C. Austin De Camp, Retired Lt. Col. Engrs. AUS, saw volunteer service in World Wars I and II. His 86 years have been devoted to exposition of
George Washington’s high regard for the Constitution of the
It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle that the delegates from so many different States… should unite in forming a system of national government so little liable to well-founded objection.
From that phrase, Catherine Drinker Bowen derived the title for her historical narrative of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Miracle at Philadelphia. With Washington presiding over their deliberations, some 55 diverse personalities, representing 12 sovereign states, agreed on a code of association proclaimed by Gladstone "the greatest document ever struck off by the hand of man"—a document designed to give unity and purpose to a government of men and of states and to assure that liberty should be the birthright of succeeding generations.
"Miracles do not occur at random," observes Mrs. Bowen. "Every miracle has its provenance, every miracle has been prayed for. The wine was first water in Cana; there was a wedding and a need." And, one might add, the individuals were at hand to fulfill such need.
As to the miracle at
The Seeds of
To review the history of liberty is to realize that the concept is of relatively recent origin.
With all the fine theories of freedom evolved by the Greeks, they neither embraced monotheism nor discarded slavery. Englishmen spelled out the beginnings of the rights of man in the Magna Carta; they recognized the right of the individual to by-pass the clergy in reading the Scriptures; they enhanced the quality of justice through impartiality in court practices; but they remained the subjects of rulers who inherited sovereignty by Divine Right.
The great break-through to the idea of citizen sovereignty came on the Atlantic coast of
Abraham had sown the seed: one God of the universe manifesting Himself through the individual. Intervening centuries of religious and philosophical gestation enabled Thomas Jefferson to put it in these words: "All men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with rights… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among m en." How, then, to structure a government to implement this new-born idea of citizen sovereignty?
Except for the inspired leadership of George Washington in those perilous years after 1776, this child might have died in infancy, and we might still be groping for a practical way to rest sovereignty in the individual. History should record him, not only as the father of his country, but also as the father of citizen sovereignty—the greatest advance in social and human relationships since the dawn of civilization.
The governance of man, if one traces the social contract through time, begins with the tribal chieftain. It progresses from smaller to greater ruler ships, all substantially authoritarian in method and monarchical in design. The Divine Right of Kings and succession by primogeniture typify such systems, the freedom of the individual ever secondary to the authority of the sovereign. Then, the miracle—the mantle of sovereignty enveloping each citizen and his heirs forever, theirs the responsibility for working out the intangibles of human liberty and voluntary association.
Under citizen sovereignty, the excellence of any government depends directly upon the excellence of the citizenry. If one is unhappy with today’s state of the nation—law, order, education, inflation, pollution, war, morals, or whatever—the only honest and courageous course is serious self-examination. And then the question: "What am I going to do about it?"
One helpful answer might be to try to repair the lack of humility and gratitude in our spiritual makeup. To daily and sincerely register thanks for our heritage as citizens should make of us better sovereigns than we are. Also, we might seek an ideal sovereign after whom to pattern the exercise of our own privilege and duty. And what better choice than George Washington, first citizen sovereign following the rejection of monarchy, and model of unimpeachable honesty.
Parson Weems may have been a better historian than he knew when he invented the myth of the cherry tree, an interpretation of the greatness of a man who would not lie. Douglas Southall Freeman says of Washington: "For the long and dangerous journeys of his incredible life, he always had the strength and direction needed, because he ever walked a straight line."
Another question we might ask ourselves: "Does the sovereign believe in the cause he serves; am I truly dedicated to the freedom of mankind?" Evidence of Washington’s dedication is to be found in these responses when he was sought for speaking engagements after the war:
To the Reformed German Congregation in New York—"the establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the motive which induced me to take the field."
To the New Church in Baltimore—"We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that here every person may worship God according to the dictates of his own heart… It is our boast that a man’s religious tenets may not forfeit him the right of attaining and holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.
Biographer Freeman says further:
George Washington was neither an American Parsifal nor a biological sport. What he was, he made himself by will, by ambition and by perseverance… He ever walked a straight line.
There is the crowning glory of the man, a man with few, if any, of the accepted factors of greatness such as commanding statesmanship, great eloquence, great scholarship, great skill as a builder, or even great military prowess. Not by talented genius that Washington attained the mantle of greatness, but because he walked a straight line. Achievements unparalleled, by unswerving devotion to truth. Truth, which makes men free.
Washington left us a legacy of opportunity and of truth—basic elements in the structure of national endurance. Facing today’s "times that try men’s souls," may we be guided, by man and his miracle, to walk a straight line.