What does it mean to be an American? Is there a common, unifying factor that defines American character today? Through spirited debate, tours of Gettysburg Battlefield and discussing the life and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln, the 2019-20 TFAS Public Policy Fellows explored key points in American history to answer these questions and more during a weekend retreat in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
After studying the Lincoln-Douglas debates and key speeches by America’s 16th president before the retreat, the TFAS Public Policy Fellows convened from Oct. 11-13 to examine the essence of democracy and the true character of America, more than 160 years after Lincoln’s time.
It gave us a platform to hear other people’s thoughts, and it provided the unique opportunity to do this while comparing our current issues to historical issues.” – Elise Amez-Droz, PPF ’19
Academic Inquiry Vital In Answering Important Questions
Returning TFAS guest lecturers Dr. Colleen Sheehan, the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at University of Colorado Boulder, and Dr. Allen Guelzo, Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative in Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University, moderated thoughtful, Socratic-style discussions on important issues including popular sovereignty and natural rights in an attempt to further understanding of America’s founding documents and Lincoln’s vision for a new birth of freedom.
Dr. Sheehan opened the weekend with dinner remarks on “The Motive and Mind of Lincoln,” sharing her expertise on the historic debates and painting a picture of Lincoln’s America in advance of the weekend discussions. Throughout the weekend, both professors provided historical context and challenged the Fellows to think critically and refine their own opinions.
Elise Amez-Droz, PPF ’19, a healthcare research strategy coordinator at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the professors successfully allowed the Fellows to build on one another’s thoughts and comments, rather than imposing their own views.
“Dr. Sheehan would say something provocative by using a counter argument to get us to think deeper and explain our assumptions,” said Amez-Droz. “I liked that this was clearly their goal – to get us to question our assumptions and find better answers to ideas we thought we had already settled on.”
Civil Dialogue on America’s Past Uncovers New Ideas
As the Fellows’ discussions moved through centuries of American history, they considered how Lincoln’s ideas can be applied to modern political issues. Fellow Rachelle Engen, PPF ’19, the Educational Choice Fellow for Institute for Justice, said the weekend was awe-inspiring and eye-opening.
“This weekend has given us the opportunity to really dive into these issues of when America was at a turning point,” Engen said. “It’s interesting because some might say our country is almost at a turning point again today. It’s important to look back at the Declaration, the Constitution and Lincoln’s ideas for America to really understand the America that we know today.”
During the historic debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of seven speeches to decide who would become the next U.S. Senator of Illinois. They met across the state seven times to discuss the future of America, with the issue of slavery being the primary focus. Lincoln’s primary argument was his personal conviction that slavery must be recognized as a moral wrong that was contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
Mike Torounian, PPF ’19, a lobbyist focused on assisting technology, said the retreat’s open dialogue showed him the perfect example of what truly defines America.
“Having the discourse of thought-provoking conversations, and to have different opinions to come together and reflect on the past to implement positive things for the future is what embodies America,” he said. “Being able to have conversations about the issues that matter most is what sets America apart.”
Amez-Droz echoed this, saying the retreat provided a much-needed opportunity to engage in civil dialogue, an opportunity which is becoming rare in our increasingly divisive and digital society.
“It’s great to have places like TFAS,” said Amez-Droz. “You get to sit down and have conversations to understand each other’s differences and explore what everyone believes and why they believe it. It gave us a platform to hear other people’s thoughts, and it provided the unique opportunity to do this while comparing our current issues to historical issues.”
Fellows Continue to Seek Answers and Engage in Important Ideas
Impressed by the professional and intellectual caliber of the Fellows, Sheehan remarked that they were a “bright and interesting group of young professionals who were truly dedicated to public service.” Sheehan said by engaging and digging deeper into the meaning behind the important work they do, they were making a demonstrative effort to become more well-rounded leaders in public policy.
“I think it’s imperative for young people to study and engage in these kinds of conversations because they are America’s future, and if they don’t engage in these ideas, we won’t have a future,” she said.
While the Fellows were formally welcomed to the TFAS network with a reception in September, the retreat served as their academic introduction to TFAS. Throughout their year-long Fellowship, the Fellows will continue their exploration of the Founder’s ‘Experiment in Self Government’ and examine the questions free societies must address in order to flourish and the unique advantages it can enjoy.
“Through the Fellowship, we are able to explore what democracy means today and study the meaning behind our values,” said Amez-Droz. “I’m extremely thankful for this opportunity to engage with new ideas and my peers, and I’m excited for the rest of the year because I know we’re going to continue to have interesting conversations.”