The Farewell Address Reflects Federalist Party Policy Rather than the Constitution

The Rosenkranz Debate concerned the truth of John Adams’ quotation: The Constitution is designed  for a moral and religious people and it’s wholly unfitted for the government any other.  My friend, Professor Robert George, relied primarily on George Washington’s Farewell Address for historical evidence.  There Washington, like Adams, claimed religion was important, if not essential, to sustaining the Republic.  For instance, Washington famously said,   “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.”

But Washington’s Farewell Address provides an uncertain guide as to whether the Framers of the Constitution thought widespread religious belief necessary to sustain it. As I noted in my opening remarks at the debate, the text of the Constitution does not support this view. It does not establish any particular religion or even require belief in a religion of one’s choice. It instead expressly prohibits all religious tests for offices under the United State Constitution.

Moreover, it is dangerous to rely too much on the words of politicians in political strife to establish much about the Constitution. And as great as George Washington was he was still a politician, and as powerfully stated is his Farewell address, it is in large measure a document reflecting the principles of the Federalist party.  His remarks on religion parallel one of key attacks of the Federalists on the Democratic Republicans–that they were deists, like the dreaded French Revolutionaries, or at least no friends of traditional religion. 

To be sure, Washington’s First Administration was largely above party politics, including as it did both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. But by the end of his Second Administration, Washington was identified with the Federalist party. His cabinet was composed entirely of men of Federalist disposition. Many of his policies, like that embodied in the Jay Treaty, were subject to quite vicious attack by Jefferson and his supporters.

Washington was not a man of infinite patience and he was angered by the impugning of his honor. Thus, the Farewell Address provides a defense of his political legacy, all the more persuasive for not being written in obviously partisan terms.  For instance, he alludes to his Neutrality Proclamation, which provides an example of his warning against foreign entanglements.   Similarly, he defends treaties into which his administration entered by broadly confirm the capacity of the federal government to deepen national unity. He attacks parties, but this assault should be seen as an attempt to place his political principles as beyond party. Most politicians like to portray their principles that way.

Confirmation that his encomium to religion may be a part of a distinctively Federalist platform is that it does not appear in the first draft of his address. Written by James Madison at the time of the end of his First Administration, that simpler draft was prompted by an earlier inclination to resign after a single term.  Moreover, as I discussed in my talk, before the rise of conflict between Federalist and Democratic Republicans, Alexander Hamilton, the ghostwriter of the later draft, had argued that the Constitution must be built on man’s passions rather than morality or religion.

Thus, like the quotation of John Adams, Washington’s reflections on religion flow more from the political divisions of his time rather than from the thinking that inspired the Constitution.

Reader Discussion

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on November 25, 2015 at 11:57:12 am

"His remarks on religion parallel one of key attacks of the Federalists on the Democratic Republicans–that they were deists, like the dreaded French Revolutionaries, or at least no friends of traditional religion. "

While it may be true that partisan advantage or proselytizing was a constituent element of the remarks, it does not necessarily follow that we must also dismiss the actions of many of the very same men who were instrumental in drafting the Constitution. Did not many of these same men permit, allow, or even encourage a) established religions in a number of States, b) enforce religious tests for office, and c) provide taxpayer monies in support of religious schools and instructors?

Perhaps, a better explanation is to argue that given a) " the political divisions of his time" and b) a clear intent to foster NATIONAL unity that Washington and others determined that there should be no NATIONAL religious tests (or establishment). Such an establishment would clearly work against the goal of NATIONAL unity. Yet, such an intention at the NATIONAL level does not provide sufficient evidence to support a claim that a) Washington (and others) did not believe that a religious disposition was not essential for the type civic virtue believed necessary for the new nation nor b) that the Constitution must be built upon man's passions (or even "reason, for that matter).

To argue that what may have been prudent policy AT the NATIONAL level is also therefore both necessary and good at the STATE and LOCAL level one must disregard the actual beliefs, expressed opinions AND practices at the STATE level of the very same men.
This strikes me as somewhat odd -

No, perhaps Mr. Madison's conceptualization of the United States as a "compound nation" is the most appropriate term to describe the "religious - civic virtue" nexus.

Constitution (national) = no religious influence
State / Local / citizenry = religious disposition deemed essential for proper civic virtue to SUPPORT the Constitution.

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on November 25, 2015 at 21:53:52 pm

Two years before the draft constitution was signed, James Madison on June 8, 1785 expressed the worst tyranny a born American (Knoxville, TN for me) could suffer: “Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” Fantastically, that notion did not appear in the draft constitution,1787, but was tacitly restored in the negotiations to ratify the draft, 1788, and fulfilled by the first Congress in negotiating and ratifying the First Amendment’s religion clauses, 1791. Those clauses need amendment to protect thought, a personal duty, rather than religion, an institution that thrives without state support.

He may be exonerated if by “Governour of the Universe” Madison means “physics, which is energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges.” However, Madison did not converse with Einstein, so we may not want to go back to before. Also, Einstein extolled science, which we fortunately doubt as much as religion, so again, we may again not want to go back to before but rather progress to physics for civic mediation in the reform of opinion-based ethics. Professors who pursue this reform will be warmly appreciated by a civic people.

Also, in his June 8, 1783 farewell address four years before the draft constitution, George Washington said,
There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power: An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head; A Sacred regard to Public Justice; The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment; and The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.

These principles seem to represent the civic George Washington, and Washington inspires our work to establish A Civic People of the United States, an overarching culture that could start at 70% of inhabitants, we speculate based on votes to establish the constitution for the USA, and grow by example and approach the totality, We the People of the United States. A civic people collaborate for personal liberty with domestic goodwill, which we hold to be achievable. The attraction to join is personal safety with domestic well-being—justifiable confidence in civic policy and the governing regime.

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Phil Beaver
on November 27, 2015 at 23:02:54 pm

The secular view of the Constitution overlooks a few items in the text: the invocation of Jesus Christ that concludes the text. "Done in the year of our Lord...."
One might dismiss this as a simple convention of dating, but what other conventions are also implicit--such as omission of Sundays in counting days for a pocket veto?
Also, note the oath that Presidents are to take. What is an oath? Is not the conventional understanding that of a religious proclamation--just as Thanksgiving is a religious declaration.

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Ken Masugi
on November 27, 2015 at 23:03:21 pm

sign me up for updates.

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Ken Masugi
on November 27, 2015 at 23:24:32 pm

In forming opinions, it seems prudent to be humble toward unseen opinion. But in this case, there is opposing written opinion. Exodus 20:7, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain."

In this case, the scribe who entered "our Lord" may have taken a liberty not permitted by Exodus 20:7. Further, a person is constrained to caution about replacing "Lord your God" with "Jesus Christ," even if it is common practice among some sects.

How to handle this dilemma is personal, and one person's decision should not be imposed on another person's choice.

I favor the idea that the scribe who dated the draft constitution knew not what he was doing and had no authority.

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Phil Beaver
on November 28, 2015 at 00:04:19 am

Phil, your comment may be correct theologically but all presidents have ended their proclamations in exactly this same language, adding "and in the year of independence...."
Christian time and Declaration time define American time.

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Ken Masugi
on November 29, 2015 at 11:24:06 am

Ken, with reference to the purported “secularity” of the 1787 draft of the constitution for the USA, I did not intend to act as theologian—merely a vitally interested citizen (chemical engineer by profession). I meant to point out that the people who created a Jesus-based calendar with reference to “year of our Lord,” perhaps contradicted so-called scripture (Exodus 20:7). Furthermore, the 1787 draft is not secular rather is areligious; I prefer civic.

I doubt McGinnis was unaware of the phrase “year of our Lord” and its meaning, but he did not cite it. Yet when he speaks of secularity, he accommodates Jesus to divide for competition.

Rather than rely on religion or indeed some thick conception of secular, communitarian virtue, like Sparta, the Framers built the Constitution on the bedrock of human nature. And it is essential that the Constitution protect the freedom of religious institutions to compete with secular groups in their ability to nurture virtue. History also fails to show a positive correlation between secularism and constitutionality. Rather, it underscores the great dangers to our constitutional order can come from either religious enthusiasm or secular utopianism. Today, but not back then, a Republican President is required by his political base to nominate someone part of that culture of constitutional fidelity. And note that this culture created in no small part by the secular, civic association—the Federalist Society.

The “bedrock of human nature” could be a god and that god could be Jesus, a subject McGinnis did not raise when he wrote of religion.

Of course I posit that the bedrock is physics: energy, mass and space-time from which everything emerges, including virtue—not only “civic virtue,” but the virtue that informs civics.

A communications block is created by the word “secular.” I have no idea how it is intended by McGinnis or you, but I speculate that it means “non-religious.” If so, the implication is that the 1787 draft is non-religious. I posit that it is not non-religious rather it is civic. By “civic” I mean it has to do with ineluctable personal connections because people live in their states and the states wish to form a collective governance that does not compromise liberties of either the people in their states or the people in totality. “Civic” differs from “social” in that civic does not imply choice, preference, or class: People are connected because they occupy the same land during the same era--occupy the same space-time.

If we could agree that the 1787 draft is civic, but that the 1791 ratified constitution for the USA protects religion, we have made progress. The next step is to understand why the word “secular” is advocated. I posit “secular” doubly represses the thought that protecting religion is un-civic; “secular” does not seem as hostile as “non-religious” seems to some people. However, it is plain that religion divides people, yet the people know they must live together—be civic. We advocate rather than competing, people collaborate for personal liberty with domestic goodwill (PLwDG). The First Amendment should be amended to protect thought, a civic duty, rather than religion, an institution.

Let me illustrate the importance of civic morality: Physics as the bedrock. Some people consider the Bible the source of morality. The Bible suggests that same-sex sex is an “abomination.” Perhaps the ancient writer had in mind that same-sex bonding cannot lead to pregnancy—cannot bear fruit, the truth according to physics, but not a natural abomination. Same-sex sexual gratification abounds in nature at some 4% rate. The human species, being the most aware animal, imagines many methods of both sexual gratification and bonding, and methods that do not risk pregnancy are practical.

Some persons with same-sex bodies fall in love, and some same-sex partners want monogamy for life. That’s a civic proposition not a religious one. Psychologically mature human bonds are noble, because the human person is noble. It is un-civic to use the Biblical term “abomination” to describe same-sex bonding.

In the context of civic morality, “secular” should give way to “civic,” so that religious thinkers could think about civic morality as opposed to religious morality, a private pursuit. Considering the terms helps clarify the fact that religious concerns are private—not shared with other people. My god is nobody’s business, even though I am willing to express my faith. We can say that our civic connections are non-religious. Prayer is not a civic practice, even though prayer is imposed on a civic people in the USA as “legislative prayer” (Greece v Galloway).

Consider substituting “civic” in McGinnis’s sentence, “It is essential that the Constitution protect the freedom of religious institutions to compete with [civic] groups in their ability to nurture virtue.” False. Or, “History also fails to show a positive correlation between [civics] and constitutionality.” True.

We work to establish A Civic People of the United States. The theory is presented online at http://promotethepreamble.blogspot.com/2015/07/theory-of-collaboration-of-by-and-for.html . We wish to clarify that the people who want civic morality compete against the dissidents, criminals, evils, and other aliens among We the People of the United States. Our work sets religious beliefs aside, counting them as personal pursuits with no place in determining civic morality, which emerges from physics—energy, mass and space-time.

This forum is positioned to help establish civic morality, and the first step is attending the use of language—word usage--such that the common goal—an over-arching culture of a civic people may be recognized in our minds and hearts and we can collaborate. Our intention is not to impose our opinion, but to collaborate on the shared goal: personal liberty with domestic goodwill (PSwDG). We think opinion-based law is erroneous.

We hope for collaboration, so please keep responding. Brick walls of silent opposition are the least of our civic goals, yet we appreciate people's no-harm privacy.

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Phil Beaver

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