There is a church yard about two hours from Washington that contains the grave of a Revolutionary War general named John Cadwalader. I, repaired to it the other day in an effort to find an antidote for a book I have been reading.
The book is a big best-seller called "Looking Out for No. 1." If your mother, father, teacher, friend or religious instructor taught you anything about how to live, this book will attempt to undo it.
Don't bother with all those old values, is what it says. Never do anything because it's right. Never do anything for anybody unless it profits No. 1. Don't do anything else that doesn't profit No. 1. Friendship is for sale, and love and affection. Altruism is for suckors. Don't help a neighbor in distress. Don't even try to save a drowning man. Don't endanger No. 1.
I am not sure how deeply this philosophy has taken hold in the country, but I suspect that Americans who ask themselves, "Whatever happened to Richard Nixon?" might conclude that looking after No. 1 does in fact pay off pretty well. And it is a fact also that the book is a great success. Which bothers me. If looking out for No. 1 is to be the new American ethic, I've been doing a terrible job of trying to bring up children.
So as I say, I went out to look at Cadwalader's tomb, which bears an inscription written by his old enemy Thomas Paine. Cadwalader had been at the battles of Trenton, Monmouth and Brandywine. He was a close friend of Washington and had fought a duel with Gen. Conway over Conway's slurs on Washington's reputation. But Paine didn't mention any of this in his epitaph for Cadwalader's tomb. Nor did he permit differences in ideology to get in his way.
"His early and inflexible patriotism and his intrepid perserverance as a soldier, defying dangers and combatting misfortunes, will endear his memory to all true friends of the American Revolution." Paine began. Then he went straight to the more intimate values.
"It must be with the strictest justice be said of him, that he possessed a heart incapable of deceiving. His manners were formed on the strictest sense of honor, and the whole tenor of his life was governed by this principle.
"The companions of his youth were the companions of his manhood. He never lost a friend by insincerity nor gained one by deception. His domestic virtues were truly ecemplary and while they serve to endear the remembrance, they embitter the loss of him to all his numerous friends and connections."
I suppose the author of "Looking Out of No. 1" might smile at these words, recalling that what people say about you won't pay the grocery bill or enable you to retire with substantial wealth.
And yet the Cadwalader tombstone reminds me that the terms we choose or bestowing praise are indicative of the values we place not only upon another's character but also upon our own. Would we speak of honor, of sincerity, of being incapable of deceiving we thought these traits were merely for show?
I don't suppose that anyone would write today in the somewhat archaic style of Paine, but is it not a fact that Paine thought about Cadwalader embodies at least a part of our own notch of what is virtuous?
Just to test the argument: Would any of us like to have it said of him, "The whole tenor of his life was governed on a principle: That he looked out for No. 1"?