All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1971

Man and Miracle

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 America‘s gift of freedom to the world, speaking and writing of the meaning behind the major anniversaries we celebrate.

George Washington’s high re­gard for the Constitution of the United States was expressed in a letter to Lafayette early in 1888:

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 Philadel­phia, the prayer for freedom had been growing in intensity for fifty generations. The need was evident in the conduct and gov­ernance of 13 embryo states along America‘s Atlantic shore. In due time, the requisite human agency appeared, making liberty the first and foremost concern of the po­litical structure. Those develop­ments of American philosophy, culminating in the decision for a free mankind, are indeed a great miracle. How fitting then, in cele­bration of Washington’s birthday, that we check our bearings to de­termine if we are worthy of our miraculous heritage: attainable freedom for all mankind.

The Seeds of Liberty and the Flowering

To review the history of liberty is to realize that the concept is of relatively recent origin. Liberty could be no part of a polytheistic religion, with a multitude of gods enslaving men and directing their destinies quite apart from human desires and capabilities. Only some 3,900 years ago did Abraham make the first major break from polytheism; and much of the world today has yet to break those chains. The meaning of freedom develops slowly.

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 America, among people conditioned to self-reliance, resourcefulness, and in­dependence. Freedom—the right of choice—was knocking at their door. And they opened that door in recognition of their need.

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.

Citizen Sovereignty

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.