On Rereading George Washington’s First Inaugural Address

Alan Keyes Former Assistant Secretary of State
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In these honorable qualifications, I behold the surest pledges…that the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality…

I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my County can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, that that there exists in the economy 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. (Washington’s First Inaugural Address)

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. …The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.  And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. …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 the 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. (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the States of Virginia, Query XVIII)

These days it is almost comically commonplace for many American’s to reject, out of hand, the notion that America’s prevalent Founders—who framed and championed our democratic and republican Constitution; and who forged, in the flames of war, the union of our United States—were exceptional individuals, worthy to be regarded as a standard for statesmanship, for as long as the Union persists.  People who accept the false notion that racism is the epitome of injustice, have no patience for the view that people infected by its practices can be a standard for anything but evil.

Many of these very people exemplify the deeply racist antipathy toward the human race that drives the presently widespread practice of abortion; and the fanatical insistence that it must be worshipped, by force of law.  They are oblivious to the fact that they are as much, or even more greatly to be condemned for their racist character as the Founders they reflexively despise.  Since the rough hand of racist prejudice first jarred my soul from careless childhood, I have hated and despised every form of enslavement, beginning with the one inflicted for several centuries upon my ancestors, whose depravity Thomas Jefferson so accurately described.

I thank God, however, that my hatred of slavery did not ultimately blind my soul to the precious qualities of mind and spirit decisively at work in the thoughtful deliberations and action of America’s founding generation.  Though, as Jefferson understood, the practice of slavery engenders ruthlessly prideful passions, people like Jefferson and Washington did not idolize themselves, or their race, on that account.  I mean by this especially that the formation they derived from the example and practice of mastery did not lead them to equate that mastery with good, despising therefore the standard of good that revealed its presence even in those their practices condemned to be treated without regard for it.

This is the blinding effect that success usually has upon those with souls misshapen by the practice of making others their slaves.   At their height, this was the tragic flaw that bedeviled the Romans, as the momentum of their self-idolatry extended their power towards its zenith.  Now it appears as the defining characteristic of America’s present elites, as they erect idols to their prideful, self-indulgent vices, masked by the pretense of law, right and justice.  America’s Founders lived in an age when the forms of government characteristic of their time self-consciously thought to imitate Rome’s flawed, pretentious glories.  They had, in what they called the “New World,” an almost unimpeded prospect for self-aggrandizement.

The temptation to make that their goal was greatly aggravated by the corrupting effects of mastery Jefferson unflinchingly details. The history of the United States attests to the fact that, for some, it was destined to prove irresistible.  Material circumstances did not pose any insurmountable obstacle to such unbridled ambitions.  But the words of Jefferson, quoted above, point to the circumstance that assured that it would, inevitably, be opposed.  It was the circumstance of conscience, grounded in the presence of God, and the acknowledgment that law, right and justice were not ultimately dependent on the success of human will and power, but on the determined will of God.

Today some people would have us believe that the greatest threat of destruction for America lies in the mistaken belief of Islamic terrorists that they now act as the submissive agents of the power by which Allah inflicts belief or death upon infidels who defy him.  It’s telling that, on account of this mistaken belief, these Islamic fanatics feel free to practice and inflict all kinds of murderous evil, in pursuit of unchallenged mastery that reaches far beyond the dreams of Roman pride.

I understand why people who make unchallenged mastery the telltale sign of greatness, think this is the greatest threat to the American people.  But if America remained true to the character of its prevalent Founders, they would not be so affrighted by it.  For those Founders epitomized the true, and more powerful understanding that would see America through all present threats, as it did in the past.  It is the understanding by which they knew, and we should know that America’s greatest stature was not achieved when our military power was greater than all the rest; or when our economic power represented the material hopes of all the world.

Our greatest stature came there, at the very beginning of our independent existence as a nation, in the spirit, hearts and minds of Americans who did what no people had done as well before—they conquered themselves, their own pride and ambition, in order to acknowledge that the standard of law was in God’s hands. The standard of truth was in God’s power. And the hope of happiness and prosperity was not in conquering others, but in letting God’s standard of justice conquer all.   So, with fear, trembling and the consciousness of challenges and obligations beyond the competence of our humanity, our nation more and more courageously made manifest the greatness that was there, in seed, when it began.  There is no need to make for ourselves what God has wrought—no need at all, but to rightly follow His rule, in order to fulfill the promise with which He made humanity, a promise that proved and still affirms the goodness of our way of life.