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Our missing moral compass.

Byline: Silvio Laccetti

Whether it relates to foreign policy, national government or civic and cultural life, we Americans are used to hearing a growing crescendo of voices telling us we have lost our moral compass.

Just what is it that has been lost?

I came to grips with this question as I considered the legacy of two September 11ths in American history. My deliberation began when a family friend, Frances Anderson of Leonia, New Jersey, rediscovered a 200-year-old family Bible as she prepared to leave her residence of 40 years.

This Bible was dedicated to her distant relative, the Rev. Benjamin Wooster of Fairfield, Vermont, by the then-governor of New York State, Daniel Tompkins, who was later vice president under James Monroe.

Inscribing the Bible, Tompkins commended the reverend for organizing and leading Fairfield, Vermont's militia to the critical battle of Plattsburgh, New York on September 11, 1814, during the War of 1812-14. Very soon, we will mark the bicentennial of this event.

As I began researching the history of this battle and this Bible, I soon established a reference point in George Washington's Farewell Address.

One of his most important exhortations to Americans concerned the role of religion (no special faith, no particular denomination) in fortifying our nation.

"...reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.''

Washington's affirmations embody a classical form of civic virtue wherein religious values and political freedom go together -- certainly an odd conception in today's world. But they come alive in the letters accompanying the nineteenth-century Bible.

Gov. Tompkins commends Rev. Wooster for his distinguished part in repelling a mighty British invasion of New York State. Wooster organized his parishoners and with them, "...repaired with alacrity to the tented field,'' spurning any special treatment once encamped.

The governor characterized Wooster's actions as a striking example of devotedness to the cause of a beloved country, an example to the virtuous and pious in times of trial and war.

Wooster's reply reveals his own larger-than-life character. In 1776, at age 14, he had served four months in the American Revolutionary army; by age 16 he began serving a three-year hitch with Washington's army in New Jersey.

In 1814, the Reverend left his flock in mid-service, even as they implored him: "Will you not preach with us this once? We fear we will see you no more.''

Not dissuaded, Wooster bade them a tender adieu and with his "family in tears, kissed his clinging babes and set out immediately.''

His reply concludes with a pointed reference to the gifted Bible: "...this Holy Book taught me to march for Plattsburgh, and taught me how to behave while I was there.''

Washington would have been beaming.

This civic virtue evidenced in that long-ago September 11, and under challenge even then, disappeared somewhere in the haze of America's 1960s and '70s. Today, we have many forces clamoring to create, in effect, a totally omnipotent secular state.

Examples range from the "war against Christmas'' and lawsuits to eliminate "under God'' from our mottoes and pledges to government supplanting parents by prescribing food diets and raising children through day care initiatives.

But in the aftermath of the dreadful terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we did see a temporary resurrection of that classical civic virtue. Then again did Americans rally for the beloved country. Religious faith (of all denominations and persuasions) was much in evidence in this national mood.

From tweens and teens to golden-agers, everyone wanted to help, to do something to help America, and many did, each in their own fashion. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy we were America unanimous. We stood as one, hoped as one. Religious spirit played a big part, as a collective will fortified the land and a common spirit soared above.

That was then, September 11 past. Yes, this year we will observe the date and honor those who served and fought in 1814 and those who suffered and died in 2001. But America Unanimous is now a quaint memory.

That special unity is gone. We are riven internally by intense political, economic and cultural wars. Government does not work. Civic virtue hides in fear. The moral imperative seems to be: "Don't do anything stupid.''

The road ahead is dark. Where will America wander without a moral compass?

Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of History and Social Sciences from Stevens Tech. His new book, An American Commentary ( explores the changes in American society in the 21st century. Contact him at
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Author:Laccetti, Silvio
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 10, 2014
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