The Foundation of Our Liberty
On July 4, we celebrate our nation's creation under God
In Independence Hall in Philadelphia, there is preserved a Chippendale-style chair crafted in 1779 by the cabinetmaker John Folwell, with a sun on the horizon carved at the top. For nearly three months in 1787, George Washington used it during the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin mused: “I have … often in the course of the session … looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
On each subsequent generation falls the obligation to keep that sun rising, a task that requires the virtues that animated the founders, chief among them Washington, as described by Henry Lee III: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen … Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example everlasting … ”
The two Georges shared one assurance as the foundation of all moral liberty — not the rising sun, but the risen Son whose light never sets.
But July 4 is about two Georges: Washington, whose sun rose over a new nation, and George III, whose sun became occluded in mental darkness, probably causes by a metabolic disorder, not helped by the loss of his American colonies.
Both Georges — true to their name, since it means husbandman — loved few things more than farming. Both were also about the same height: Washington was 6’2” and it was said that in most gatherings, the king was a head taller than anyone else. Both men were superior horsemen and hunters and were blue-eyed with reddish brown hair. This was no surprise in the king, as he was a direct descendant of Owain Glyndwr of the Red Hair, the last native Prince of Wales. Lacking that connection, Washington was English to the bone and could boast that of the 25 barons (“sureties”) who signed Magna Carta, he was the direct heir of 14 of the 24 whose lines are known and was the fourth cousin of all of them.
When the American painter Benjamin West told the king that Washington had spurned a crown to return to his plantation, George III said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington let drop his Augustan dignity when he raged at the report that New Yorkers had torn down an equestrian statue of the king in New York City. For Washington, it was a mob act unbefitting a civilized people. The statue had been sculpted by Joseph Wilton, modeled after that of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The horse’s tail is preserved in the Museum of the City of New York.
Washington fathered a nation but no children, and perhaps fortunately so, since that precluded the possibility of a dynasty. Names such as Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton and Bush were unknown to him. George III was the loving father of fifteen and defied court convention by his faithfulness to the Queen Sophia Charlotte. He promoted science, founded Maynooth Seminary for Irish Catholics and proposed the emancipation of slaves in Virginia, where Jefferson, in contempt for moral consistency, kept slaves while accusing the king of condoning the slave trade.
Great Britain has had its own Declaration of Independence recently in the Brexit vote, for good or ill depending on which pub is polled. The boldness of the voters and the consequent consternation of established powers have made a “world turned upside down,” as in the American Revolution. George Washington and George III knew that the tumult of their time was of a dimension deeper than diplomacy and could not be resolved by a solution in which the same God who had started everything was ignored in everything.
The two Georges, president and king, shared one assurance as the foundation of all moral liberty — not the rising sun, but the risen Son whose light never sets, and they read it in the same translation of the Holy Bible: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
Fr. George Rutler is pastor at the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. A version of this article will appear in Crisis Magazine.