Mr. Pettengill is a former Congressman from Indiana.
The issues confronting our country would be better understood if we really knew what our Fathers meant when they called the American system "A New Order of the Ages." We would also know better whether it is worth the effort to preserve it.
On , the Continental Congress, after considering different designs, adopted the Great Seal of the United States. It is portrayed on the back of the one dollar bill. If you have children or grandchildren, you can do something for our Republic by urging them to study the Great Seal and to understand its meaning. There is no patriotic symbol that has deeper meaning.
The Seal has two sides. The obverse shows the familiar eagle in whose claws are the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace. Over the eagle are the words, E Pluribus Unum—"from many, one." This side describes the physical structure of our government.
The reverse side of the Seal portrays the spiritual character of our Republic, and this is what most needs attention today.
It shows a pyramid of thirteen layers of stone. But it is an unfinished pyramid to indicate that every generation of Americans have work to do to build it higher, stronger, and still more perfect. It scarcely necessary to note that the pyramid rests on its broad base, representing popular government, and is not inverted to balance on the precarious apex of one-man rule.
Above the pyramid is the all-seeing eye of Divine Providence surrounded by a glory. Surmounting it are the Latin words Annuit Coeptis meaning "He has blessed our undertakings." At the base of the pyramid are the Roman numerals for "1776," and at the bottom of the Seal are the words Novus Ordo Seclorum—"a New Order of the Ages."
This seal was adopted only eight months after the surrender of Cornwallis, five months before the Treaty of Peace with England, and at the beginning of the seven "critical years" before the Constitution was adopted, a period when the lion-hearted Washington was in almost greater despair than during the worst years of the war.
Were the words "A New Order of the Ages" an expression of hope, or an act of faith? It was the latter. These men had faith. They truly believed that Divine Providence had blessed their undertakings.
But why did they call their young government a "new order of the ages"? Because it was a new order. It had long been struggled for, but as a going concern, it was something new in all the ages that had gone before.
In what respects was it new? Let us trace back to far beginnings the spiritual character of this young government.
Render unto Caesar
I take you back nineteen centuries and more when some men were talking to each other near the shore of Galilee. A question was asked and an answer given: "Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that be God’s." When these words were spoken, those who heard them "could not take hold upon His words, and they marveled at His answer, and held their peace."
Why could they not take hold upon His words, and why did they marvel at His answer? First, because they could find no treason in these words, and second, because they must have sensed in its deep implications that here was the greatest challenge to totalitarian power that had ever been let loose upon this planet. No wonder that they marveled. It was a strange and marvelous doctrine.
They were told that there was a land and jurisdiction in which the power of government could be rightfully asserted, but beyond that land there was another land belonging to God and His creature, Man, where Caesar should not tread. Christ said that a fence shall stand between these two lands.
These words gave birth to the idea of freedom, but for long centuries, it was hungered for in vain.
Like the eternal struggle between sea and shore, some vestige of freedom was sometimes won for a short period. It had the appearance of freedom, but it was not a matter of right, but of a monarch’s grace, to be enjoyed for a brief space and then submerged by the ceaseless tides of arbitrary power. These tides are sweeping in today.
For men of our race, the first great breach in Caesar’s prison wall was made by the Barons of Runnymede 745 years ago.
The Great Charter then signed and sealed by King John dealt with many matters that were important only as long as feudalism endured. But it is to the eternal credit of the barons that they erected barriers against arbitrary power, not for themselves alone, but for the rank below them, the "free men."
It is here that the Charter stated principles of universal application, and as such, laid the foundation of government by law, and not by men.
"No free man," the King was made to say, "shall be taken or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor will we send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land."
These words, in all English speaking countries, are the foundation of limited government, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and many other safeguards of free men—the end of Star Chamber, ex post facto crimes, bills of attainder, prison without trial, and confessions by torture.
The Rights of Man
Magna Charta began a struggle of seven centuries that is still going on. King John himself and other kings and parliaments and courts have time and again tried to tear Magna Charta down, and have often succeeded.
But Runnymede was followed by the Petition of Right of 1628, Ship’s Money, Naseby, the head of Charles I, and the Bill of Rights of 1689—by men of the stature of Hampden, Milton, Hooker, Vane, Sidney, Coke, Locke, Pym, and Selden, of whom one was killed in battle, two executed, and four put in the Tower of London. Because they were MEN, the Rights of Man came marching on.
As Kipling wrote:
All we have of freedom, all we use or know
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.
Ancient Right unnoticed as the breath we draw
Leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the Law
Lance and torch and tumult, steel and grey-goose wing,
Wrenched it, inch and ell and all, slowly from the King.
It was hard for King and court and courtiers and courtesans to give up their claim that all things should be rendered unto Caesar. Kings claimed they were above the law; that "the monarch is the law." But finally my Lord Chief Justice Coke stood before King James, whose fist was clenched to strike him, and said, "The King is under God and the law,"—words that were heard across the Atlantic and will reverberate as long as men take pride in manhood.
A Design for Freedom with Trust in God
Then in the course of human events came Lexington on April 19, 1775, Concord Bridge, "the shot heard ’round the world" and the noble words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,"—rights that existed ages before there was any such thing as a state or government, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; rights which neither King nor commissar can lawfully take away; rights which men cannot rightfully vote away, because they hold them in sacred trust "for the ages."
It is plain that the words of Christ came alive again in
Two years later, the Articles of Confederation were drawn up because "It hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent… to approve of… the said articles of confederation and perpetual union."
Then came the Constitution holding once more that the power to govern comes from the governed—"We, the people"—not their governors. The divine sanction appears in the Constitution in the requirement that the President must take an oath before High Heaven itself, to defend the Rights of Man. As is well known, the words "In God We Trust" have been used on some of our coins since 1864, and by Act of Congress in 1955 will now appear on all coins and United States paper currency.
Although the Constitution does not mention God by name, the Supreme Court of the United States has said that the Constitution is the letter and the page of which the Declaration of Independence is the spirit and the soul.
Still later came the Pledge of Allegiance, amended by Congress five years ago to include the words "under God," showing, as President Eisenhower said, that "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war."
In short, as Lord Byron wrote in "The Prisoner of Chillon," men "appeal from tyranny to God."
A great American once asked, "Is life so dear, is peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!" Over and over, you see that the foundations of our Republic were laid on the Rock of Ages!
The Majority Restrained
I will return to Patrick Henry’s question, but let me add something more about Novus Ordo Seclorum. It was a new order for the ages for many reasons. I will mention only a few. It was new because it was the first time, in modern history at least, that a people deliberately debated and constructed the kind of government under which theywished to live. No Man on Horseback "waded through slaughter to a throne." Washington refused to be King.
This new order denied the divine right of kings. It also denied absolute power to its parliament (Congress), such as had been reestablished in England only fifteen years before the Great Seal was adopted. It denied absolutism to any court such as Star Chamber.
But more important, and differing from other charters, including Magna Charta itself, which limited the power of kings and princes, our charter put limits on the power of the people themselves! It denied the divine right of mobs as well as of kings. It denied the "general will" of Rousseau. It required more than a majority vote on the most important matters.
It was designed "not to make America safe for democracy, but to make democracy safe for America." For, as Jefferson said, the concentrating of all powers in the same hands is the definition of despotism, whether exercised by many voices, or by one.
This willingly self-imposed restraint by the people on the sovereign power of the people themselves is utterly new in history. The majority cannot override the rights of a minority or of a single individual safeguarded by the Constitution. Even the whole people are restrained, because they cannot alter the Constitution except in the deliberate manner therein set forth, in which the minority have the right to be heard and to oppose.
And because the sovereign power belongs to the people of fifty states, as well as the United States, it is inconceivable that any majority of the people who are not asleep will ever vest total power in a single unitary State, as in France, or a presidium as in Russia, or a Castro as in Cuba.
While the Constitution can be amended, and while a mad people could vote themselves into despotism, one thing is sure:—our Fathers never contemplated any changes that would fundamentally alter the character of our Republic.
They had posterity in mind. They had us in mind. They hoped that for all time Americans would insist that the individual has rights and dignities that are beyond the power of princes or the might of majorities.
Great Events of History
If I were teaching American history to boys and girls, I would ask them to study the great seals of our country and of all the states. They would see a single golden thread running through them all—the Rights of Man under God.
History should be a vital, gripping thing to our boys and girls. I object to history books that "squeeze out the dying words of Nathan Hale to make room" for social studies that teach dependence on the State and the immoral doctrine that men have the legal right to live on the sweat of other people’s brows. I object to classrooms that see no more of the flag than they do of the Crucifix or Star of David. I object to courthouses and city halls that do not fly the flag of their own state along with Old Glory.
In addition to mathematics and physics, we need more American history, honestly written, more British history, and the history of freedom everywhere. How can we see far into our future unless we stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past?
We need the acquaintance of heroes and the inspiration that comes from marching in their footsteps. For in the last pinch, when the chips are down, military hardware costing billions is useless matter without the intrepid spirit of man. John Paul Jones taught us that. How can we expect our youth to emulate heroism when we remove our heroes from the printed page?
As the great Edmund Burke, friend of the American Revolution, wrote of the ragged Continentals: "It is the love of the people, their attachment to their government from a sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution, which gives you your army and navy, and without which your army would be a base rabble and your navy nothing but rotting timbers."
A World-Wide Anthill
We have heard the tread of the returning Caesars. There was fascism in Italy and Germany, in which man, like a two-legged ant, was merely a cell in the greater organism of the State which alone was said to have supreme meaning. As Mussolini shouted: "Nothing outside the State, nothing against the State, everything for the State."
What threatens today is a worldwide human anthill.
But bad as fascism and Nazism were, and although both attempted to put the Church in their service, neither denied the existence of God, nor the people’s right to worship their Creator.
It is one of the great ironies of history, due either to the accidents of war or the follies of statesmen, that having unhorsed Hitler, we helped lift Stalin into his saddle and fed his horse!
For here is the deadliest foe civilization has ever faced. The cruelest tyrants of previous ages claimed total power over their people, but all of them, to my knowledge, recognized that there were gods over them who must be appeased and sometimes obeyed. Even Nero and Caligula did that. The communist tyrant, however, denies the existence of any God. To him, there is no such thing as Right and Wrong, Truth, Honor, or Faith. No treaty is binding. Nothing is immoral which feeds the power of the State. He considers man as nothing but a biological accident, a protoplasmic sport that somehow distinguishes his physical appearance from that of the cockroach or hyena. This tyrant’s creed is the nihilism of the soul.
Along with the growth of this vile creature’s power, we have grown soft, fat, and flabby within. The covetousness of Karl Marx has infected us. And the morbid doctrine of Sigmund Freud that man is the helpless slave of his "id," and therefore not responsible to anyone for anything, is making us lazy, undisciplined, and unprincipled. This is evidenced by the rapid rise of divorce, crime, and juvenile delinquency. Many people pity the murderer and rapist more than his victim.
Our elections have become auctions of the public treasure and millions of parasites use the vote to reap where they have not sown. The breeding of illegitimate children is becoming a profession and we are turning sturdy Uncle Sam into a male nurse.
We take struggle and discipline out of our children’s lives, in home and school, and then wonder at the treasonable conduct of many American prisoners of war in Korea.
The list of our troubles seems endless. Khrushchev says, "The United States is living the last years of its greatness." Some of my friends think we have passed the point of no return. They have tossed in the sponge.
A Hopeful Sign
I do not agree. They have not read history. Regenerative forces are always at work in any society although outmatched, for a time, by the forces of decay. There is always a saving remnant at work, as the Old Testament says. May we be part of it! Periods of vice and corruption are followed by the return of strength and honor. Communism, as the equal sharing of goods, has already been abandoned in Russia, and the German socialist party only this year turned the pictures of Marx and Engels to the wall. I do not believe the Russian slave state will endure for the ages.
In our own country we still have our schools, churches, libraries, and the Boy Scouts, the Campfire Girls, the YM and YWCA’s, the Catholic Youth groups, the 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, Junior Achievement, Little League Baseball, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and scores of similar organizations building men and women. Even the honor student as well as the athlete is beginning to get recognition from his fellows!
Nevertheless, no great political leader since Theodore Roosevelt has said: "I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life." T. R. appealed to the strong side of men and women, not to their softness, laziness, envy, and self-pity. It has been said that one generation of luxury and licentiousness can capture a fortress that withstood centuries of hardship and struggle. Only from struggle comes strength.
We no more know the solutions to all the problems we face than we know what a little child will face in life. But we need not despair for him. We can do for him, or her, the one thing without which all remedies are valueless, and with which all problems grow small. We can build him strong and straight—physically, mentally, and spiritually. In doing this, we will strengthen ourselves.