Today we celebrate the 228th anniversary of American Independence. Much more than being merely “the 4th of July” and the occasion of backyard cook-outs and fireworks displays, I would hope that this day would be. for all of us, an occasion to look back and contemplate the principles which underlie the founding of our Republic.
The Declaration of Independence is, itself, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third President of the Republic. Jefferson was one of those people of great brilliance, whose words are often misunderstood by those who don’t have the intellect or the background to follow his thinking. Among the ignorant he is often referred to by taking, altogether out of context, his letter to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut about “separation of church and state.” He was adamant that the Republic not direct or establish a state religion, but he was equally insistent upon the need for adherence to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” Jefferson proposed a question that bears repeating today: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?”[i] He was not one of those deluded by the “Enlightenment” idea that authority came from “the will of the people”—he recognized its ultimate source in God.
But the man we generally refer to as the “Father of our Country,” was, of course, none other than George Washington. A bit less educated than Jefferson, Washington was, nonetheless, a towering intellect and a man of great practical application. To use the words of Pope Leo XIII, he was “The great Washington.”[ii]
In reading about him, I was struck by the way in which Washington resembled Saint Paul. He served the entire period of the Revolutionary War without pay, much as Saint Paul supported himself so as not to be a burden to his congregations.[iii] It is easy to read the words that Saint Paul speaks on Sexagesima Sunday, and to imagine them being spoken by Washington in the War—“in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness ... in perils from false brethren (Benedict Arnold?). In labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness (Valley Forge?). Besides those outer things, there is my daily anxiety, the care of all the churches—one need only substitute the word “Republic,” or perhaps, “the soldiers in my care”—“Who is weak, and I am not weak?”[iv]
Washington was a man of prayer. The paintings we have of him kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge are based on fact. He was reported by soldiers who knew him well to pray with great regularity; he officially ordered Sunday to be a day of rest, as far as might be possible, so that his soldiers might be able to attend church. Again, somewhat like Saint Paul, it is reputed that God rewarded his prayer with mystical experience. We have a written description of “a singular beautiful female” who addressed him, saying “Son of the Republic, look and learn,” as she showed him visions of the destiny of the Republic and its place in history.[v]
A lot of controversy surrounds the story of Washington’s deathbed conversion to the Catholic Faith. There probably will never be certainty about it. Clearly, if such a thing took place, there would have been many among the Protestant majority who would not have wanted it made known. But we were reminded by both Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII, that Washington was on close terms with the first American Bishop, John Carroll—Pope Pius referred to their friendship as “a proof that reverence for the Faith of Christ is a holy and established principle of the American people.”[vi] If the account of Washington’s Vision is correct, we Catholics know who the “singular beautiful female” had to be. We know that Washington’s effects were found to contain a picture of the Blessed Virgin and another of Saint John, and that he made the Sign of the Cross before saying grace. We are told that “About four hours before Washington's death, Father Leonard Neale, a Jesuit priest was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary's Mission across the Piscataway River [and] Washington ... was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church that night.”[vii]
We know with certainty that Washington—again, something like Saint Paul—left an important written legacy to his followers—“epistles” if I may borrow the biblical term. And these writings may be among his most important contributions to the Republic, for they are the unbiased remembrances of one who was there at the beginning of it all. And the advice of one who loved his Country unsparingly.
Washington’s writings show his great humility. Instead of pretending to have invented the Republic by himself, he wrote about the centuries of history that came before it: “the treasures of knowledge acquired by the labors of philosophers, sages, and legislators, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use ... and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation....”[viii] The word “Revelation,” alone, is capitalized.
We see the same humility as he proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day: "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor ... for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
Washington’s writings contain a good deal of practical advice for the new Republic as well. At a time when men were rightfully distrustful of government, he urged the formation of a strong federal union of the newly independent States, so that we wouldn’t become “the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another, to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes.” In the same letter (to the Governors of the States in 1783), he urged putting aside “local prejudices and policies,” making “mutual concessions,” and sacrifices of “individual advantage to the interest of the community.”[ix]
Washington’s vision of the Republic was one without political parties, in which statesmen would be elected to do their best for the entire nation—rather than politicians who would appeal to a particular region of the Country or to the special interests of groups large or wealthy enough to secure them election: “Domination of one faction over another,” he said, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension ... is itself a frightful despotism.... The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction ... turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”[x]
Washington’s idea of the Republic was one which minded its own business, but without becoming isolationist: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.”[xi] America, he was saying should be willing to have peaceful commerce with any and every willing nation, on an equal basis; but America should not take part in the disagreements and the wars between them.
In his letter of 1783 to the State Governors, he suggested that the whole world was watching their United States—that it was “the time of their political probation ... the moment when the eyes of the world [were] turned upon them ... the moment to establish or ruin their national character forever.”[xii] No doubt, Washington was right, but I would suggest that his words be taken farther—our United States will always be on probation—precisely because our Republic will flourish and our liberties endure only if we remain a virtuous people. He said as much himself in his Farewell Address: “Can it bee, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?” “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[xiii]
So today, as we celebrate our Nation’s independence, let us ask God’s blessing upon the Republic—and let us ask His blessings upon us, that we may be the virtuous people so necessary if liberty is to endure.
[i] Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia," 1781: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."
[ii] Leo XIII, Longinqua oceana, 6 January, 1895: 4. “Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed.”
[iii] Acts xviii: 3; 1 Thessalonians ii: 19.
[iv] Cf. 2 Corinthians xi: 26-29.
[v] “General Washington's Vision at Valley Forge,” originally published by Wesley Bradshaw. Copied from a reprint in the National Tribune. Vol. 4, No. 12, December 1880. http://www.ycsi.net/users/reversespins/gwv.html
[vi] Pope Pius XII SERTUM LAETITIAE On the Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Hierarchy In the United States November 1, 1939, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12SERTU.HTM
3. It is a pleasure for Us to
recall the well remembered story.
[vii] Ben Emerson, ”George Washington's Deathbed Conversion to Roman Catholicism” The Reign of Mary, Issue No. 108, Winter 2002
[viii] George Washington, “Circular Letter to Governors,”8 June 1783, in Meyers, Kern and Cawelti, The Sources of the American Republic (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1960) p.144.
[ix] “Circular Letter to Governors,” ibid, p. 145.
Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796
“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.”
[xii] “Circular Letter to Governors,” ibid, p. 144.
[xiii] Washington's Farewell Address, 1796 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm
“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 labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens... It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government... Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?”