Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Norval D. Reece: How a Lithuanian Jew and a British Quaker steered American patriotism

Our latest installment comes from David Library Trustee Norval D. Reece, a former clerk of Newtown Friends Meeting and a graduate of Yale Divinity School.The entry originally appeared as part of the "From a Faith Perspective" column in the Bucks County Courier Times, May 6, page B4

When you stop to think about it, this Courier Times Friday column, "From a Faith Perspective," featuring writers from different religious backgrounds publishing their views once a week, is remarkable. Not in this country perhaps. But in many countries without freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a free press, it would be impossible. To even attempt it might get you jail time.

Those of us born in the USA often take for granted the freedoms we have. I know I did. Then I traveled the world as a young man and was re-introduced to my country through the eyes of others in Asia, Africa, the USSR and Europe.

We have been mesmerized in recent weeks by revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. It reminds us again of our own good fortune to live in a country with freedom of religion and a remarkably enduring representative form of government.

The David Library of the American Revolution (, one of the great jewels of Bucks County, has been reminding Americans of our good fortune since 1959. It holds the priceless Sol Feinstone Collection of documents from our own Revolutionary period, 1750-1800, and sits in Washington Crossing on the 118-acre farm its founder gave to his adopted country.

Were it not for an immigrant named Sol Feinstone, many of these documents would not have been preserved and made available for scholars in our universities and children in our schools. Sol Feinstone arrived at Ellis Island in 1902 as a penniless 14-year-old Lithuanian Jew. Author David McCullough has called the Sol Feinstone Collection of The David Library "a national treasure of the first rank, a window on our founding times like no other."

And, were it not for an immigrant named William Penn, many of the documents Sol Feinstone collected might not have existed. Penn arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682 as a wealthy 38-year-old British Quaker with lands granted to him in the New World by British King Charles ll.

His "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania" evolved into the "Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges" in 1701. It set forth many of the individual rights and restraints on government codified by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Liberty Bell was cast in 1753 in honor of the Charter's 50th anniversary.

Both men lived in Bucks County. Both were passionate American patriots. Each came from a different religion, country and economic background. And, through the quirks of history, each is owing to the other in ways that benefit all of us in Bucks County and the world community.

William Penn sought to create "A Holy Experiment," a society and government open to people of all religions, countries and races.

Penn's vision of a community where "all men are equal under God" provided for religious toleration, secure private property, virtually unlimited free enterprise, a free press, trial by jury, and greatly limited capital punishment. He believed this Holy Experiment would become "the seed of a nation" of free men living by their own laws. It was revolutionary, prompting Thomas Jefferson to call William Penn "the greatest law-giver the world has produced."

Sol Feinstone sought to preserve the documents and letters of the Founding Fathers who followed Penn, so his grandchildren and "all grandchildren" could better understand and appreciate what others had created on their behalf.

Feinstone's amazing collection includes "nearly 2,500 original manuscripts from the founding years of the United States, including more than 260 letters by George Washington, 65 letters by Thomas Jefferson, 55 letters by Alexander Hamilton, 40 letters by the Marquis de Lafayette, and 10 to 20 each by John Adams, Nathanael Greene, and James Madison," according to the library's website. It's one of the largest and most important private collections of early American documents in existence, attracting scholars from all over the world.

So, thanks to Lithuanian Jew Sol Feinstone and the David Library of the American Revolution, we can relive and appreciate the discussion, debate, sacrifice and love for country that laid the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy in Bucks County and the United States of America.

And, thanks to British Quaker William Penn and other Founding Fathers, we can freely express our opinions in the media - regardless of political belief or religious affiliation, whether Baptist, Episcopalian, Jew, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Neo-Pagan, Agnostic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, other, or none.

The patriotism of Sol Feinstone and William Penn enables us to be patriots all.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

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