Looking back, they are separated by two days on a given calendar year, but in real time were separated by 9 actual years. The dates September 17, 1787 and September 19, 1796.
On September 17, 1787 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the new U.S. Constitution with a view to replacing the failed Articles of Confederation. To become effective the Constitution still needed to be ratified by the states, a process that was successfully completed in 1789.
On September 19, 1796 newspapers published President George Washington’s Farewell Address, a letter to the American people, as he completed his second and final term as the first president of the United States.
Last Sunday was Constitution Day, officially designated so by the U.S. Congress. Today, as I write this column, the 19th of September, is the anniversary of the publication of Washington’s address.
Is there anything noteworthy about the two for current American affairs?
Consider that George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. He was sworn in as president in 1789 . The First Ten Amendments, The Bill of Rights were proposed later that year on September 25, 1789 and were officially ratified during his first term of office on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment, of course, includes two provisions related to religion, the establishment clause prohibiting the government from establishing a religion, and the free exercise clause protecting religious rights of individuals in the practice of their religion.
With respect to religion, George Washington knew what the government could or could not do and what individuals, including those serving in government could or could not do, perhaps more so than any other person at that time.
Keeping that in mind, ought we today to place weight on what he wrote in his Farewell Address to the people of the United States?
Consider this portion:
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 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. ’Tis 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.
As Bill Bennett, former Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, writes about this passage in his American Patriot’s Daily Almanac, “The president reminded his fellow citizens that national strength rests on the pillars of private morality, especially religion. The word he used to describe those pillars of American democracy is not ‘optional’ or ‘desirable’ or ‘helpful’; it is ‘indispensable.’”
If anybody understood the proper role of religion in public affairs it would have been George Washington. Could he still speak to today?
Pass it on.