I was on LinkedIn the other day and ran across a story of a convicted felon who recently received her Ph.D. Now, I am certainly aware of the high recidivism rates (about 2/3rds of released inmates are rearrested within 3 years, with a third of these being for a parole violation such as failing to report to a parole officer). 

There are plenty of individuals with a shady past or troublesome personality quirks who made something better of their lives – actor Mark Wahlberg, Judge Greg Mathis, criminal justice professor Stephen Richards, French writer Victor Hugo. And virtually all of our founding fathers.

During the 4th of July, when we reminisce about the history of our country, it’s easy to forget that the people who started it were smugglers, tax evaders, and traitors. This is something that’s not only important to remember; it’s something worth celebrating. Who else would have been willing to abandon their relatives and friends, board small, often-doomed boats, and spend months crossing 3,000 miles of turbulent water?     

The people who were brave enough to break rules and laws. These pioneers, fed up with government control and paying taxes, rebelled. America became an underground economy, technically under English control, but too large and too far away for laws to be enforced. 

The criminal masterminds of our forefathers were admirably creative. After the British government enacted a law forbidding colonist to cut down tall, straight trees, essentially confiscating the most valuable trees on every colonists’ land for the British Navy in their ongoing battle to track down smugglers and their ships. Colonial landowners soon developed the habit of following the government tree inspectors as they selected and marked the best trees. By the time the lumberjacks came to cut the trees down, they were already serving as masts on smuggling ships. In fact, this practice was so common that many colonists had the symbol of a pine tree on their battle flag during the Revolution.      

And guess who was known as “The Prince of Smugglers?” None other than John Handcock, the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was arrested more than once by the British for his escapades. Some of his compatriots had also spent time in the slammer; before James Madison and Thomas Jefferson founded America together, they were arrested together – for joy riding in a carriage on a Sunday. 

Some of our founding fathers also had some serious personal obstacles to overcome. George Washington struggled with his temper his entire life; after the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington used so much profanity that General Charles Scott said he cussed “until leaves shook on the trees.” Thomas Jefferson, an impassioned defender of democracy and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was so terrified of public speaking that was known to fake illness to get out of it. John Adams once observed that he never heard Jefferson utter more than three sentences together during the whole time he served in Congress. And Benjamin Franklin, who was forced to drop out of school at age 10 because of family finances, apparently had such an unpredictable sense of humor that he was forbidden from drafting the Declaration of Independence because his colleagues feared he would sneak jokes in it.

It’s not that I think a criminal history or self-sabotaging personality trait is something that, in and of itself, should be admired. It’s just a reminder to me that people’s pasts or problems don’t define who they are and don’t always predict what they’ll do in the future.

It’s a reminder that most people are better than the worse thing they’ve done and not as good as the best. 

And it’s a reminder to be grateful that we live in a country where the choices we make today influence where we are tomorrow!