Today we honor the birthday of our nation’s first and most beloved president, George Washington. His legacy is far too rich to be encapsulated in a blog post, but as I read the transcript of his first inaugural address in 1789, the import of his words and their relevance to the Convention of States Project struck me with great force.
In humbly accepting his new office, Washington described his reluctance:
“On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection… On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
Humble people, fully aware of their imperfections, naturally shrink from the grand and heavy task of steering a nation. We feel incapable of it. We are inclined to lead our lives quietly. Washington continued, however:
“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. . . . 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…”
It is an enduring faith that ultimately leads humble people, while fully aware of their imperfections and naturally shrinking from the grand and heavy task of steering a nation, to take up that task nonetheless, when it is put before them by the trustworthy hand of “that Almighty Being who presides in the councils of nations.”
Perhaps the best-known portion of Washington’s address is that in which he stated this timeless expectation:
“[T]he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government [will] be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
How can we read these immortal words today without asking ourselves: Will we let the fires of liberty be extinguished by a tyrannical federal government? Are we ready to abandon our birthright? Or will we take up the monumental task of steering our own government clear of the shoals of socialism?
Near the end of his address, President Washington—who had presided over the Constitutional Convention—urged Congress to use its Article V power as necessary to “impregnably fortif[y]” the “characteristic rights of freemen” and to “safely and advantageously promote” the “public harmony” by proposing appropriate constitutional amendments.
I can’t help but believe that if Washington were here today, he would repeat these very words—not to a federal institution that has become far too powerful—but to the legislative chambers of the 50 states empowered to restore our Republic.
Happy Birthday, President Washington. We hear you.