The Better Angels of Our Republic
“We know the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?” –John Page, July 20, 1776
Was the founding of our Republic providential? Or is America an accident, an aberration, a result of happenstance? Moreover, if our country was merely a happy chance, how can we explain our peculiar destiny, as well as the character and courage of those who founded our nation?
These questions aren’t arid or stale. On the contrary, they challenge us now more than ever. Our nation is in the midst of campaigns against determined enemies – foreign and domestic – enemies bent upon the destruction of liberty and free enterprise, and the Judeo-Christian foundation of our great Republic. And whether our nation survives this deadly conflict depends in largest measure on how we answer.
But how to answer? The time warp of analysis may be misleading. Seen as the past, history retains a distinct certainty. Yet that air of inevitability, particularly during the events swirling around the first Independence Day of 1776, was nowhere present. Armed hostilities had commenced on April 19, 1775, at the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the colonials faced the full power of the British Empire in their quest for American independence. A year before taking that step, on July 5, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, beseeching the British king for a peaceful resolution of the American colonies’ grievances. A day later, that same Congress resolved the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms.” King George III refused to read the peace petition and assembled his armies. On July 2, 1776, Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for a formal declaration passed, and the document that was ordered printed on July 4th ended, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” They knew the cause of liberty was risky. And, yet, our Founders had great confidence in the rightness of that cause.
Just this past month, we witnessed an extraordinary reassessment regarding Ronald Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War. The collapse of the Communist empire has recently been portrayed as nearly inexorable, with the only real debate involving quibbles over how much, if any, Reagan and his resolute allies contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain. But while Reagan was in office, most elite commentators viewed the Soviet Union as a permanent fixture of global politics.
President Reagan, however, believed differently. In 1977, he stated, “My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.” Although he was convinced Communism could be defeated, he knew victory was not sure. His confidence was based in “a reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” and his faith in the American people.
And he’d been saying so for years. In 1964, he challenged, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
In 1974, he spoke of the effect of the culture of liberty in producing the kind of people capable of great deeds: “[I]t might be appropriate to reflect a bit on our heritage. You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage. This was true of those who pioneered the great wilderness in the beginning of this country, as it is also true of those later immigrants who were willing to leave the land of their birth and come to a land where even the language was unknown to them. …[O]ur heritage does set us apart.”
He continued, “Somehow America has bred a kindliness into our people unmatched anywhere…. Where did we find such men? They are typical of this land as the Founding Fathers were typical. We found them in our streets, in the offices, the shops and the working places of our country and on the farms. We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. … We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
Interestingly, Reagan often spoke of America as the “shining city upon a hill,” invoking the words of John Winthrop, written in 1630 just as he was to first set foot on this continent’s soil. The image dates to the colonial founding of America, a century and a half before the Revolutionary Founding. The beliefs and principles of those settlers of the New World imparted a distinct character to American liberty – as Reagan well knew. Indeed, Ronald Reagan stands with the Founders in a seamless line of liberty.
In his first inaugural address of 1981, President Reagan referred to a little-known Founder, saying, “On the eve of our struggle for independence, a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans….” The Warren quote, which Reagan then repeated in part, is from March 6, 1775, and reads in full: “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends, determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
As he was departing the office of the presidency in 1989, Reagan asked a question we will repeat: “How stands the city…?” On this, its 228th birthday, the shining city is again “in danger, but not to be despaired of.” Ironically, the gravest internal danger comes from our courts, which in the guise of protecting our Founding heritage have been gradually overturning it. (What else can be concluded, with this week’s decision from the Supreme Court that foreign enemy combatants, lodged outside U.S. borders after taken into custody for warring to destroy our nation, have recourse to our civilian courts?)
Has God’s hand truly been in the history of our blessed land? If so, we may expect His blessings in our current war so long as we follow the precepts for our conduct laid down by our Founders.
Let us act worthy of ourselves – and of our history.
Editor’s Note: The day after this Independence Day (providentially, we believe), July 5th, marks the end of the month of official mourning for Ronald Reagan’s death – with flags returning to full staff.
Lex et Libertas – Semper Vigilo, Paratus, et Fidelis!