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Two Monday evenings ago, the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, held a tribute for its recently retired executive director, Peter Schramm. It was at once a triumphant, inspiring, and sad occasion. Schramm has recently been diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of cancer.
Under Dr. Schramm’s more than quarter century guidance, Ashbrook has emerged as one of a small number of institutions dedicated to preserving and enlivening a vibrant understanding of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American tradition of self-government. Claremont Institute (Schramm was an early president and one of its four founders) in Claremont, Calif. is another of these think tanks and schools. Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. is one, too.
Schramm’s Ashbrook is, as its website says, “one of the nation’s leading providers of… training for (middle and high school) teachers of American history and government” including a unique-in-the-nation masters program, taught in summers (and online during the school year). Before the evening tribute I sat in on a class session. It focused on a passage in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography that described a small reading group Franklin assembled of tradesmen like himself. These friends of Ben ultimately comprised the core founders of the nation’s first public library. Listening to the class discussion led by Professor Christopher Flannery, another Claremont founder, this momentary student felt he was coming to a new appreciation of the warp and woof of a free and self-governing society – the kind of society where, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote four decades after Franklin, people organized themselves to fill community needs, not waiting for government to step in.
Peter Schramm was born in Hungary shortly after the Second World War and with his parents fled to the United States following the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising a decade later. On the eve of the family’s covert departure (the communists would have shot them if word of their plans had got out) Schramm asked his father, “Where are we going?” “To America,” his father replied. “Why America?” “Because, son, we were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”
It was clear during the Monday’s tribute that the father’s fierce dedication to the nation as the founders conceived it and the pioneers built it burns in the son today. A panel of Schramm friends, including another Claremont founder, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, was, as planned, very much a roast, but it never lost sight of their honoree’s deep, erudite, and eclectic Americanism.
Teaching has been central to that Americanism. Schramm once wrote, “In this unique country — this novus ordo seclorum — citizens have to be made because it is not enough that they be born.”
Political conservatism has been part of it, too. Some years ago, Schramm co-wrote with Thomas B. Silver, the fourth of Claremont’s founders, a passage of particular relevance today:
“In the broad sense our ‘law’ refers to our ‘way of life’ and that way of life is democratic. Accordingly, conservatism has been more constructive and successful in American political life when it has been able to link itself to the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln is the supreme example of this…. [H]e chose to understand what is low in American life in light of what he regarded as high, namely, the Declaration of Independence.”
Whatever the future holds for this brilliant man, as has been sung of others of such convictions, His truth is marching on.