Commentary 'We're still a proud, generous, and I hope righteous nation'

Editors's note: "Dear Sgt. Hosbrook" is a letter to a soldier who fought in the American Revolution and later froze to death on the frontier, updating him on how America has evolved since gaining our freedom. He would be both pleased and concerned.

Dear Sgt. Hosbrook, though you are my ancestor, I thought it only fitting and proper to address you by your rank and title in that great war for independence that we are celebrating some 242 years later. As an officer in the First New Jersey Regiment of General Washington's Continental Line, you were well aware of the blood and treasure being sacrificed to break free from a pompous and tyrannical British king.

Given that your unit survived a brutally cold winter at Valley Forge, it is both sad and ironic that you later froze to death bringing salt back from the fort for your family in the frontier wilderness. Fighting fatigue and a fierce wind, your knees finally buckled beneath you as you collapsed and were soon blanketed by blizzard snow.

You would not recognize that thickly-forested section of the Northwest Territory even a few years later as hardy pioneers, including you descendants, began carving farms, commerce, and communities out of the wilderness. One of your offspring wrote that "the hum of industry was heard, and the forests for miles around resounded with the woodman's stroke; the settlement increased."

With God's guidance and providence, our thirteen colonies of your day have grown to a global power, a nation of fifty states and, by any measure, immense wealth. Yet to be truthful, I fear that we may be losing some of the core qualities that have defined who we are as a people and nation.

Your grandson, a state engineer and legislator, wrote to his father on his 80th birthday as follows: "Respected Father, in looking over the record of your children and grandchildren, I believe there is not a drunkard, swearer, vagabond, or beggar among them, and I now pledge that none of my children ever shall be."

Our Founding Fathers knew that the republic which they designed - that invested so much power in the people and our democratic institutions - required restraints on man's greed and lust for power. Thus they designed a system of checks and balances, but one which required an informed and moral citizenry to sustain it. While we still have separation of church and state, government and commerce must be in the hands of people infused with an honesty and integrity that most naturally and easily flows from a religious upbringing and respect for a Creator.

You would be pleased by what one of our ancestral cousins, a missionary in remote India back in 1898, wrote of the American people of his era: "Righteousness has exalted this nation. The priceless blessings she reaps were sown for her at the stake, in the dungeon, and through the toil and sacrifices of generations of pure-souled men and women."

Sgt. Hosbrook, our ancestral cousin spoke of an American people who had a deep gratitude for the country they had inherited. But you cannot be grateful for something of which you have little knowledge. Imagine living in a mansion that you know not how or by whom it was built and whose maintenance you have invested in a work crew of devious and dishonest people.

Another century further on in our history, I fear for two pillars of that American mansion. One is that many of our young people have little interest in knowing our history. Not knowing becomes not caring. And, secondly, a search for "pure-souled men and women who toil and sacrifice" in our state and federal governments for the people's benefit might net only a handful of those who represent us.

Having lived most of my own life, Sgt. Hosbrook, I want to thank you for your generation's sacrifices which laid the foundation for that beautiful mansion we have inherited. If the roof's leaking, we will fix it. We're still a proud, generous, and I hope righteous nation. On our birthday, the Fourth of July, may we celebrate the best of America and redouble our effort to honor - and know - our history.

James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.