In a recent article titled “George Washington’s Constitutional Morality,” Samuel Gregg explores the views of the first President on the founding principles and guiding influences of the United States. Gregg identifies three key elements of Washington’s political wishes for the new nation:
Washington identified a distinct set of ideas that he thought should shape what he and others called an “Empire of Liberty”—classical republicanism, eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and “above all” Revelation.
Washington, like many of the Founders, had a great deal of admiration for Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen. In drawing from “Greco-Roman concepts of morality,” he emphasized the importance of good citizenship and virtue in public service. Comments Gregg:
The prevalence of civic virtue among politicians and citizens doesn’t of course guarantee society’s liberty. Nonetheless, Washington clearly doubted whether a republic awash in vice could endure.
The second aspect of Washington’s view of a moral constitutionalism was the influences of English and Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. Gregg notes that John Locke, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke were among his favored thinkers, rather than French thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, indicating Washington’s adherence to only certain schools of Enlightenment thought:
Washington’s emphasis on liberty under law is a motif that permeates the eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenments and distinguished them from continental Enlightenment admirers of enlightened absolutism. This concept of freedom manifests itself in themes such as consent as the only legitimate foundation for political authority, happiness as the purpose of government, and the state’s responsibility to protect natural rights.
Finally, “A revealed God” completed Washington’s perspective on the founding. Gregg holds that Washington “attributes the highest place in America’s political culture” to Revelation and an active deity. This focus on Revelation “allowed him to stress religion’s importance for American public life” for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike and to grant religion an important role in the guidance of the nation.
Gregg calls Americans to consider the principles and philosophy guiding today’s leaders and molding the country. His reflection, in the end, is optimistic:
For those who believe that America has wandered far from the core beliefs shaping the Founding, exploration of Washington’s views on these matters confirms their fears. Yet the same inquiry also reminds us of the resources to which Americans can look if they ever choose to begin a process of renewal.
Read the entire piece here.