Monday, March 24, 2014

President Washington: On God and Country

President George Washington’s First Inaugural Address offers some insight on what he thought about God and Country.  Here is an excerpt from his speech to the Senate and House of Representatives given on April 30, 1789:

Washington’s love and admiration for his country:

“Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love,* from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years: a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my Country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens, a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies….”

Washington’s recognition of an “Almighty Being” who is the ultimate ruler:

“Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station; it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency….”

Washington then adds that America’s success is dependent on God’s blessings:

“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the oeconomy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since 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….”

*My emphasis added.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

America: A Democracy or Republic?

What form of government does America have?  Is it a Democracy or a Republic?  In The Federalist No. 39, James Madison discusses the best form of government for America.  The following is an excerpt from his argument:

“The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the government be strictly republican.  It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.  If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.”

Madison then defines the character of a republic:

“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.  It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.  It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified; otherwise every government in the United States, as well as every other popular government that has been or can be well organized or well executed, would be degraded from the republican character.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Career Politician by Benjamin Franklin

According to Cornell University Law School, the President’s annual salary is $400,000 a year.  Additionally, he receives another $50,000 “to assist in defraying expenses relating to or resulting from the discharge of his official duties.”  Indeed, Washington career politicians do quite well for themselves especially when compared to struggling Main Street Americans.  At the Federal Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin spoke against salaries for government officials.  In this excerpt, Franklin describes the career politician:

 “Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men.  These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money.*  Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects.  Place before the eyes of such men, a post of honour that shall be the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it…. And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters?  It will not be the wise and moderate; the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust.  It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in selfish pursuits.  These will thrust themselves into your Government and be your rulers.”

Franklin adds that the career politician will always have a voracious appetite for power:

And there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able in return to give more to them.-Hence as all history informs us, there has been in every State and Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing and governed:  the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less.  And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes, or enslaving of the people.  Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more.  The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partisans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure.  There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharaoh, get first all the people’s money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants for ever.”

Franklin expresses concern about the future of the country under the leadership of the career politician:

“But there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.  It sometimes relieves them from Aristocratic domination.  They had rather have one tyrant than five hundred.  It gives more of the appearance of equality among Citizens, and that they like.  I am apprehensive therefore, perhaps too apprehensive, that the Government of these States, may in future times, end in a Monarchy.  But this Catastrophe I think may be long delayed, if in our proposed System we do not sow the seeds of contention, faction and tumult, by making our posts of honor, places of profit….And indeed in all cases of public service the less the profit the greater the honor.”

Was Franklin correct in his assertions?  Are our leaders today cutting excessive spending or are they enslaving future generation of Americans to a massive debt?  Are they still working for us or are they busy filling their own pockets?  Is the Main Street American still pursuing life, liberty, and happiness or is a Monarchy near at hand?  Franklin considered history when speaking on the issue; it would behoove us to do the same. 

*My emphasis added. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

'I am an American'

Declaration of Independence - Courtesy The National Archives

In his speech, I am an American, Gouverneur Morris reflected on what defines a strong nation and good government.  Does America still project the same image to the world today?  Here is an excerpt from Morris’s speech given in 1800:

A nation truly great cannot but excel in arts as well as in arms.*  And as a great mind stamps with its own impression the most common arts, so national greatness will show itself alike in the councils of policy, in the works of genius, in monuments of magnificence and deeds of glory.  

Does the United States fall within the scope of Morris’s description of a great nation? 

Morris continues:

“It is in the national spirit.  It is in that high, haughty, generous, and noble spirit which prizes glory more than wealth and holds honor dearer than lifeIt is that spirit, the inspiring soul of heroes, which raises men above the level of humanity.  It is present with us when we read the story of ancient Rome.  It swells our bosoms at the view of her gigantic deeds and makes us feel that we must ever be irresistible while human nature shall remain unchanged.  I have called it a high, haughty, generous, and noble spirit.  It is  high-elevated above all low and vulgar considerations.  It is haughty-despising whatever is little and mean, whether in character, council, or conduct.  It is generous – granting freely to the weak and to the indigent protection and support.  It is noble – dreading shame and dishonor as the greatest evil, esteeming fame and glory beyond all things human.”

In the 18th century, people valued honor above life.  Indeed, the Founders placed their “sacred honor” – something they valued more than life itself – on the line when they signed the Declaration of Independence.  Do our leaders value honor more than life today?

Morris closes his speech:

“When this spirit prevails, the government, whatever its form, will be wise and energetic because such government alone will be borne by such men.  And such a government, seeking the true interest of those over whom they preside, will find it in the establishment of a national character becoming the spirit by which the nation is inspired.  Foreign powers will then know that to withhold a due respect and deference is dangerous, that wrongs may be forgiven but that insults will be avenged.  As a necessary result every member of the society bears with him everywhere full protection, and when he appears his firm and manly port mark him of a superior order in the race of  man.  The dignity of sentiment which he has inhaled with his native air gives to his manner an ease of superior to the politeness of courts and a grace unrivaled by the majesty of kings.  These are blessings which march in the train of national greatness and come on the pinions of youthful hope.  I anticipate the day when to command respect in the remotest regions it will be sufficient to say, ‘I am an American.’”    

When confronted by the world, do our leaders project the unique spirit of America today or have we already lost our identity as a nation under the weight of multi-culturalism?

*My emphasis added.