What is this secret ingredient that George Washington called "indispensable" to our political well-being? Those aboard the Mayflower knew the answer in 1620. So did William Penn, the Quaker leader in Pennsylvania, and George Mason, one of Virginia's most distinguished lawyers. And so did many other early American leaders.
It is our sense of right and wrong - the morality that, if properly developed, serves as a personal policing agency to govern and guide our actions. Those with such a moral compass are able to exercise personal responsibility, rather than be compelled to comply with society's rules by government force. They do not kill, steal, cheat, or commit other legal and moral offenses, because they know that such actions are wrong and behave accordingly. They are guided by such moral strictures as the Ten Commandments, and by 50 doing promote less rather than more government. A breakdown in personal morality inevitably paves the way for bigger government (police, courts, prisons, social programs, etc.) to cope with the resulting social problems. The Quaker leader William Penn put it succinctly: "Those people who are not governed by God will be ruled by tyrants."
In its infancy, the United States was undeniably a religious nation whose citizens were governed more by personal conscience than by government edict. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically stated that it was "historically true" that our citizenry was "a religious people." "From the discovery of America to this hour," the High Court held, "there is a single voice making this affirmation." And in 1952, the Court reaffirmed that "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
The Court's conclusion was based on solid evidence: the colonial charters, official proclamations, and the constitutions of every state and the Union itself. "There is no dissonance in these declarations," it asserted. "These are not individual sayings or declarations of private persons; they are organic utterances: they speak the voice of the entire people.... There is a universal language pervading them all having but one meaning; they affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation."
When the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in 1620 for the journey that would bring them to the New England coast of Massachusetts, they recognized that some type of government would be necessary to hold them together. They knew that it would have to be an extension of the Divine Authority that governed each individual. The "constitution" they drew up was a simple moral code called the Mayflower Compact. It began, "In the name of God, Amen," and included a solemn pledge to "combine together for the preservation and furtherance of the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian religion."
In Pennsylvania, the Quakers had the same view of life and government. They had no doubt about the importance of God as the Supreme Ruler of each individual, and as the ultimate authority for the laws that would govern their society. That view was reflected in the speeches and writings of many colonial leaders. George Mason, one of the outstanding lawyers of the time, placed self-government above civil government when told the General Court of Virginia:
“... The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth. A legislature must not obstruct our obedience to Him from whose punishments they cannot protect us.”
Mason was among those who considered constitutions to be human instruments that expressed the "laws of God which all are in conscience bound to obey." George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address, revealed his own profound faith:
“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...”
“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 his Farewell Address to Congress at the end of his second term as President, Washington advised the American people:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that natural morality can prevail in exclusion of Religious Principles.”
The size and quality of a country's government depends, in large part, on the morality of the citizenry. In a nation where the vast majority of individuals are governed from within, only small, limited government is required to keep the criminal minority in check. But should most people become immoral, or extensively condone immorality, government itself tends to become a criminal entity - a "legal" super-criminal that begins doing virtually everything common criminals do, but on a vastly larger scale. Stealing (through inflation and excessive taxation) quickly becomes the norm. And in the worst instances, murder and concentration camps are employed to eliminate and incarcerate "'enemies of the people," which actually means enemies of the ruling despots.
In the 1700's, most Americans were self-governed, basically moral individuals who required only limited civil government. The Constitution and Bill of Rights served them well. Government was not expected to make Americans good, prosperous, or happy. Those were not its functions. Its role was to hold vices in check while protecting virtues. The prosperity, order, and opportunity that became America's hallmark were produced, not by the Constitution or the government it created, but by the day-to-day interactions of an essentially moral people.
Self-governing morality was the secret ingredient that made America great and enabled the Constitution and Bill of Rights to work. The abandonment of individual morality will lead to the collapse of the United States as a free nation despite the Constitution.
When someone abandons the responsibility of governing his or her own affairs, including coping with one's own problems with compassionate assistance from friends and family when necessary, the response is often, "Let the government take care of it. That's why we pay taxes." But consider the implications of that attitude. Suppose Paul favors a social program that will provide him benefits, and wants Peter to contribute to it by paying taxes. If Paul can persuade Congress to authorize the program, and increase taxes to fund it, he can receive the subsidy with a reasonably clear conscience, since it is all "'legal." That being the case, he will be inclined to ask for more programs, entailing ever-higher taxes, until Peter's resources are exhausted.
There are now millions of Pauls and Peters involved in such transactions without fully recognizing the extent to which the process is predicated on theft. If the greedy Pauls were to extract money from unwilling Peters without the complicity of government, they would face fines and imprisonment as criminals. Indeed, most Pauls would not do so due to the moral restraints of their consciences.
Once set in motion, robbing Peter to pay Paul inevitably increases the growth of government and erodes the conscientious responsibility of a people. It is a vicious circle that can lead to moral anarchy and end in political dictatorship.
The secret ingredient of the American success story is the morality that enables citizens to be restrained more by conscience than by government. Moral integrity and limited government go hand in hand. If we abandon the former, we must also give up the latter, and the Constitution will become little more than a worthless piece of paper.
Adapted from the Family Heritage Series, a project of The John Birch Society's Movement to Restore Decency.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.