia and Catholicism in Maryland, not to mention several versions of Native American beliefs.

Today, Hannah is probably part of a much smaller population who claim faith and attend religious services regularly.

Still, despite the differences between centuries, it seems to me that George and Hannah experience American life in similar ways that really count.

The first of these has to be the concept of personal freedom. George was one of the first Americans to believe in freedom for all—and to help establish it—while Hannah is a present-day American still enjoying that democratic freedom.

George worked to offer justice to all citizens through the rule of law, a law by which Hannah and her peers still live.

I think events like the current increased interest in our national elections, especially among the young, prove that such similarities exist.

Somehow, despite two centuries of change, George and Hannah still live by the unique U.S. Constitution.

God still blesses America.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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