Founders’ ideas underlie American life today

Todd Brewster.
Todd Brewster.

“I’m a great believer that the founding principles continue to resonate in American life,” said Todd Brewster.

A journalist, author, and professor at Mt. Holyoke College, Brewster will orchestrate what’s envisioned as a deep look into some of the thinking in America’s founding documents to see how the founders’ ideals and principles show up in today’s America, helping shape the lives and interactions of today’s Americans.

“We define and redefine ourselves over and over again, but we’re always reaching back to touch the ‘first principles’ monument, and be reconnected to it,” Brewster said.

Brewster will moderate a panel discussion at the Ridgefield Library this Sunday, Jan. 27, at 2 p.m. to kick off “Revisiting the Founding Era,” a series of history programs that stretches into spring.

The panel for Sunday’s discussion includes: Connecticut Attorney General Will Tong; past president of the American CIvil Liberties Union (ACLU) and New York University law professor Nadine Strossen; Ridgefield High School history teacher and Ridgefield Teacher of the Year Jennifer DeJulio; and Western Connecticut State University history professor Leslie Lindenauer.

“There will be plenty of time for Q & A,” said the library’s program director, Lesley Lambton. “Teens and adults are encouraged to attend and engage in this important conversation.”

‘Check and restrained’

Brewster has chosen three specific expressions from well-known founders — two quotes, and an work of art — that will be the focal points for the discussion.

First is John Adams writing on the separation of powers that is realized in the Constitution’s balancing of legislative, executive and judicial authority. It’s from a 1775 letter to Richard Henry Lee.

“It is by balancing each of these Powers against the other two, that the Effort in Human Nature towards Tyranny can alone be checked and restrained…,” Adams wrote.

It’s a concern Brewster finds recurring in modern America as power consolidated in the presidency.

“The executive has actually been growing since the time of Lincoln, but there’s been a dramatic growth since the World War II period — not only in size, but in the power of the executive branch,” he said.

“Some of this was the outgrowth of historical events: the Great Depression and World War II and the Cold War.

“We’re starting to see what problems can come from an executive that has grown out of size,” he said.

Second is a quote from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe…”

Brewster relates this to the fierce debate currently ranging over asylum seekers and immigration.

“The nature of our being an asylum for the persecuted is being called into question today by those who feel we’ve been too willing to take in the persecuted from all parts of the world, and endanger the quality of our own society by being too willing to fulfil our mission to those who find themselves in dire straights in other parts of the world,” he said.

Brewster’s third selection is not a quote but an engraving showing British troops firing at close range into a crowd of unarmed colonials in 1770’s Boston Massacre. The engraving was done by Paul Revere.

The founders’ political ideals, and the habits of tolerance and democracy they inspire, are what hold Americans together as a nation, according to Brewster.

“We’re not bound by a common ethnicity. We’re not bound by a common religion,” he said. “We’re not bound by a common experience, even. But we’ve attached ourselves to these founding principles.”

Four other programs

The Revisiting the Founding Era series will have four other programs in the coming months.

Characters from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 will be brought to life by author and legal scholar Akhil Amar on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 3 p.m., at the library.

An illustrated talk about George Washington and his portrayal in art will be presented by art historian Michael Norris on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m., at the library.

A living history program for young people about slavery will be put on by Cheyney McKnight at Keeler Tavern Museum on Sunday, March 10.

A field trip to the John Jay Homestead in Katonah, N.Y., will include a lecture on Saturday, March 23, at 1 p.m. (TIckets are $20. Registration is at or call 203-438-5821).

Revisiting the Founding Era starts a new series called First Principles, which is co-sponsored by the Ridgefield Library, Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, the Ridgefield Historical Society, the Drum Hill Chapter of the DAR, Books on the Common, the Connecticut Project for the Constitution and the Ridgefield League of Women Voters.

It’s part of a three-year national initiative of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in partnership with the American Library Association and the National Constitution Center, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Grants to 100 public libraries across the country will spark public conversations about the founding era’s documents, ideas, and their influence today.

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