July 29, 2016


George Washington's Constitutional Morality (Samuel Gregg, July 27th, 2016, Public Discourse)

But to grasp more clearly what Washington had in mind, it's worth examining a lesser-read text. Though written to state governors, the intended audience of Washington's June 1783 Circular Letter to the States was clearly all Americans. Like the Farewell Address, it contains recommendations such as the need for a strong union of states. Yet the letter's third paragraph also succinctly outlines the constitutional morality that Washington thought should inform what he didn't hesitate to call "the Nation" of the United States:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.

Washington never claimed to be a philosopher; he was not as well-educated as founders like John Witherspoon or Charles Carroll. Yet in these 167 words, Washington identified a distinct set of ideas that he thought should shape what he and others called an "Empire of Liberty"--classical republicanism, eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and "above all" Revelation. [...]

Enlightenment thought was part of the air breathed by the Revolutionary generation. Whether it is the Circular Letter's references to the "rights of mankind," "the free cultivation of Letters," "the unbounded extension of Commerce," "the progressive refinement of Manners," or the "growing liberality of sentiment," this is the language of the eighteenth century.

There was, however, more than one Enlightenment. Washington's phraseology points toward that of eighteenth-century Britain rather than the world of Rousseau and Voltaire. Rousseau's negative views of commerce are a matter of record, while Voltaire's satirical polemics were the polar opposite of good manners. Conversely, Washington's Circular Letter is reminiscent of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. In fact, Smith's Wealth of Nations was one of the few books in Washington's library in which he penned a note in his own hand.

Washington's emphasis on liberty under law is a motif that permeates the eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenments and distinguished them from continental Enlightenment admirers of enlightened absolutism. [...]

It's not, however, Enlightenment thought to which Washington's Circular Letter attributes the highest place in America's political culture. This is accorded to "above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation."

Much ink has been spilled on Washington's precise religious beliefs. Some regard Washington's religious habits and language as typical of Virginia Anglicans of his time. Others see him as somewhat deistic. Yet the word "Revelation"--especially when capitalized--in Washington's Circular Letter took its readers beyond a Supreme Watchmaker.

"Revelation" is an act or a series of acts that makes known truths that humans would otherwise have difficulty fully knowing. Given the context, Washington is surely referring to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The language of Revelation also indicates that Washington didn't regard religion as a mere tool for domesticating simple people. Revelation, after all, brings light to our minds, causing us to look beyond utility when making free choices, including political decisions.

This doesn't mean that Washington believed America was or should be a "Christian nation." In Washington's God, Michael Novak and Jana Novak observe that the God who most comes to mind when reading Washington's statements about religion is the God of the Hebrew Prophets. This is a being whose ways are often inscrutable and mysterious, but who is working through human history to bring about great things and who "alone," as Washington reminded Benedict Arnold in a 1775 letter, "is the Judge of men's hearts." Such words weren't used by deists--they characteristically described God as one who simply sets the world in motion and sustains its existence.

Washington's way of underscoring Revelation's significance allowed him to stress religion's importance for American public life in a manner that not only transcended the divisions among Protestants in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation but also included two small groups then distrusted by many Protestant Americans. Among the remarkable features of the two letters written by Washington in 1790 to Jews and Catholics is how phraseology such as "father of all mercies," "Divine Providence," "natural rights," "liberal policy," "liberality," "the cultivation of manners, morals and piety," "free government," and "good government" echoes the sources referenced by the Circular Letter.

Posted by at July 29, 2016 7:14 PM


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