As we approach the Fourth of July in the middle of an election year, I find myself thinking a great deal about the concept of an ethical will, and connecting that concept with what I consider to be the ethical will that our founders left us—the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
I know I am taking some liberties with the term “ethical will”, which is not supposed to be legally binding, but I think it is justified because an ethical will is supposed to transmit one generation’s values on to the next… and the next… and the next, and it is clear that our founders wanted us to think about, learn, and carry forth a certain set of ideals when they wrote:
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
And how did they almost immediately come to add—after much debate—the Amendments to the Constitution which we now know as “The Bill of Rights”? To read more about the soul searching and struggles involved in the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, visit the National Archives website.
Today, those of us who live as citizens of the United States continue to discuss what our country’s ethical will “means”. As we live our lives, what kind of instructions, wishes, and hopes would we like to leave for our children? What documents may inspire debate, but might also leave our children (or our friends, partners or business associates) a clear idea of why we lived the lives we did, and what we hope to give to those who might never know us, but who might take inspiration—or warning—from the way we have lived?
Two of the finest sources I have found if you are thinking about writing an ethical will are Barry Baines, M.D., and Susan Turnbull. Dr. Baines was one of the first people to re-introduce the Jewish custom of writing an ethical will to the general public. He trains professionals to guide others in creating their ethical wills. Susan Turnbull has specialized in working with legacy advisors in expanding their scope, to include helping clients write about wisdom, as well as wealth. The new edition of her book, “The Wealth of Your Life” is beautifully put together, clear, and useful for anyone considering writing such a document. You can also visit the Association of Personal Historians and search for ethical will providers in your area who will assist you in writing, or videotaping, your life’s legacy.
As you watch those fireworks this year, think about what it means to you to live under the “ethical will” of the United States Constitution.