My wife would tell you that since we began traveling together, I’ve “dragged her to every pretty, old courthouse that we’ve come across.” As I write this on vacation, with her having literally just said that very thing to companions we met while traveling, I begin to think why it is that no matter where I am, from nearby Riverside (beautifully restored old courthouse) to Newport, Rhode Island, I want to see the courthouses. I’ve written before about how the American concept of justice constantly inspires me, and that is definitely part of it. But why, when I’m on vacation, do I want to stand in the presence of courthouses?
As an attorney, my first instinct was (of course) to argue, telling my wife that I didn’t drag her to courthouses when we were in Europe. However, I then realized that many cities in Europe don’t have old, traditional courthouses like we do in the United States. Sure, England has a history of jurisprudence, but in far too many countries, trials were (and in some cases still are) carried out in private, with verdicts decided before the first witness is called.
While in Newport, we learned about George Washington’s first trip to Rhode Island while trying to ratify the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. He was received joyously by the people of the town, and certain of his words have stuck with me since reading them on a plaque:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was but for the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
It was in reading these words of the father of our nation that my desire to seek out courthouses that date back to colonial times began to make sense. To me, the ideals on which our nation was founded are those that we sometimes, criminally, overlook and forget. Rather than look backwards to find feelings that previous generations chose to throw aside and move past, we should look all the way back to find the principles and ideals that necessitated our forefathers to leave Europe for a new world where they could live their lives in the manner of their choosing, free from persecution.
All of this reflection reminded me of another quote often attributed to George Washington, this one based on Scripture. Here, he was talking about his vision for every American, but also his hope for retirement from private life:
“Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
At the end of the day, this is what we all truly want – to have our own sanctuary from the madness, to shelter our children from the bad in the world and to be able to live in peace and harmony without fear of attack. Too often, we read or even see what is becoming an epidemic amongst our youth – bullying. I’m not talking about the razzing that we all grew up with, but with the more vicious, pernicious strand of bullying that has increased with the youngest generation online.
For a generation whose entire lives are based in social media and their online personas, if the replies to your posts are threatening, or wish you to harm yourself, the world can seem even more isolating than it usually does. I wish so desperately to shield my children from this online hate, to keep them under the vine and fig tree as long as possible, but I know that at some point I must send them out into the world.
Despite what many in the press, or politicians, may tell us, we are a nation that was founded on principles of toleration and openness. There are members of the Bay Club that come from many different countries, backgrounds, and orientations. But we have all chosen to make this place our home. We all want to raise healthy and happy kids here. Let’s also try to raise tolerant kids – kids that George Washington could be proud of.
*A version of this article was originally published in Bay Window Magazine, November 2019