Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Low But Solid Common Denominator

They could teach K-12 kids this much about the American Founding: In what he called his "first official act," George Washington thanked God. They could even make a video of Michael Newdow in his funny hat and call it, "He Said It!"

"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge."

And Washington felt that he was speaking not just for himself, but for the new American nation:

"In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either".

And Washington continues, crediting the Almighty not only with the success of the American Revolution, but with the peaceful agreement among men how to govern themselves and each other---the U.S. Constitution:

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."

Not so controversial.


Anonymous said...

Great post Tom. It's always interesting to see such a public religious statement from Washington. I forgot, but did Obama mention God in his inauguaral address? The only reason I'm asking is to see if times have changed from when such public expression were acceptable (in Washington's day).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

In using "the Invisible Hand", Washington is using terminology that appeals to those under the auspices of our government. "Invisible", but to the "eyes of faith"...that is the clencher, for me...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, that's the point, Angie. Judging by the ignorant claptrap I see across the internet, it's doubtful our K-12s are being taught that every single Founder, even Jefferson, could "see" this Invisible Hand.

Yet they seem to know all about the "Godless" Constitution.


Oprah, I would not judge anything by our current president. He seems to play both




Brilliant strategy, though, if it can hold.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you saying that Obama's politics reek of the Founder's convcitions about faith in the public square? "Different strokes for different folks?

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, I'm saying he's a good politician.

bpabbott said...

I don't intend to detract from Tom's larger point, but the term "Invisible Hand" was used in different contexts during the founding (in this case, I think GW did use the term as a metaphor for the God of Providence).

In any event, the term invisible hand has become quite famous due to its use by Adam Smith who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as The Wealth of Nations.

Smith's views of liberty and politics have many parallels with those of the founding. I don't recall much discussion regarding Smith's influence on the Founding.

Has anyone read Adam Smith and the Origins of American Enterprise: How the Founding Fathers Turned to a Great Economist's Writings and Created the American Economy, by Roy C. Smith.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think it means "God" in this case, Ben.

[I haven't read the book, but do they highlight Madison using Smith's argument against state-subsidezed religion, that it makes pastors fat lazy and unresponsive to their flock? I've been meaning to relocate the quotes.]

Oh, in case there's any confusion:

Good Religion in the Public Square


Bad Religion:


bpabbott said...

I've been meaning to study Smith's impact on the founders. Thus, far its just a goal, that I don't yet have time to entertain :-(

Thus, I don't know if Roy C. Smith's book examines Madison using Adam Smith in his argument against state sponsored religion.

bpabbott said...

I've ordered Roy C. Smith's book ... time to put some action behind the goal! :-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"invisible' means "unseen' or absent, as well..

Angie Van De Merwe said...

So, should one view the absence of God as "comfort", for then one can "prove" one's faith? That's logical, but not reasonable.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I find it interesting that the Founders didn't find it necessary to equalize the social structures, as this sanctioned "God's order"...establishment of an elite and elect class of citizens...And in today's world, with unions to appeals in our courts, individuals seek their right to pursue their own lives...apart from enslavement.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I've ordered Roy C. Smith's book ... time to put some action behind the goal! :-)

Attaboy, Ben. Certainly we'll put your report on the mainpage as a guest blogger!

"Wealth of Nations" was 1776, so that's why I think it's Madison's baby more than the rest, influencing the Constitution but not the revolution.

I'm a total fan of "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments" [1759], which is less political philosophy and mostly reflections on human nature.

It's readable free on the internet here:


I don't know if Adam Smith was a genius, but I consider him one of the wisest men who ever lived.

[Genius and wisdom are not synonymous.]

Ray Soller said...

Tom, what makes GW's first inaugural address his "first official act"? The Constitution did not require it, and just because Washington said so that didn't turn it into a legislated obligation for himself or future presidents. Some reference to the "Great Author" has become a matter of tradition, but as Washington demonstrated in his second inauguration it is not a necessity, and as our history has shown this nation's system of self-government did not fall apart due to its omission.

bpabbott said...

I like Adam Smith as well. My understanding is that he gets credit as an early champion of free-enterprise (capitalism) and is often referrred to as the father of economics.

Paraphrasing wikipedia, he followed the lead of his mentor, Francis Hutcheson, who divided moral philosophy into four parts: Ethics and Virtue; Private rights and Natural liberty; Familial rights (called Economics); and State and Individual rights (called Politics).

There are some strong parallels there. I look forward to studying this.

Another parallel is found in his religious views ... specifically, was he Christian or Diest?

King of Ireland said...

What most do not know is that he wrote against the mercantilist system at the time. I think it is similar to corporatism of today. If that is true then how ironic is it that people use his name to promote the modern version of the very thing he railed against?

I am reading a great book called "The Age of Federalism" by Stacey Elkins and Eric Mc Kitrick that puts Smith in the Scottish Enlightenment with Hume and others. They do a lot with the whole mercantilist system and how it caused major debt that rocked Va. They make the argument that this is the context in which Madison and Jefferson were raised and explains their opposition to Hamilton's plan to bring this ideas to the American system.

Anyway, they make the argument that Madison was influenced a great deal by the teaching of Smith. From the little I have read of "The Wealth of Nations" I think he was anti corporate too and his real quest was to see people free to pursue what they were good and had a desire to do. Seems much in line with Locke's teaching on private property and pursuing one's interests unfettered.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie: "Godless Constitution" is a book. Google it.

Ray: What Washington said a few minutes later is more important than what he "didn't say." Tell your friend Mr. Newdow to make a video of THAT.

Ben & King: Yes. Adam Smith was more "progressive" than the conservatives who adopt him give him credit for. On the other hand, today's "progressives" shun him.

Hehe. Typical of our current Tower of Babel.