America is 230 years old and 230 years young.

She is old enough to lose sight of the wisdom of her Founding Fathers; young enough to recover its vivifying message.

“I think that we need history as much as we need bread or water or love.” So writes an American historian who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award — David McCullough. To learn about the history of one’s nation is to be humbled and to feel gratitude. It is also to become cautious. “Those who do not learn from history’s mistakes,” the philosopher George Santayana has warned, “are condemned to repeat them.”

But birthday reflections should focus on the things for which we should be grateful, so that we can re-dedicate ourselves to all that is good and nourishing about our heritage.

How far we have come as a nation and how far we have strayed from the actions and examples of our nation’s early leaders! When John Adams entered Harvard College in 1759 at 15 years of age, that now illustrious institution of higher learning consisted of four buildings and seven faculty members. Its purpose was largely religious: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus, which is eternal life, John 17:3 and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” In order to assist students in achieving this goal, Harvard instituted specific practices. To cite one example: “Everyone shall so exercise himself in reading Scriptures twice a day that he shall be ready to give an account of his proficiency therein.” All students were required to attend chapel services, to become familiar with Scripture and to live a moral life.

We wonder whether the last 230 years have carried us, through strong gusts of liberalism, away from our roots. Or have we been faithful to the vision that our Founding Fathers expressed and exemplified?

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but it is to draw life from them, as from a root.” Did Roe v Wade in 1973, along with several ensuing Supreme Court decisions, help fulfill the implications of the Constitution; or, in an enthusiasm for being “creative,” stray from them?

Development is not the same as succession, in which one thing merely follows another. Development has an organic quality. It grows from a living source. What ensures its continuing growth and development, the Founding Fathers believed, was a fidelity to a providential God.

John Adams invoked God’s blessings on young America asking that he “give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of his providence.” Adams’ presidential successor, Thomas Jefferson, echoed these thoughts when he expressed his hope that the “Infinite Power that rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to do what is best ... for peace and prosperity.”

It was John Adams, America’s second president, who chose Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. There was never any doubt in the minds of these two that “independence” was from England and not from Christianity. “The general principles upon which our founders achieved independence,” wrote John Adams, “were the principles of Christianity.”

Jefferson had been Adams’ closest friend. This friendship unraveled when he became, first, a political rival, then, a political enemy. For 12 years they refused to talk to each other. A dozen years of estrangement, however, was long enough. Adams initiated a restoration of their friendship through a letter. Their subsequent correspondence lasted until their deaths and has provided us with what David McCullough has described as “some of the most wonderful letters in the English language.”

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both passed away in bed and surrounded by books, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. People at the time interpreted this extraordinary coincidence, or perhaps “God-incident,” as a sign from heaven that America was destined for great things (the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, died on July 4, five years later.

Perhaps the synchronicity of the deaths of America’s second and third chiefs of office was a sign from God. Why should we not believe it to be so? Yet the greatness of America can be sustained not by merely remembering the past, but only by a continued dedication to the principles, under God, that lavishly blessed her most auspicious beginning.

 Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.