Patrick Henry, speaking in the Continental Congress, 1774, declared; “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
In a letter to Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton expressed these same convictions. “We are laboring hard to establish in this country principles more and more national and free from all foreign ingredients so that we may be neither Greeks nor Trojans, but truly Americans.”
In his Farewell Address, George Washington addressed the same sentiment. “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism.”
The American of 1776 and following was indeed a New Man. In courage, conviction, and sacrifice, he declared that the spiritual is supreme. That very First Principle of Americanism, declared in the Declaration of Independence, is that all men are created … endowed by their Creator.
The First Principle: The Spiritual Is Supreme
Therein lies the First Principle: The spiritual is supreme. By spiritual we mean of the Holy Spirit of God. The Founding Fathers knew that the First Principle of America was religious in nature. Man is of divine origin and his spiritual nature is of supreme and eternal value to his Creator. His governmental philosophy rests on this First Principle. Never before in all of history has a governmental philosophy rested on the brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of the Triune God. Only in a right relationship with God to man can man live in the right relationship with God and his fellow man.
As we look deep into the First Principle that the spiritual is supreme, we see the duty of every man to live under God’s moral laws, to recognize the absolutes that bind upon all men at all times, under all circumstances. As we understand the remarkable heritage of civil and religious liberty in this light, we see that we will never enjoy these liberties without bearing the responsibilities that accompany them. We cannot separate the spiritual heritage from the responsibility of the accompanying stewardship. That stewardship sensibility should consider as paramount the protection of these God-given, unalienable rights that constitute the very heart of the Declaration of Independence.
In all the writing and journals of the founding period of America, our forefathers rejected all ideas, theories, and schools of thought that failed to affirm God as man’s Creator and the sole source of his rights. Government exists to protect those rights.
Essential in the structure of our federal system was that the proposed federal government should have strictly limited powers. It also should have no jurisdiction or power in regard to religion. In the following years, the First Amendment would prohibit Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Founding Fathers’ conviction: Every man has supreme value because God created him. His Creator set his value. Therefore, the government must rest upon this truth: The spiritual is supreme. God’s government supersedes man’s government.
The Second Principle: Fear of Government over Man
The “Kentucky Resolutions,” by Thomas Jefferson, makes this warning: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Washington’s Farewell Address speaks of the unity of government built on the very first Principle—that the spiritual is supreme. He declares:
Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts.… The Unity of Government, which constitutes you one people, is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee, that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness.… The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and political Principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.
One of Washington’s best-known admonitions is this one: “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” (Farewell Address, September 17, 1796).
In a spiritual world of both godly and sinful men, fear of government makes an apt corollary, a valuable lesson of history. A mixture of good and evil lies in the heart of man. The resulting abuse of power, with injuries to individual and collective liberties, predominates in the history of every nation and culture. Would America be able to overcome the sin nature of man being prominent and dominant in the new government? What was the challenge to the American, this New Man?
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur was a French immigrant who became a New York farmer. In 1782, he wrote essays compiled into his Letters from an American Farmer. In it, he describes the New Man in this light: “He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…. The American is a new man, who acts upon his principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. —This is an American.”
Accordingly, until modernism set in, from the day of the Pilgrims and Puritans, Americans built from the ground up, an entirely new educational system. A system of Biblical principles formed the foundation for all knowledge. Dominant in early America, these principles now only fuel the curriculum of a few hundred Christian schools and home schools. Teachers in these Biblically grounded schools view, treat, and educate every child as uniquely created by God. They build on God’s principle of individuality and covenant promise based on creation in God’s image. These schools remain zealous for the safety of individual liberty. They treasure their God-given unalienable rights. The true American today, as before, continues to recognize government’s overreach, with its secular religion in government schools, and opposes it in every lawful way.
We understand the wisdom of fearing government. We understand what Washington meant when he spoke of the “love of power and the proneness to abuse it.” We see officials’ human weakness and love of power, and we see the corresponding weaknesses in the people themselves.
Yet observation is not enough. We may be inspired when we think of unalienable rights, but do we always cleave to the moral basis from which they are derived? Americans created government at all levels as a tool for preserving these rights, these liberties, and justice. They are the means of securing these rights for future generations. Instead, government now commonly violates and invades the historic checks and balances of national, state, and local representation, the boundaries of property rights, parental rights, and even our most private and personal decisions. All these cultural and civil currents have eroded American culture, erasing even the memory of our birthright in recent generations. This is the challenge of education today, of the Christian Church, and the family altar.
As a long-time teacher of American history, I was always so inspired by George Washington. In his First Inaugural Address, he addressed every generation—then and in the future. Referring to God-centered government, he admonished, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
In order to protect the unalienable rights given by God, the Founding Fathers recognized the responsibility that accompanies every single liberty. There is no “just power” in the world that can morally violate these rights. To be the new man, the New American, each individual at the time of the new Constitution consented to his own limitations to some degree, in order to secure these unalienable rights.
Elbridge Gerry, writing in 1788, affirmed this in these words, “All writers on government agree … that the origin of all power is in the people, and that they have an incontestable right to check the creatures of their own creation, vested with certain powers to guard the life, liberty, and property of the community.”
Limited government was their passion. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist, no. 78,* “The executive … holds the sword … the legislature … commands the purse … the judiciary … has no influence over either the sword or the purse.… Liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, [as usurpers] but would have every thing to fear from its union with either of the other departments”—in usurping power.
The importance of a decentralized national government, limited in power, with the careful balance of the greater power in the states—and that limited as well—demonstrates the genius of the Founding Fathers, and their clear understanding that the spiritual is supreme. The Protestant Reformation brought the light of liberty to these shores. Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the greats of that generation, wrote in an oration on March 5, 1772, in Boston, “This eternal truth, that public happiness depends on a virtuous and unshaken attachment to a free constitution.” And in his state’s Massachusetts Bill of Rights, 1780, is this affirmation, “As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.” And since I am a history teacher, let me add Jefferson’s words in closing, “[Through education of the young in public schools], the first elements of morality too may be instilled in their minds … may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all good pursuits.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782).
* Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, The Federalist Papers. These were originally published in New York newspapers in support of the ratification of the United States Constitution. It is now available in numbers of mass market publications, such as published by Signet Classics and Dover Thrift.
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