Monday, February 22, 2010

Prerequisite to democracy and freedom

Today is the anniversary of George Washington's birth. He is worthy of our remembrance for many reasons including, as was noted several years ago in a review of Richard Brookhiser's Founding Father:
.... Time and again, Washington turned away from opportunities for personal aggrandizement to demonstrate his devotion to popular, civilian rule. The episodes are familiar but worth rehearsing: his resignation of command immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Paris; his rebukes to those who whispered to him suggestively of monarchy; his reluctance to reenter public life after his military career; and, finally, his insistence on leaving the presidency after his second term. “Washington's last service to his country,” Brookhiser rightly observes, “was to stop serving.” ....
Few revolutionary leaders have ever exercised such restraint. Most of them have considered themselves indispensable. At the end of that second term in 1796 he wrote a "Farewell Address" which included 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 desert 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 is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? .... [more]
Founding Father by Richard Brookhiser, Avalon Project - Washington's Farewell Address 1796