I get pretty annoyed when I see people who seem to believe that the point of, say, Memorial Day is swimming pools and car sales, or the point of Christmas is shopping. But before you say “I wish people would pay more respect for our nation on July 4th, rather than just lighting fireworks or getting drunk,” it might be useful to remember that George Washington celebrated the second anniversary of Independence Day by giving his soldiers extra rations of rum. If that’s not enough, here is what John Adams said about Independence Day in 1776, before the first one was even celebrated: “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
We are doing exactly the right thing by having as big a party as John Adams first suggested, in 1776. And if George Washington encouraged his soldiers to get a bit tipsy, what’s wrong with that? There may be one difference, though. They knew what to do the other 364 days of the year.
For just a moment, today, it might be wise to inject a drop of perspective into the froth of festivities (and beer), and consider what we should be doing to keep the spirit of 1776 alive. I think I good way to do this is to recall what George Washington suggested we do.
George Washington realised that it was not our institutions, nor even our Constitution, that was the necessary ingredient to keep our country alive. It is us.
Liberia, after all, was also started by Americans. Liberia’s1847 constitution was almost a carbon copy of our own Constitution. But they weren’t us, and didn’t have our character and morality. I don’t want to ruin your holiday by reminding you of what happened to Liberia, but the country, eventually, self-destructed, in the wake of several decades of Liberians destroying each other. If you think it’s the Constitution or our institutions that can protect us, you’d seem to be wrong. It’s you. (And me.)
Specifically, the most effective way to keep America alive, thought George Washington, was “religion and morality”, which were the “indispensible supports” of a free country. What did he mean by this? George Washington publicly worshiped, at least once, the Indians’ “Great Spirit”, while refusing to take communion in his own church, when President. What “religion” or whose “morality” did he think we should follow?
The discovery that is the basis for my new book offers the clearest ever into George Washington’s “religion and morality”, as well as giving us the first real insight into how these things helped him “make it” in the world, and helped make America. A tiny scrawl to the side of his accounting entry for the first purchase of his life was the clue overlooked for two hundred years, and over three thousand biographies.
When George Washington was fifteen, he bought a guide to greatness that took the place of the formal education he never got when his father died, leaving no money to go to the English boarding school he had wanted to go to. This guide also acted as a kind of idealised surrogate father for George, giving the teenaged George Washington the wisdom to take on the world when he quit the country school he ended up going to, and set out on his life’s adventures, when he was only seventeen.
This guide to greatness was not only the first purchase of his life, it was the only book he bought for many years. The little guide conveyed, in a distilled form, the most important wisdom gained by the great western civilisations that preceded our own, as it manifested itself in the character of what was referred to as a “Christian Gentleman”, and hero.
This image became George Washington’s ideal.
While George Washington, in his advice to us, said that the “morality” he thought was necessary for a free and civilised society was most easily conveyed through religion, for himself, he took things further.
The gentleman part of a “Christian gentleman” were those values, characteristics, and traits which ennobled heroes, that not only enabled George Washington to out-do any Horatio Alger character in terms of mere material success, but gave him the grace and wisdom to use that success in the best way possible, for himself, and for others.
So, while the fireworks explode and the beer flows, consider that it is you who make America America, and realise that the celebration is for you, all you are, and, perhaps most important, all you may become.