George Washington and John Adams’ Safeguards for Good Government

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President George Washingtom

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. 

George Washington’s Farewell 1796 Address

George Washington and John Adams were the first and second presidents of the United States of America at its inception. They fought for independence and spent all their adult lives defending the constitution. In their public addresses and letters, both men made reference to the importance of morality, religion and virtues in protecting the sanctity of he democratic experiment that the US had embarked on. They also warned what would happen if the US got away from these moorings.  

A simple but profound idea about government and politics is that justice and morality exalts a nation but injustice and immorality retrogresses and abases it. When moral and just  people are in authority, citizens rejoice: but when the immoral rule, citizens mourn. On the N. American and European continents, many nations are on the decline, gradually losing their place as global economic and political powerhouses to emerging economies, noticeably China. China now lends money to the West.

China is also the largest external owner of US debt. Western civilization is in trouble. The US dollar is losing status as the world’s reserve currency and is forecaster to collapse. A top German adviser has explained why he believes the Euro will collapse. The question that begs to be answered is, why are these nations losing their economic and political dominance to China and others in the constellation of nations? Is it simply a matter of mismanagement? If yet, what lays at the root of the mismanagement?

For an answer let us glean some wisdom from the first and second presidents of the United States of America.

Washington & Adam’s Wisdom

This piece of wisdom comes from a founding father of the United States who served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War that resulted in Independence for America. He presided over the convention that wrote the American national Constitution. He was one of the signers of that constitution. He also presided over the framing of the Bill of Rights and was the first President of the USA. He ended up serving two consecutive terms as President. After 45 years of public service to his nation, he gave a farewell address in 1796. The illustrious statesman was no other than George Washington. Towards the conclusion of his farewell speech he declared:

Of ALL the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports

This was Washington’s summation of what it takes for a nation to be successful. Was he right? Is it possible that a departure from morality and religion in the US and the global West is partly responsible for their decline?

Washington had previously said in his 1789 inaugural address that:

“…the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality…” 

George Washington was succeeded as first president of the USA by his vice president John Adams, the man who earlier in 1775 had nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief. Adams played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence and assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 being its primary advocate in the Congress.

In June of 1776, John Adams wrote:

Statesman, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.

In a separate letter to Zabdiel Adams dated June 21, 1776, John Adams states:

It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.

Adams added in 1811:

Religion and virtue are the only foundations…of republicanism and all free governments.

He wrote in a letter addressing the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia, October 11, 1798

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Were these statesmen right? China seems to think so.

A Lesson from China

China for two decades did a study to uncover the West’s dominance over the globe. Below is an excerpt of the findings reiterated by a Chinese scholar: 

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focussed on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of freedom and then the successful emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

From this statement, we see China is not afraid of democracy but rather realizes that a solid moral foundation in society is needed before taking away the controls of authoritarian rule. The brilliant German sociologist who authored the famous book titled, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” would have agreed with China’s hypothesis if he were still with us. China for decades has been making efforts to cash in on the moral and ethical dividends to be gained from religion

I have written about the relationship between religion and prosperity based on results of survey data.  Atheist China wants the benefits of religion and morality without the God of the religion. Nevertheless China recognizes the importance of morality and religion and that is important. The West has forgotten or reasoned itself out of this knowledge.

A review of a Harvard Professor Nail Ferguson’s book in the Guardian, “Civilization: The West and the Rest” reads, “the decline of religion in Europe has led to Europeans becoming the “idlers of the world” (while the more religious US has remained hard-working). Interestingly, Ferguson also argues that China’s embrace of hard work is partly because of the spread there of Protestantism”.

Before the publication of this book by Ferguson, David Aikman former senior Time magazine correspondent had written about such themes in his book entitled “Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Changing the Global Balance of Power”.

What is religion and morality?

What is morality? According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, Morality is the doctrine or system of moral duties, or the duties of men in their social character; ethics. Mr. Webster explains that morality includes, “The quality of an action which renders it good; the conformity of an act to the divine law, or to the principles of rectitude. This conformity implies that the act must be performed by a free agent, and from a motive of obedience to the divine will”.

From this early definition we see that morality is connected to a belief in divinity. It was only later that subsequent generations developed a morality devoid of a link to the divine. In George Washington’s day, morality could not be separated from religion.

What is religion? According to the same 1828 Webster’s dictionary, “Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.”

Consequences of immorality

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal on the decay of morals saying, “the Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned” about a century ago. For him, the consequence of independence from religion and its moral code is the high price of immorality that governs much of the British society today.

Immorality here includes all that is not right and just such as corruption, disrespect of young for the elderly, unbridled greed, lack of integrity and disregard for the consequence of our individual actions on others  etc. This dearth of morality manifested in various forms is bringing the West to its knees fast. Even financially they are struggling. At the crux of the global financial crises is simple unbridled greed.

The penalty for refusing to speak up

Plato is accredited with the following quote: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors“. In society there are many groupings. Some a majority and others a minority. A minority might start agitating for certain immoral laws. What happens when the majority keep passive and stay silent? The minority will have their way and the majority will end up being governed in a society will immoral laws. Examples of immoral laws include the laws the legalized slavery in the US, Apartheid in South Africa and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.  

It’s the same when the majority agitate for the promotion of immorality. The minority must speak up or suffer the consequence of living in a society whose laws are defined by the immoral—those without a sense of right or wrong.

It is time Africans put away blind allegiance to political parties and choose a stand for what is right. For example when politicians are allowed to buy our votes with money and gifts, we are promoting a culture of corruption and backwardness.

If politicians assume office after winning elections through bribing citizens, they will recuperate the monies spent during the political campaigns via dubious means. They will do so feeling justified because citizens took bribes.

Conclusion

One does not have to be perfect to vote for moral decisions/policies and moral leaders. What is needed is courage to stand for morality while denouncing immorality. It might mean going against the grain of popular opinion and culture but refuse to cower and demand that right processes are followed. This is the only way we can build a nation that does not implode on itself from excessive immorality.  

Much of the world  stood by in 2007 in apathy and watched immoral financial institutions and bankers whose greed knew no bounds bury the globe in a financial crisis that is still ongoing with no recovery in sight. The fact that 7 yeas after the start of the financial crisis, we are still refusing to discipline bankers and change our consumption ways means we are not ready to learn. But we need not endure this global recession any longer. All that is needed is the will to think differently about the solutions. This means factoring in morality into the equation and punishing TNCs and bankers who help widen global inequality. At present the world’s richest 10% own 86% of global wealth. How is this not immoral. The world cannot bear the weight of such immorality and greed much longer. 

We have a choice to make. Either restore and respect morality and religion as tethers or sink. This is true for the globe and individual states. 


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2 thoughts on “George Washington and John Adams’ Safeguards for Good Government

  1. I am so glad I came to this post while veiwing my reader. As an African American I wondered what the people of different African Countries thought about their Nations. I believe the African Nations can be just as prosperous as the Untied States or China etc. Who benefits from the change you are speaking about? If people think they benefit from a course of action they will pursue that. You give too much credit to American leaders. The thing that makes America work on the surface is capitalism. People benefit from making money and the more they benefit the more they participate in any process. Those slave owning early Americans prospered despite their immorality. Real Christians and decent people opposed slavery and turned the Country around. America now suffers from greed. I like what you you are saying for the most part. I hope the people of Ghana listen to what you are saying. Don’t be greedy. Help the needy. Make your nation great.

    • Dear Managingemergencies, I appreciate your feedback. The entry does not justify actions of early settlers. It borrows a quote from the first President which makes a case for the importance of religion and morality as tethers. No nation in human history has been perfectly moral but there have been some who have aimed for a moral public consciousness (What Weber called the ‘Protestant Ethic’ which reins in the excesses of the spirit of capitalism). Nations which have succeeded in cultivating such an ethic at one time during their history developed relatively easier than those who did not. This includes the U.S., some European nations, some African Kingdoms etc.

      I simply singled out the U.S. as an example of what transpires with a nation when they esteem religion and morality as defined in the post and what happens to them when they depart from esteeming these dispositions. Like observed by Weber, morality translates to values such as hard-work, integrity, honesty etc. which all help a nation progress. That notwithstanding, I appreciate your candor and point of view and your hope for the progress of African nations.

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