The title of this blog is “What Would The Founders Think?”. Of course, in order to understand what the founders would think of current events, one has to understand a good deal of history, as well as to pay attention to what is happening today. Fortunately, due to the internet blogosphere and media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, it is probably easier than it has ever been to accomplish the latter. The former requires a fair amount of reading and study. As one of the primary authors of this blog, I don’t consider myself nearly as well-versed in the history of the American Revolution as I would like to be. However, one of the primary motivations for doing this has always been to chronicle my journey of discovery.
In the biographies of George Washington and Samuel Adams, as well as in McCullough’s 1776, the modern reader is struck with both Washington and Adams’ preoccupation with morality, even in the midst of dire circumstances. Both men were convinced that the cause of American Independence was a just one. They were willing to dedicate their lives, personal honor and fortunes to the effort. The risk to their very lives was not insignificant. But they accepted the risk based on their faith, believing that God would favor a moral people unjustly persecuted and subjected to the arbitrary tyranny of George III. Both expressed grave concern at the increased use of profanity and consumption of alcohol by both the people and the troops.
Soldiers were expected to attend “divine service” and avoid profanity upon penalty of a fine.
Today this might seem like attributing undue importance to an apparently minor problem, especially in the context of what was transpiring around them, such as the setbacks in New York, the lack of supplies, an ever shrinking army, and the prospect of being annihilated by the most powerful army in the world.
But this was not a minor issue to Washington and Adams (and others). To them, maintaining the virtue and morality of the nascent nation was of paramount importance. They believed that success was only possible with Divine assistance. That assistance could be relied upon only if the character of the people merited God’s protection.
George Washington understood that morality and virtue did not spring naturally from reason alone. In his farewell address he was explicit in pointing out national morality cannot exist in the absence of religion.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. 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.”
He went on to say:
The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of the love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this proposition.
John Adams recognized the basic tenets of self interest within human nature in a letter to his cousin Samuel Adams arguing that only in enlightening the masses, can mob rule be prevented from usurping democracy.
We have human nature, society, and universal history to observe and study, and from these we may draw all the real principles which ought to be regarded. Disciples will follow their masters, and interested partisans their chieftains; let us like it or not, we cannot help it. But if the true principles can be discovered, and fairly, fully, and impartially laid before the people, the more light increases, the more the reason of them will be seen, and the more disciples they will have. Prejudice, passion, and private interest, which will always mingle in human inquiries, one would think might be enlisted on the side of truth, at least in the greatest number; for certainly the majority are interested in the truth, if they could see to the end of all its consequences. …
… Pride, in the heart of man, is an evil fruit and concomitant of every advantage; of riches, of knowledge, of genius, of talents, of beauty, of strength, of virtue, and even of piety. It is sometimes ridiculous, and often pernicious.
James Madison also understood the innate nature of man. In Federalist 51
What is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on the government would be necessary. 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.
The confluence of personalities, events, and circumstances that resulted in the formation of the United States of America was incredibly unlikely. At times, success probably seemed impossible to those fighting for independence. In reading of the events, one can certainly understand why they felt compelled to place their faith in God. Reason or rationalism alone was insufficient to achieve the ends they sought.
Reason is a key topic of another book called Descartes’ Bones by Russel Shorto. In it, the author details briefly some of the key differences between the American revolution and the revolution in France. Events like the Boston Tea Party were restrained acts of civil disobedience compared with the thousands the French revolutionaries subjected to the guillotine, not to mention the deliberate destruction of priceless art, architecture, religious artifacts and historical documents.
What made America into a successful republican state, a place of limitless potential and huge personal freedom, while the French Revolution, 13 years later, devolved into senseless mob rule, anarchy and finally the despotism of Napoleon?
Shorto says that the colonists in America sought to bring religion and morality into harmony with reason and science, while the France revolutionaries sought to eradicate religion and, in their view, arbitrary concepts like morality, and made reason their new God. Even in America, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were briefly deluded into thinking that the French Revolution was the ultimate evolution of government. (Paine had to be rescued from French prison by Jefferson, as he went out of favor with the mob in France.)
The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that it was a mistake to think of reason as the basis of moral principles. Putting violence to official use to accomplish supposedly noble and rational purposes, was not only responsible for the Reign of Terror that was the French Revolution, but one could also argue that it resulted in despots like Stalin and Mao who slaughtered millions of their own peoples in the name of progress. Hume put it succinctly: “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”. In fact, it was Lenin, another dictator, who came up with the famous phrase about eggs and omelets.
Unfortunately, situational ethics are not unique to the past. Saul Alinsky, hero of the progressive left and author of Rules for Radicals, set forth the progressivists’ marching orders:
The virtue and morality that were once so important to men like Washington and Adams, are missing in today’s political arena, at all levels. In a recent interview by Bret Baier, President Obama did not even bother to address the ethical questions when he was asked about the process of getting his agenda through Congress. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are in the House or the Senate.” Ethics are a non-issue to believers in the dictum that the end justifies any means.
Recent events have demonstrated that the progressive politicians now in power are all true believers. Where this will take the country is a path that has been tried before with tragic results.