A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character by Matthew Spalding, Patrick J. Garrity, Daniel J. Boorstin (Rowman & Littlefield, paperback edition, 1998, 256 pages, $16.95)
Witnessing today's tawdry scandals and petty corruption, many young Christians reject politics as an unworthy endeavor.
But according to the Catholic faith, politics is a noble vocation. Thus, the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes (No. 75) called on youth “with a talent for the difficult yet noble art of politics, or whose talents in this matter can be developed, [to] prepare themselves for it, and, forgetting their own convenience and material interests, they should engage in political activity.”
The father of our country, George Washington, should be a paradigm for American Catholics today as he was for earlier generations. Washington wasn't Catholic, but as a teen-ager, he memorized and practiced 110 “rules of civility” from an old Jesuit manual where he learned everything from small details of manners to his relationship to God.
Dignified at every moment, sparing in his talk, courageous in war and in politics, Washington set aside the private life he loved at Mount Vernon in order to serve the national cause of his “friends and fellow-citizens.”
This splendid book testifies to Washington's obsession in developing greatness in his countrymen's character and virtues. He gathered his lifetime of experience into his farewell address as his enduring legacy on the political and moral basis of self-government. The authors articulate the meaning and significance of the Washingtonian “Credo” which has indelibly shaped the character of every American.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1884) calls on wise political leaders to imitate God's governing the world. Washington was such a statesman. Speaking to the Delaware Indian Chiefs in 1779, he said: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
In fact, Washington's moral imagination was not limited to his own country. In their fresh and original reading, authors Spalding and Garrity show that Washington tried to form the high character of American citizens to inspire a moral revolution around the world.
Giant leaders of the stature of Washington scorn the falsehood that the virtues or vices of politicians and citizens are merely a “personal matter.” Among the farewell address's best known lessons are these: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens—[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect the National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle—virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
These words constitute the center of the farewell address. They display the moral heart of a great politics and “culture of life” which America was intended by its greatest founder to become.
It is jarring to contemporary ears that Abraham Lincoln, “savior” of the nation and liberator of millions, could describe our first chief executive as “still mightiest in moral reformation.” Presidents as moral reformers?
This book shows us how perhaps our greatest president used his high office to call every American to great virtue.
According to Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, Catholics must attend to the common good. Some of us have a “special and personal vocation” to statesmanship, which must be encouraged especially in our small-souled political age.
This book on Washington's final advice to his countrymen will achieve its great purpose if it helps ignite the political imagination of a new generation of Catholic men and women with noble hearts, large ambition, and great love for their “friends and fellow-citizens.”
Dennis Teti teaches at the Washington, D.C. campus of Regents University.