I am now, and have always been, a big George Washington fan. I think I read my first biography of him in fifth grade. In seventh grade we staged a play about him – they didn’t like the script I drafted because it had too much history in it. Ah well.
Once, when I was a “Washington puppy," one of the many young adults who move to the city after college to begin work and life in earnest, a friend of mine came to visit. (Actually, a lot of friends came to visit those first few years. We were of an age when a floor to sleep on was considered free lodging, and Washington was a desirable locale to visit. But I digress.) He brought with him a friend, a young lady from Germany on her first U.S. visit. As we drove around viewing the monuments, she asked, quite earnestly, “Why is there an enormous obelisk at the center of your city?” That question sticks with me today because I failed to deliver a suitable answer, saying only that George Washington was our first president and is considered the father of our country.
Perhaps it was because of my shock at her apparent ignorance that I settled for such a rote answer. But to this day I regret my failure to explain George Washington’s signal unicity in history, our nation’s and the world’s. His military, political, and economic leadership, and his personal integrity, inspired generations of American citizens to do great things at the service of our nation. But even all that would not be worthy of the great monument on the Mall.
He is the indispensable man, the sine qua non of our experiment in ordered liberty. Without him, there would not be United States of America governed by the Constitutional order we enjoy. Because he did what no man before had ever done: having been given complete power, he voluntarily laid it down. He relinquished the Presidency he had defined according to a schedule. No one could have made him do that.
And ever since, once or twice a decade, the most powerful man on earth lets go of power and walks away, and someone else takes it up. The throngs tend to be so fixated on the personalities involved that the astonishing phenomenon can go unremarked. But that obelisk stands to remind us all that it could very well have been otherwise.
Why bother you with this observation now? Because the day he laid down his power, he thought it important to say this:
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? 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 deserts 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.
It could very well be otherwise, indeed. A blessed Independence Day to you all.