Politics & Policy

The Good Father

Examples real and symbolic.

Richard Brookhiser

John Howland was a private in a Rhode Island regiment early in the Revolution. This story is not about his father, but about his commander-in-chief, the father of his Country.

The Americans captured Trenton, New Jersey, after the dramatic crossing of the Delaware at the end of December 1776. On January 2 8,000 British and Hessians marched from their garrison in Princeton, determined to take it back. A thousand Americans were assigned to delay their advance down the Post Road. Almost six thousand more Americans were stationed outside Trenton, across Assunpink Creek, on a height, from which their artillery could fire. The Americans on the Post Road were supposed to harry the enemy as much as possible, then, when they had fallen back on Trenton, retreat across a single bridge to safety on the other side of the creek.

The American delaying force was in sporadic contact with the enemy all afternoon. They reached Trenton about four o’clock; night would fall at a quarter to five. The flashing of the muzzles of muskets was visible in the dusk. We know what the retreat over the bridge felt like from John Howland’s recollections years later. “The bridge was narrow, and our platoons in passing it were crowded into a dense and solid mass, in the rear of which the enemy were making their best efforts.” Narrow, crowded, dense: He is not saying that he panicked, but clearly it was an option. On the far side of the creek, “[t]he noble horse of General Washington stood with his breast pressed close against” the bridge rail. Washington was watching. But Howland was watching too. “[T]he firm, composed and majestic countenance of the General inspired confidence and assurance.” Almost at the moment of safety, the soldier had an even closer contact. “At the end of the bridge, I pressed against the shoulder of the General’s horse and in contact with the boot of the General. The horse stood as firm as the rider, and seemed to understand that he was not to quit his post and station.” So, in that moment, did the retreating teenager. General Washington was there; Pvt. Howland could do what he must.

The next day, the Americans won the Battle of Princeton; over the next five and a half years, they won their war. But the moment on the bridge over the creek still shines 230 years laters. By being brave, and by being there, fathers show their sons, literal or symbolic, how to be likewise.

  Richard Brookhiser is an NR senior editor and author of What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers.

S. T. Karnick

There weren’t many good father figures in my neighborhood when I was growing up, and not in my home, either. Fortunately, there were some in the media, and the most important of all for me was Sheriff Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show. Every evening at 6:00, the show appeared in reruns on a local TV station, and I watched every episode.

Sheriff Taylor represented the law, of course, but he had sympathy for others and understood why they did what they did. While silly Deputy Barney Fife strived to put as many people in jail as possible, Sheriff Andy’s goal was to keep order by equipping people to understand what was best for them. He enforced the law wisely, overlooking minor technical violations, to ensure that it served its purpose of keeping public order and encouraging self-reliance and personal responsibility.

That was how he raised his son, Opie. Bringing up the boy without a mother, the busy widower paid what seemed to me an amazing amount of attention to Opie. When Opie did something wrong, Andy punished him, but made it clear that the goal was to enable Opie to think out for himself the rights and wrongs of situations and freely choose to do what’s right.

Andy Taylor was a great character: patient, calm, intelligent, humble, patriotic, Christian, responsible, commonsensical, and compassionate. I wanted to be like him. I’m not, after all, much like him, but so much better than I would have been without his example.

 S. T. Karnick is an Associate Fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.

Ed Morrow

Vermont farmers have a reputation for taciturnity. No question seems to produce more than a “Yep,” “Nope,” or “Don’t know about that.” At least, that is, when the questioner is an outsider. In their private conclaves, conversations can be more elaborate, with embellishments that might reach a full dozen words. My dad was a Vermont farmer but, by community standards, he was eccentric. He got up to two dozen words and, in garrulous moments, might break the three dozen mark. Dad employed his few words deftly and people enjoyed talking to him because he was an interested listener. He wasn’t nosey-the elderly ladies who listened in on our party line telephone were nosey-it was just, for him, everyone had a story to tell, some marvel to relate, or knowledge to share. “Ask,” he used to tell me, “Never know when you’ll learn something useful.”

Dad could strike up a conversation with anyone, be it a gas station attendant, our priest, the guy at the feed store, the crankiest curmudgeon of a neighbor, or someone who just wandered by our farm while Dad was out working in the fields. He’d call out and ask what were they up to, how’s it going, or where’re you heading. Somehow, he always knew what mundane question would pull a fulsome answer. If, on his way to milk the cows, he’d run into the King of Sweden, he’d have had His Highness talking about how tight his crown was or if the Prince’s baseball team was going to win the championship, or if being king was a good job, before he reached the barn door.

People would tell my Dad all sorts of things that they’d not tell anyone else. He heard their fancies, schemes, fears, and victories. Dad had an open, innocently curious countenance that invited trust. Kids, in particular, liked to talk to him. A passing boy with a fishing pole would brag about how many trout he intended to catch. A couple of berry picking girls would debate high fashion, or at least, high fashion amongst the sixth grade set. Once, when he was sitting on my city-living cousin’s porch, a passing teenager paused to tell him how her boyfriend was mixed up with drugs and how she was tempted to try them. “Stuff makes you stupid, doesn’t it?” he’d asked and added, “Not much point in that.” It was simple criticism of a complex quandary and I asked him later if he thought she’d followed her boyfriend’s bad example. “Nope,” he answered. “She’s too smart.” He spoke with the assurance of someone who knew and he did know for he’d taken the time to listen. And isn’t that what we all want-someone who listens and laughs at our jokes and sighs at our troubles and tries to understand, someone who knows us.

My dad has been dead for many years but I still hear his questions and try my best to ask my own.

 – Edward Morrow is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including The Halloween Handbook

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest