Nine months from tonight, on the first Sunday of Advent, the church bells of Rome will begin pealing, clanging, tolling to open the Third Millennium, marking the birth of a Jewish infant born in poverty. The impact of that helpless child upon the world has no parallel in history.
Through him knowledge of the Creator who knows and attends to individual nations and individual persons was spread to the Gentiles--a vision of a benign Governor of the universe, a most gracious Providence, the undeceivable Judge of the consciences of all, the Source of Nature's Laws, the Guarantor through sacred oaths of the truthfulness of systems of justice. Through him the Law of Moses became, as Blackstone put it, the font and spring of constitutional government.
This God endowed in every woman and every man inalienable rights. The "God Who gave us life," Jefferson wrote, "gave us liberty at the same time."
Five thousand years of belief in such a God, Alfred North Whitehead observed, made possible the rise of modern science. The call to imitate the Creator imparted to discovery, invention, and creativity a profound and palpable joy. David Landes, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, says that the Jewish-Christian "joy of discovery" was as responsible as any other factor for the economic breakthroughs of the West.
And yet we come to the new millennium with a heavy question. Does the century about to begin mark our last? Is America a meteor that has blazed across the heavens, now exhausted? Or, rather, is our present moral fog a transient time of trial, those hours cold and dark before the ramparts' new gleaming? Are we nearing our end, or at a new beginning?
1. Looking Back 100 Years
Just a century ago, in 1899, fifty of the 75 million people of the United States lived in rural areas. Most had no plumbing, electricity, or any transport except the horse. Ordinary people endured cold, heat, darkness, stench, crowding, spoilage. On the other hand, eighty percent of households were headed by a married couple, and the federal government spent about two percent of the Gross National Product.
In the 100 years since 1899, the United States has been much tested: From the harsh and bitter shock of Verdun; from the lows of the Depression, through the agonies of Omaha Beach; from tail-fins, Ike and Elvis to flower children and the march on the Pentagon; from the biting cold of the Korean Peninsula to the steaming heat of Quang Ngai; from the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell; from McCarthyism to the collapse of the Myth of Socialist Inevitability, when the Berlin Wall came down; from the Reagan tax cuts to the greatest extended prosperity in American history. Technologies we never heard of thirty years ago characterize our lives today: word processors, faxes, cell-phones, e-mail, biogenetics.
Along this short road of one hundred years, we have become powerful and rich. And what about our nation’s soul? Five subterranean earthquakes have altered the ecology of souls.
- Our great Protestant elite lost its self-confidence in its religious convictions following World War II. The old Yankee Elite of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York no longer sets the nation’s moral tone.
- Remember the erudite, eloquent letters written by soldiers of the Civil War, educated in one-room school houses and by the Bible? Then watch MTV. Our moral ethos has fallen into the hands of "popular culture."
- Throughout the last century, Europe looked up to America as a model for the world. In this century, our intellectual class has looked up to Europe as the model for America -- social democracy, the welfare state, Sweden.
- Beginning in 1947, in the guise of becoming "neutral," our courts and law schools became hostile to religion in the public square.
- Confined by the Courts to private quarters, religious people who act in public spaces are rebuked with ridicule and penalties in university employment and in the law.
Jolted by these five institutional upheavals, in a brief fifty years the great well of religious and moral self-awareness of the American public has been emptied of its living water.
Few today can understand the American proposition in the way our forebears understood it. Words central to the American creed, such as truth ("we hold these truths"), liberty ("conceived in liberty"), law ("liberty under law"), and Judge ("appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions") once formed a great and glorious mosaic across the apse of the republic. That mosaic has fallen to the dust, disassembled into tiny pieces. Fewer every year remember how it used to look.
2. The Present Crisis
As a disturbing consequence, nonreligious people are growing more hostile to the remaining Jewish and Christian impulses they detect in public life. Some portray religious people as outside "the American way," extremists whose aim is to impose "theocracy."
An opposite consequence is that serious religious people are becoming alienated from the American polity. This U.S.A. (they say) is not the partner with whom our forebears made a covenant. This is not an ethos we admire. We know and we admire Philadelphia, 1787, but that culture lives no more.
Other citizens want not to be judged by anyone. They abhor "judgmentalism." The ancient biblical maxim, "Judge not, lest ye be judged," implied that God's standards are high. The modern maxim forbids standards altogether (they are harmful to self-esteem).
Thus has the ancient Jewish, Christian (and modern) virtue of "tolerance" been undone. Tolerance used to mean that people of strong convictions would willingly bear the burden of putting up peacefully with people they regarded as plainly in error. Now it means that people of weak convictions facilely agree that others are also right, and anyway the truth of things doesn't make much difference, as long as everyone is "nice." I don't know if "judgmentaphobic" is a word, but it ought to be. This republic crawls with judgmentaphobes. Where conscience used to raise an eyebrow at our slips and falls, sunny non-judgmentalism winks and slaps us on the back.
In the absence of judgment, however, freedom cannot thrive. If nothing matters, freedom is pointless. If one choice is as good as another, choice is merely preference. A glandular reflex would do as well. Without standards, no one is free, but only a slave of impulses come from who knows where. This is sometimes dignified as the scientific view of man.
To the contrary, the whole point of liberty is this: every choice makes a difference, for the fate of every soul and for the fate of the republic.
Nature highlights liberty; it is unique to human beings. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, says the Bible, values liberty so mightily that He created this vast expanding cosmos to show it off. So that somewhere in it, in at least one place, there would be creatures free to recognize their Creator’s friendship, and freely walk with Him.
The Creator called humans to build a city on a hill (a "shining city on a hill", as Ronald Reagan taught us to amend it).
This Creator called humans to learn from history how to build, eventually, a Republic of Liberty and Justice for all: a city, at last, worthy of such creatures as He had fashioned. They would have to do this by trial and error.
Fittingly, when the time was ripe, after the passage of thousands of years, in a city named for the second Great Commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"--in Philadelphia-- the independence of such a republic was proclaimed, invoking His just judgment and asking His protection. Will that protection last forever?
All history is proof of a law of moral entropy. Civilizations, given time, end badly. Surrounded in Washington by monuments that echo Greece and Rome, we are reminded daily of the fall of great republics and democracies. What hope have we that our nation will end differently?
There are lessons in this nation’s covenant with God, of which the Declaration of Independence is the primary jewel.
3. The Covenant
During the first days of September 1774, from every region, members of the First Continental Congress were riding dustily toward Philadelphia, where they hoped to remind King George III of the rights due them as Englishmen. As these delegates were gathering, news arrived that Charlestown had been raked by cannonshot, and red-coated landing parties had surged through its streets.
The gathering delegates proposed a motion for public prayer, that all might gain in sobriety and wisdom. Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina spoke against this motion, because Americans are so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, that all could not join in the same act of worship. Sam Adams arose to say he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country. Mr. Adams was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that a certain Reverend Duché had earned that character, and moved that the same be asked to read prayers to Congress on the morrow. The motion carried.
Thus it happened that on September 7, 1774, the first official prayer before the Continental Congress was pronounced by a white-haired Episcopal clergyman dressed in his pontificals, who read aloud from the Book of Common Prayer the 35[th] Psalm:
Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me, fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of buckler and shield, and rise up for my help...Say to my soul, "I am your salvation." Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life; let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.
Before him knelt Washington, Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side, heads bowed, the Puritan patriots, who could imagine at that moment their homes being bombarded and overrun. Over these bowed heads the Reverend Duché uttered what all testified was an eloquent prayer, "for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston." The emotion in the room was palpable, and John Adams wrote to Abigail that he "had never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced. I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning...It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave pacific Quakers of Philadelphia...I must beg you to read that Psalm."
In this fashion, right at its beginning, this nation formed a covenant with God, which it repeated in the Declaration ("with a firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence") and in many later acts of Congress regarding Days of Fasting (for repentance) or Thanksgiving. Let me quote from the Day of Fasting, December 11, 1776:
Resolved, That it be recommended to all the United States, as soon as possible, to appoint a day of solemn fasting and humiliation; to implore of Almighty God the forgiveness of the many sins prevailing among all ranks, and to beg the countenance and assistance of his Providence in the prosecution of the present just and necessary war.
Years later, in Federalist #38, Publius marveled at the unanimity improbably achieved among fragmented delegates from free states and slave, from small states and large, from rich states and poor: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution." Three times The Federalist notes the blessings of Providence upon this country.
This has been our covenant with God. God wills free peoples, to build communities in cities that gleam upon the hills, cities of virtue, and probity, and honor. God knows we are only fallen human beings, clay, poor materials for so grand a task. No matter, He calls on us.
Among the nations, no people has embraced this covenant so gladly as Americans. Their brightest jewel was the Declaration.
4. The Declaration
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted, and on July 4 proclaimed, the Declaration of Independence of the United States. In that document, Thomas Jefferson twice referred to God in biblical terms, and before assenting to it, the Congress added two more.
The fifty-six signers were, mostly, Christians; they represented a mostly Christian people; and it was from Christian traditions that they had learned these names. But the names of God they chose were entirely of Jewish provenance. Of names specific to the Christian faith the Signers were (wisely) silent, since it lies not in the competence of Government to adjudicate theological differences beyond those essential for the common good.
Recall the four names that these Americans gave to God: Lawgiver (as in "Laws of Nature and Nature's God"); Creator ("endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"); Judge ("appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions"); and Providence ("with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence").
One of these names for God ("Lawgiver") could be considered Greek or Roman. But Richard Hooker showed that long tradition had put "Lawgiver," too, in a biblical context. The other three names (Creator, Judge, Providence) derive from Judaism and came to America via Protestant Christianity.
That is not all. Implicit throughout the Declaration are four biblical paradigms: ways of imagining reality. First, this world had a beginning, was not an eternal cycle. Second, it was created--it was not an accident. Third, on the entire cosmos was bestowed an intelligent and gracious purpose, a Providence. Fourth, this purpose of creation was to place human liberty in a kind of holy light, as captured in the hymn "America":
Our fathers' God! To Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by thy might,
Great God our king.
These four conceptions are neither Greek nor Roman notions. They are biblical. They arose from Judaism. Jerusalem, not Athens, is their birthplace. They gave our forebears an almost eerie confidence.
The God of Liberty is not, and cannot be, a remote Watchmaker God. Examine closely the God of the Framers. Like the God of the Hebrew prophets, this God plays favorites, delights in singular contingencies and ironic serendipities. In the Battle of Long Island, fog prolonged the night, allowing Washington's entire army to escape a British trap. This God exercises liberty. He makes choices. He chooses "chosen" peoples and "almost chosen" peoples and loves every people with a love unique to it.
For the Seal of the United States the Framers chose a motto that derives from Virgil, the Roman poet, but applies better to divine Providence in the biblical sense: Annuit Coeptis, "God smiles (approvingly) on our beginnings." If this be Deism, it is a biblical Deism. The God of Liberty, like Providence, must love contingency and chance, since only in a universe arrayed in probabilities (not pure necessities) can individual freedom thrive.
My point is not that our Founders were on the whole religious men (much less that they were Jewish). My point, rather, is that our Founders understood the drama of liberty in a biblical way. It is a mistake to say that they were solely, even predominantly, shaped by the Enlightenment. Of the founders of the French Revolution, that might well be said--but they passed by another route.
The American Signers thought of liberty in a biblical way--the way men think who are sinners, and know what sinners do--and how we must be checked, and how sentinels to our ambitions must be set in place by the ambitions of every other. "If men were angels," Madison wrote, knowing full well that men are not angels, and that the only moral majority that exists is all of us sinners.
The high standards to which God calls a nation composed of Jews and Christians convicts us all of sin. That we all are sinners is the elementary finding of biblical religion. That is why any republic built to endure must divide all powers, and as sentries to the common good set proclivity against proclivity, so that a Republic of sinners, by sinners, and for sinners shall not perish from this earth.
The Framers loved the simple motto: "In God we trust." Its operational meaning is: "For every one else, checks and balances."
5. But What is Liberty?
The Signers thought of liberty, then, not as something given but as something learned, and learned only in a social way by the weight of an ethos; by public vigilance over habits and behaviors; by education in the virtues that make liberty a practice; by books of exemplars and practitioners; by heroes. They honored "moral ecology," holding that culture is prior to, and more basic than, politics or economics. Since culture shapes the habits of the heart, and habits are the tuned engines of our liberty, a polity neglecting them is suicidal. So wrote Samuel Adams in 1775:
For no People will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when Knowledge is diffused and Virtue is preserved. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauched in their Manners, they will sink under their own Weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.
The Signers, then, thought of liberty as an achievement needing to be earned each day anew. A free people every day takes up responsibilities, with reflection and deliberate choice. But laws, teachings, and official acts are needed to protect an ethos of virtue, to diminish toxins in the air, and to drive away pollutants.
Equally, the first page of The Federalist showed how pivotal one act of liberty may be.
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Reflection and choice are themes the Bible taught our Founders. Through their families, they had many years' experience in testing those ideas in their own lives. Neither they nor their teachers believed that the lessons of the Bible--or, for that matter, any moral teachings of the past--should lie about unused. Moral teachings should be subjected to experiment in the tests of daily living, proved, absorbed into one's flesh and blood. That is what they meant by traditional virtues. Traditions live by new appropriations ("making one’s own") in every generation; otherwise they die.
For the Americans, as Lord Acton saw, liberty is not doing what you wish or what you feel like. Liberty is doing what you ought to do. Dogs and cats have no such choice; they do what instinct urges them to do. Humans are the only animals who have the choice whether or not to obey the higher law of their own nature, whether to follow the better angels of their being.
Here is the advice the author of the Declaration gave to Peter Carr, a young Virginian who wished to know how to live a life of liberty:
Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and that exercise will make them habitual.
What, then, is human liberty? After reflection and deliberation, to do what you are prepared to commit yourself to, in a way that others may count on. The capacity to practice that sort of liberty the signers called character. A man who acts from deliberation and choice they called a manly man. (Manly was not a term interchangeable with male.) The woman who acts so they called a valiant woman. They believed that men and women need help from the surrounding society if enough of them are to act that way. They believed that, whatever may be said of a few of peculiar character, most people need the steel of religion if they are to be tolerably moral.
As adherents to the biblical conception of freedom, the Signers were not sure that the American people of 1776 possessed sufficient virtue to bear the costs of war, or after it the long, slow grinding work of peace. John Adams expressed his nagging fear:
I sometimes tremble to think that, altho We are engaged in the best Cause that ever employed the Human Heart, yet the Prospect of success is doubtful not for Want of Power or of Wisdom but of Virtue.
Later, Abraham Lincoln warned in 1838 that the memories of the extraordinary virtues that the revolutionary war taught were being levelled by "the silent artillery of time," as each generation became more remote from the originating spirit of the nation.
6. What is Virtue? What is Character?
What did the Signers mean by virtue? They meant habits of self-control, calm reflection, sober consideration of costs and contingencies, courage, and that ability to persevere despite setbacks without which no difficult plan of action can be carried through to completion. In other words, they knew the difference between people who pledge fidelity, chastity, courage, sacrifice and in general reverence for moral truth, and then do not deliver, and those whose characteristic habits make their words more bankable than bars of gold.
Between a public fit for liberty and one fit for tyranny, good habits make the difference. The name for habits by which men act as slaves is vice.
The Signers held three principles: "No republic without liberty, No liberty without virtue, and No virtue (for most men, in the long run) without religion." Of these three, we moderns have weakened on the last two.
These are the principles the Signers clung to when they dared to sign their earthshaking Declaration. Contemplating the many solemn oaths of loyalty they had sworn as subjects of the King; counting the costs of the impending war they were now accepting; weighing the consequences of a dreadful act of rebellion on which they would now embark, they pledged their lives, their fortunes, the safety of their families and their homes, and their good names as men who keep their oaths. All these they were prepared to lose, for liberty, if Providence did not permit them to prevail.
The Signers taught us what they meant by liberty by what they did and how they did it. Liberty sallies forth amid a troop of virtues, missing any one of which its resolve will surely fail. Benedict Arnold's commitment to liberty failed when one of his inner sentinels slept, perhaps the sentinel that checked his pride.
7. The Three Meanings of Self-Government
By this path, the Declaration gave the term "self-government" a triple sense. Obviously, the term means a massive shift in form of government, from monarchy to a republic. On a deeper level, self-government means a regime of self-mastery that requires higher virtues than a monarchy. For self-government demands a degree of alertness, self-sacrifice, and responsibility that tests endurance. Obedience to law over time is onerous, and maintaining good habits when the good times roll is tedious. A prior generation may rise to moral heights, and perhaps its sons and daughters will in filial piety maintain that level. But it is not in accord with human nature for later generations to keep that passion burning; it was not so, even in Biblical times. "The silent artillery of time" thins out the ranks.
To refill the ranks, virtue must be summoned up. "A Republic can only be supported by pure religion or austere morals," John Adams wrote:
Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of Republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honor, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no Republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.
Why should this be so? Because liberty means acting from reflection and choice, yet often we find deliberation burdensome. Sometimes we want to act from passion before we have time to think. Sweet are the uses of perversity.
The third meaning of "self-government" is this: what in France they turn to L’État to do, and what in Sweden they turn to Social Democracy to do, in the United States people turn to each other to do in their own undirected associations. "The first law of democracy," Tocqueville wrote, "is the principle of association."
These are the three meanings of self-government embodied in the Declaration: a republican regime; a moral code of self-mastery; and a capacity for social organization independent of the state. All three enlarge and ennoble ordinary people, make them feel responsible, brave, and free, inspire them to do extraordinary things.
8. Is it a Declaration Merely of Self-Interest?
A final lesson of the Declaration is more profound. Most scholars give the Declaration a Lockean interpretation by which the fundamental human drive is a pre-moral principle--self-preservation. So powerful is the war of all against all that we surrender our capacity for violence to the State, and only then does civil society come into being.
Under the Lockean interpretation, each man has an interest in his own freedom, but feels no positive calling to end the slavery of others, except by an argument from an enlarged egotism: My safety is more assured in a larger community.
But there is another interpretation, that of Abraham Lincoln. Under Lincoln’s view, the need to end slavery is not egotistical but social. No man is an island. Each human is an integral part of one temple, one house. A house divided cannot stand. A house cannot remain half-slave, half-free (and I must add today, half pro-life, half pro-death). Either it will go all for slavery, or all for liberty. No man can properly will slavery (or abortion) for himself; hence, not for any other.
Madison, too, in arguing for religious tolerance, noted that creatures of God have duties to God prior to the formation of civil society. There is a unity in us, as creatures of One Creator, that grounds in us a sense of what is due to others as others, of what is right, no matter how we feel about it. This sense obliges us to defend the rights of others, not just our own.
In other words, as Lincoln said, "All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."[31 ]The Declaration holds before us a vision, by which we have vowed to be measured. In the dead of night, as if foreseeing Lincoln’s principle, Jefferson wrote, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." This nation’s covenant with the God of liberty cuts its shoulders raw with responsibilities.
9. The Apple of Gold in the Frame of Silver (Proverbs 25:11)
There is one more point to stress about our Founders: Their lives, the success of their rebellion, all that they held dear, depended on the strength and power of their union. If the apple of their eye was liberty, a golden apple, the picture that framed it was the Union.
If the King divided them, they were finished. Among the friends of liberty, there was no room for discord between the South and North, between the most religious and the least so. Everything was done to hold the Union firm together. Union was the condition of every other good.
To this end, great efforts were made by leading religious preachers such as the President of Princeton, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Cooper, who preached at Harvard for the Inauguration of the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1781, to show the consonance of faith and reason. Faith and reason, they held, are friends, not enemies. Our Founders stressed what faith and reason hold in common.
For instance: that it is hard to act with liberty, taking up full responsibility, without sometimes falling, and needing to get up again and persevere. Such lessons they found in Plutarch and in Seneca, in Aristotle and in Cicero, as well as in the Book of Kings, and Genesis, and Deuteronomy. In Proverbs they found much that echoed maxims of the Greeks and Romans. From this, they drew much consolation. Their belief in a Creator of all things made it difficult for them to see a separation between the Creator and the laws the Creator placed in nature. They learned from nature willingly, as if it were another Book of God.
The Union of all citizens, believers and unbelievers, is important in these months before the new millennium when, despite the surface calm, our country lies in grievous moral turmoil. Among Americans some who are not religious and some who are speak as if the other were an alien race. For all of us, it is crucial to see that for America's fundamental principles we have two languages, one of reason, one biblical. For our Signers, actually, the language of the Bible included the language of reason; the language of reason gave practical force to biblical lessons. That is what Jefferson achieved in the Declaration. Its language is Jewish and biblical, but it is also the language of reason, or close enough to it for the generous mind to make translation easily.
This is the practical point I want to establish tonight. The Declaration ties us all together, nonreligious and religious. "United we stand, divided we fall." That was their motto then. It is still a sound motto.
Our Founders did not intend this to be a nation in which Christianity was established as the federal religion. On the other hand, they did establish the principle that every state of the Union must have the constitutional form of a Republic. And religion, they said often, is indispensable to the survival of republican principles. For instance, George Washington’s Farewell testament: "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Our founders learned--and taught--a twofold language. The language of reason and the language of biblical faith. They did not think that these two languages – at least as regards principles of liberty--were in contradiction. These two languages form a union. The Creator spoke both languages, and so can we. Thus spake the Declaration.
In our time, religious people have made the mistake of thinking that a culture war can be won by political methods. The two--culture and politics--are closely related in certain questions of law. But, mostly, they thrive in different spheres and must be addressed by different method--even, usually, by different institutions.
Still, a peace between these two groups may demand more of the nonreligious than the religious. The nonreligious of today pursue a view that is far too narrow. The nonreligious hold that there is only one valid language, that of reason. In this way, they block their ears to half the music of this nation’s founding. They fail to plumb the depths of Lincoln, Washington, or even Jefferson. In the name of "tolerance," they themselves have failed to learn one of the two basic languages of many fellow citizens.
We need to repair the Union. We all have work to do.
10. Pessimism or Optimism?
Has the culture been lost? Is moral entropy unavoidable? Like Jefferson, we may tremble when we reflect that God is just.
Still, I heard a joke in Poland that I really like, on the difference between the optimist and the pessimist. The pessimist says that things are so bad they can’t get any worse. The optimist says, "Oh yes, they can!"
A man I much admire, John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, has a mordant sense of everything the other side can throw at us--the "culture of death," he calls it--not exactly a cheery prospect. But his favorite admonition is "Be not afraid."
I heartily approve of his policy prescription, too: Think with the pessimists, act with the optimists. "With the pessimists" means without illusion. "With the optimists" means "with a firm Reliance on divine Providence."
Joseph Warren of Massachusetts stood with the Minutemen at Lexington, and took a bullet through his hair above the ear. Two months later, just commissioned a Major General in the Continental Army, he learned that 1500 patriots had crept up Bunker Hill at night, and silently erected earthen walls. Shocked at daylight to discover this, battalions of Redcoats were assembling for an afternoon attack. Some of them put all of Charlestown to the torch, and tongues of flame from 500 houses, businesses and churches leapt into the sky. Joseph Warren rode to Boston, and took a position among the fifteen hundred on Bunker Hill.
The American irregulars proved their discipline that day--and the accuracy of huntsmen firing in concentrated bursts. Twice they broke the forward march of 3500 British troops with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the foremost companies of Redcoats, who lost that day more than a thousand dead. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.
While the bulk of the Continental Army retreated, the last units stayed in their trenches to hold off the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Joseph Warren was last seen fighting, until a close-range bullet felled him. The British officers had him decapitated.
Freedom is always the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can throw it all away. Every generation must decide.
Joseph Warren had told the men of Massachusetts:
Our country is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.
1. "Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these." Commentaries on the Laws of England (University of Chicago Press, 1979), vol. 1, sect. 2, p. 8. On the relation between revelation and natural law, see Blackstone’s preceding paragraphs.
2. "A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774," quoted in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Modern Library, 1972), p. 11.
3. "When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered; the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries." Science and the Modern World (New York, 1948), pp. 12-13
4. See David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: Norton & Company, 1998), especially ch. 4, p. 58, where he elaborates on the role of joie de trouver in the economic development of the West.
5. Louis Hicks, research for a forthcoming AEI and Ben Wattenberg television project entitled "The First Measured Century."...Another index of U.S. weakness: In 1891, eleven Italian immigrants, cane-workers in New Orleans, were brutally lynched. In protest, the Government of Italy withdrew its ambassador. Nativists spread the rumor that Italy would dispatch five iron-hulled battleships to sail along the Eastern seaboard. The entire tonnage of the U.S. Navy did not equal that of even one Italian capital ship. The U.S. Navy lobby vowed that no such potential threat would ever arise again. That was the beginning of the U.S. "Blue Water Navy," which won the Spanish-American War a decade later. See Richard Gambino, Vendetta: A True Story of the Worst Lynching in America, the Mass Murder of Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891, the Vicious Motivations Behind It, and the Tragic Repercussions that Linger to this Day (New York: Doubleday, 1977).
6. John Adams to Abigail Adams, quoted in William J. Federer, ed., America’s God and Country (Coppell, Tx: FAME Publishing, 1994), p. 137. I have relied on the Federer account throughout.
7. Consider these Acts of Congress in 1779, 1781, and 1782: (1)"The Continental Congress itself, in one of the thanksgiving day proclamations not written by Witherspoon, found it becoming ‘humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God’ to ask ‘that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.’" Jeffrey Morrison, unpublished paper, "John Witherspoon on ‘The Public Interest of Religion,’" prepared for presentation at the John Courtney Murray seminar, The American Enterprise Institute, February 16, 1999, p.19.
(2) Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, the father of mercies, remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty, against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation: it t is the duty of all ranks to observe and thankfully acknowledge the interpositions of his Providence in their behalf. Through the whole of the contest, from its first rise to this time, the influence of Divine Providence may be clearly perceived...
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 26, 1781, 21:1074-1076.
(3) It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his Providence in their behalf; therefore the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of divine goodness to these States, in the course of the important conflict in which they have been so long engaged...do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of Thursday, the twenty-eighth day of November next, as a day of solemn thanksgiving to God for all his mercies; and they do further recommend to all ranks and testify their gratitude of God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by protecting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 11, 1782, 23:647. The Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford, Gaillard Hunt, et. al., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937.
8. The preamble to this resolution reads:
Whereas, the war in which the United States are engaged with Great Britain, has not only been prolonged, but is likely to be carried to the greatest extremity; and whereas, it becomes all public bodies, as well as private persons, to reverence the Providence of God, and look up to him as the supreme disposer of all events, and the arbiter of the fate of nations...
Fast Day Proclamation of December 11, 1776, op. cit., 21:1074-1076.
9. Federalist Nos. 20, 38, 43. From France, Alexis de Tocqueville also took up this theme:
"The gradual development of the principle of equality is a providential fact. It has all the chief characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress."Democracy in America, xi.
10. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997).
11. Richard Hooker offers a taxonomy of the many meanings of eternal law and natural law in use for centuries: "I am not ignorant that by ‘law eternal’ the learned for the most part do understand the order, not which God hath eternally purposed himself in all his works to observe, but rather that which with himself he hath set down as expedient to be kept by all his creatures, according to the several conditions wherewith he hath endowed them...Now that law which, as it is laid up in the bosom of God, they call Eternal, receiveth according unto the different kinds of things which are subject unto it different and sundry kinds of names. That part of it which ordereth natural agents we call usually Nature’s law; that which Angels do clearly behold and without any swerving observe is a law Celestial and heavenly; the law of Reason, that which bindeth creatures reasonably in this world, and with which by reason that may most plainly perceive themselves bound; that which bindeth them, and is not known but by special revelation from God, Divine law; Human law, that which out of the law either of reason or of God men probably gathering to be expedient, they make it a law. All things therefore, which are as they ought to be, are conformed unto this second law eternal; and even those things which to this eternal law are not conformable are notwithstanding in some sort ordered by the first eternal law...Wherefore to come to the law of nature; albeit thereby we sometimes mean that manner of working which God hath set for each created thing to keep; yet forasmuch as those things are termed most properly natural agents, which keep the law of their kind unwittingly, as the heavens and elements of the world, which can do no otherwise than they do; and forasmuch as we give unto intellectual natures the name of Voluntary agents, that so we may distinguish them from the other; expedient it will be, that we sever the law of nature observed by the one from that which the other is tied unto." Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity (Great Britain: Carcanet Press, 1990), Book I, pps. 40-41.
12. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1996). Cf. Thomas West’s introduction, p. xxiii.
13. On the concept of emergent probability, see Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), chapter III, pps. 71-81; and Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Longman’s, 1957), chapter VIII, sections 5 and 6.
14. Federalist No. 51: "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library, 1961).
15. Samuel Adams to James Warren, November 4, 1775, The Founders’ Constitution, (University of Chicago Press: 1987), p.668.
16. Federalist No. 1.
17. Lord Acton’s famous formulation is "Liberty is not doing what one wishes; liberty is doing what one ought." Also, "Liberty and Morality: How they try to separate them, to found liberty on rights, on enjoyments, not on duties. Insist on their identity. Liberty is the condition which makes it easy for Conscience to govern. Liberty is government of Conscience. Reign of Conscience."  "Liberty", Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1985), vol. III, pp. 491-492.
18. Jefferson adds a few lines later: "Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed. It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions." See "Letter to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785," in Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 814-815.
19. See Harvey Mansfield’s Bradley Lecture, "Is Manliness a Virtue?," October 14, 1997, available on The American Enterprise website: www.aei.org.
20. "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." George Washington, "Farewell Address," George Washington: A Collection, W.B. Allen, ed. (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1988), pp. 521-522.
21. John Adams to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776, op. cit., p. 670.
22. "Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois", Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, ed. Don Fehrenbacher (The Library of America: 1989), vol. 1, pp. 29-36.
23. On this part, cf. Christopher DeMuth’s unpublished paper, "Remarks at AEI Chairman’s Dinner," December 10, 1998. See also George Will, "The Primacy of Culture", Newsweek, January 18, 1999, p.64.
24. Jeffrey Morrison, op. cit., p.18.
25. "For my own part I am so tasteless as to prefer a Republic, if We must erect an independent Government in America, which you know is utterly against my Inclination. But a Republic, altho it will infallibly beggar me and my Children, will produce Strength, Hardiness Activity, Courage, Fortitude and Enterprise; the manly noble and Sublime Qualities in human Nature, in Abundance. A Monarchy would probably, somehow or other make me rich, but it would produce so much Taste and Politeness so much Elegance in Dress, Furniture, Equipage, so much Musick and Dancing, so much Fencing and Skaiting, so much Cards and Backgammon; so much Horse Racing and Cockfighting, so many Balls and Assemblies, so many Plays and Concerts that the very Imagination of them makes me feel vain, light, frivolous and insignificant." John Adams to Mercy Warren, January 8, 1776, The Founders’ Constitution, p. 669.
27. Democracy in America, Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1945), p.189.
28. "Jefferson’s horizon, with its grounding in Locke, saw all commands to respect the rights of others as fundamentally hypothetical imperatives: if you do not wish to be a slave, then refrain from being a master. Lincoln agreed, but he also said in substance: he who wills freedom for himself must simultaneously will freedom for others...Because all men by nature have an equal right to justice, all men have an equal duty to do justice." Harry Jaffa, The Crisis of the House Divided (University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 326.
29. "It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe." James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Amendment I, No. 43, The Founders’ Constitution, p. 82.
30. "The concept of what is right is the concept of an objective condition, a condition discernible by reason. ‘All I ask for the negro is that if you do not like him, let him alone,’ said Lincoln with a pathos which anticipates the war years. But his meaning is that the test of right is not how something agrees with our passions but how it agrees with a discernment of what is due to a man. Right conceived as subjective passion does not forbid us to do what is objectively wrong; it only directs us to do whatever we deem necessary for our lives and our liberty. Right conceived as a state or condition in which every man is rendered his due forbids us to dissociate the value to ourselves of our own lives and liberties and the value to themselves of the lives and liberties of any men who may be affected by our actions." Jaffa, op. cit., p. 329.
31. Letter to Henry L. Pierce and Others, April 6, 1859, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches, Letters, Miscellaneous Writings (The Library of America:1989), p.19.
32. To this famous sentence, Jefferson also added: "I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18, Thomas Jefferson: Writings (The Library of America, 1984), p. 289. These sentences indicate that Jefferson, too, saw the Declaration as an ideal already working in history.
33. "The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’, which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it." Abraham Lincoln, Fragment: "The Constitution and the Union" , Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy Basler (New York: World Publishing, 1946), p. 513.
34. "If your cause is just --- you may look with confidence to the Lord and intreat [sic] him to plead it as his own. You are all my witnesses, that this is the first time of my introducing any political subject into the pulpit. At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature. So far as we have hitherto proceeded, I am satisfied that the confederacy of the colonies has not been the effect of pride, resentment, or sedition, but of a deep and general conviction, that our civil and religious liberties, and consequently in a great measure the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our posterity, depended on the issue. The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely, confined to those parts of the earth, where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen...There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage." "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men," quoted in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1991), pps. 529-559.
35. "We want not, indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbors, nor one nation any such claim upon another...These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of men has informed the human bosom. It is, however, a satisfaction to observe such everlasting maxims of equity confirmed, and impressed upon the consciences of men, by the instructions, precepts, and examples given us in the sacred oracles." "Sermon on the Day of the Commencement of the Constitution" , Ibid., pps. 627-657.
36. Between the religious and the nonreligious the relation is not symmetrical. For the nonreligious, it may be difficult to use religious language. For the religious, it is a quite familiar move to recur to the language of reason, a move often endorsed in the religious tradition. For the religious, one additional reason for trusting reason is that the Creator created it as well. Some of the nonreligious trust reason, but these days many don't.
37. Op. cit., p. 522. William Bennett collects several of these texts in Our Sacred Honor (Tennessee: Broadman & Holman publishers,1997). Another source is James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Conference at the Library of Congress, June 19, 1998 (forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefied: Lanham, MD, 1999).
38. Quoted in Ronald Reagan’s "First Inaugural Address," January 20, 1981, Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 64. Regarding Joseph Warren’s role at Bunker Hill, I have learned much from Catherine Drinker Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1950); David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (first published,1789), Lester H. Cohen, ed. (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1990); Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind (Simon & Schuster, 1997).