WASHINGTON—Presidents Day is when we celebrate leaders who helped make America great. It's important to remember the first president, George Washington, was part of a remarkable group steeped in an education and faith that helped create this free, prosperous, powerful nation.
Sadly, today's students aren't learning the true forces behind America's founding. That's why author Jenny Cote is trying to help young people catch up on the wonderful things they don't know about our founding fathers.
"They studied ancient civilizations, and I don't mean just like AP History and dates and facts. They studied how governments work. They studied ancient Rome, ancient Greece. They studied philosophy, how men thought," she explains.
Making Kids Fall in Love with History
Cote wrote The Voice, the Revolution and the Key to better connect our younger generation with America's founders.
"My life's purpose is to get kids excited about history and make them fall in love with it," she said. "You have to make history fun, you have to make it personal, and you have to make kids care. Well how do you make them care? You make it relevant to them."
Cote uses talking animals to help the future leaders when they're children. One is a young Benjamin Franklin reading in-depth about ancient leaders' character, virtues and vices in a book many adults might find hard to understand.
"Plutarch's Lives — Benjamin Franklin, 11 years old, that was his favorite book. Have you read Plutarch's Lives? I just read it to write this book, and it's pretty complicated."
Young George Washington wrote in long-hand 110 principles put together by Jesuits about how to live right and be a gentleman.
"What 12-year-old today do you think would take the time to have a journal and to hand-write out rules of civility and civil discourse?" Cote asked. "He wrote down these principles so he would learn them. And our founding father, the head of them all, George Washington, this was ingrained in him young."
She added, "All of the founding fathers were raised to be respectful, good citizens."
They Learned All About Greece, Rome, Right and Wrong
"They studied the mistakes of mighty empires like Rome and the intellectuals of Greece, learning what went wrong. They clearly understood their God-given natural rights and their long-held rights and responsibilities as proud Englishmen. And that's why they valued freedom and liberty. They learned from history how precious freedom truly is, and how vigilant a people must remain to hang onto it," Cote wrote in a commentary for CNSNews.
Colonial society at that time was pretty much based on the lessons and literature of Christianity, which imbued good students with morals, virtues and civility.
"Children were learning their ABC's based on Bible characters," Cote said. "Learning not to take the Lord's name in vain, for example, and to love your school and respect others. They were learning all these general principles in their classrooms."
As Cote put it, "And my grandmother always said, 'What goes into the first of life goes throughout all of life'."
'There is a Just God Who Presides...'
Today's public schools not only don't teach out of the Bible, they don't teach how important Christianity was to the founding fathers. Or they maybe just suggest founders like Washington were deists, believing only in a distant, uninvolved God.
Yet Washington stated after surviving a battle where his coat was punctured by numerous bullets and two horses were shot dead beneath him, "I was saved by the miraculous care of Providence that saved me beyond human expectation."
Patrick Henry — the man who shouted "Give me liberty or give me death" — also stated, "There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations."
As a young man, Patrick Henry was right in the middle of the First Great Awakening and the battle for greater religious liberty in the colonies.
"The war for religious freedom was happening under his own roof," Cote said, explaining that Henry's father and uncle were Anglicans in Virginia's state church. "However, his mother Sarah was a bit of a rebel, and she went with this new Great Awakening dissenter movement."
She would take her son to hear evangelists preach in this first national revival, the first event to unite all the colonies. Many of these preachers were illegal because they weren't part of the official state church.
"Patrick Henry saw early on this struggle for religious freedom. When he grew up and became a lawyer, he had a heart for Baptist ministers. He would represent them for free when they were thrown in prison for preaching the Word of God. And he would anonymously pay their bail to get them out."
How One Voice can Change the World
Listening to these fiery preachers during the First Great Awakening helped form Henry into the mighty orator eventually labeled the Voice of the Revolution. His voice for freedom and stand against the high taxes of the Stamp Act helped ignite the Revolution.
"A decade before we even declared independence, he was the first one to speak up against tyranny," Cote explained.
She added, "That's when Sam Adams and the boys in the Sons of Liberty said, 'Look at these guys in Virginia. We need to be that bold.' So, isn't it amazing how one voice speaking up for liberty against tyranny can change the world?"
Henry and Adams joined many bold leaders educated for just that moment in time.
Cote said in their younger years, "They were learning who are the heroes of history, what they did right, what they did wrong. What governments worked, what governments did not. They learned mankind over time. So as they grew, they were inspired and encouraged. And they knew, 'okay this didn't work in the past. Let's make something new that we can try that's never been tried before.'"
'They Could Smell a Tyrant Coming 3,000 Miles Away'
But most important of all, Cote explained, "They understood that liberty was precious. Because it had been oppressed over the centuries and they studied it. And so because they studied what worked in history, they could smell a tyrant coming 3,000 miles away. And they were ready."
Still, they weren't hotheads. As King George III oppressed them more and more, they tried for peaceful solutions.
Cote called it, "A decade working with the king, saying, 'Hey, let's work this out here.' And they tried diplomacy, they tried negotiation, they tried laying their case before the king and Parliament. They did all that they could do before they finally had to take drastic measures."
Cote said of Thomas Jefferson, "He did say revolution is good every now and then, but done right. It doesn't mean you go right to the guns."
He, too, like many of his fellow revolutionaries had studied the political and philosophical masters.
Such as, Cote pointed out, "Montesqiueu, Locke: in fact Jefferson would have read many of the words that he penned and used right in our Declaration of Independence."
Study the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Though she certainly admires the founders, Cote in her books doesn't shy away from their failures and shortcomings, like Patrick Henry owning slaves.
"I'm showing his struggle with slavery. Like where he says, 'It is a lamentable evil. I cannot justify if. I cannot believe I'm a Christian, yet I do this. There's no excuse.'"
But the author finds it horrible that schools are shying away from teaching the great and good stories of America's first decades and its founders just because of their dark side.
Skipping the Founding, Revolution and Civil War
"To the point where I heard recently," Cote exclaimed, "some school curriculums are going to start teaching in 1866. 'Oh, let's just skip over the whole founding of our nation. Because it's too painful.' And this is the danger in that: Santayana said 'those who don't remember their history are doomed to repeat it.'"
She argued, "You need to show all the history: the good, the bad and the ugly. And, yup, the dark side of it. But don't throw away the good, because that is what we're missing here in today's culture."
Along with the National Park Service, Cote holds Patriot Camps with kids and asked past students what will happen if children don't learn their nation's history.
She recounted, "They said 'we'll lose our future.' And I said 'whose responsibility is it to keep telling the stories of our history?' And you know what they said? 'It's ours.' So, if kids are willing to own it, let's just teach it to them."