George Washington of Mt. Vernon

A fine tribute to the Father of Our Country and to his home–one of the most impressive attractions in the D.C. area–as preserved by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association:

As we celebrate our nation’s independence midway through a year of rabid presidential politics, it is refreshing to reflect upon our first president, the hero of America’s revolution and commander in chief upon our liberation from King George.

To say that they don’t make them like George Washington anymore is to insult understatement. But those who admire him have a duty, today of all days, to remember him before he is forgotten by younger generations who, through no fault of their own, have no sense of him. They haven’t been taught, and the shame of this belongs to all, with a few notable exceptions.

Among these is a handful of ladies (and no, copy editors, you may not change “ladies” to “women”) who strive daily to keep Washington’s name and legacy in the dimming lights of history. Unheralded and largely unknown, they deserve recognition for their valiant and extravagant efforts to preserve one of America’s most valuable assets, including the original ruminations of its greatest thinkers.

These would be the members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, who volunteer their time and talents — and open their wallets — to maintain Washington’s home on the Potomac. . . .

Unbeknown to most visitors to Mount Vernon — and certainly the millions who don’t know it exists — Washington’s home was saved and is maintained without a penny of public funds. (Disclosure: I serve on the Mount Vernon advisory board, a collection of private citizens who meet twice a year to offer advice, which the ladies are utterly free to ignore.)The ladies’ association is a lesson in volunteerism worthy of its own chapter. The association was formed in 1853 by South Carolina native Ann Pamela Cunningham, whose mother had noticed a large, dilapidated house perched on a hill along the Potomac River and was outraged to learn it was Washington’s home. Inspired by her mother, Cunningham reached out to Southern women to raise funds to buy the estate and, in 1860, open it to the public, thus beginning a 152-year-old tradition.

Since then, more than 80 million have visited the house and grounds, which include an underground museum (so as not to mar the landscape), gardens, a slave burial ground, and the final resting place of George and Martha Washington. Even the opposite shore of the Potomac has been preserved so that visitors can enjoy the same view that Washington did.

The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, named for its most generous donor, is an overdue addition to Washington’s home. In a time of self-reverential politicians and presidential libraries erected as monuments to ego, it is odd, if also characteristic, that the first president had none. Just as he resisted becoming the nation’s first president, feeling himself unworthy, he would have found a library in his honor, indulging today’s vernacular, “over the top.”

via Kathleen Parker: The ladies of Mount Vernon have preserved Washington’s home – The Washington Post.

There is a useful new word:  “self-reverential”!  Washington was never that.  He was a truly great man who deserves our salute this July the 4th.

 

The hedge of separation

John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, has written an op-ed piece in which he explains why his institution is joining scores of other Catholic groups in filing a lawsuit against the contraceptive & abortifacient mandate in Obamacare.  In the course of his essay (in which he mentions also the Hossana-Tabor case involving the LCMS school), Garvey discusses the “wall of separation of church and state,” finding the metaphor’s origins not in Thomas Jefferson (who wanted to protect the state from the church) but, earlier, in Roger Williams (who wanted to protect the church from the state):

When the Supreme Court first considered the issue of aid to parochial schools in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education , it invoked separation as a limiting principle. The court quoted Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn.: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, suspicious of organized religion. He believed that efforts to establish an official religion led to persecution and civil war.

The metaphor was not original to Jefferson, though. Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance, used it in 1644. History has shown, he observed, that when churches “have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall . . . and made his garden a wilderness.”

Williams had different reasons than Jefferson for preaching separation. Jefferson thought that religion was bad for government. Williams thought that mixing church and state was bad for the church.

These two perspectives often give us the same results. They both warn against tax support for churches and against prayers composed by public school boards. But Williams’s theological metaphor may have been more influential than Jefferson’s political one in the adoption of the First Amendment.

via For the government, what counts as Catholic? – The Washington Post.

Not just a “wall” of separation but a “hedge” of separation.  The church is a garden.  The world is a wilderness.  Making a hole in the hedge is punished by God who turns the garden into a wilderness.  Powerful metaphors.  Apply them to current issues.

And yet, is Rogers’ formulation adequate?  He was a Baptist, so we see here elements of the doctrine of separation from the world.  Is the secular arena more than just a wilderness?

Happy Presidents’ Day

Today is Presidents’ Day, which began as an amalgamation of George Washington’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but now is nobody’s birthday but just honors our chief executives.  So let’s take a pause from the current presidential campaign to discuss the institution itself.

Is it wise to have the same person be head of state and the  head of the executive branch?

Most democracies today have a Prime Minister as chief executive, who is the head of the party that has the majority in the legislature.  Is that better than our elected Presidents?  If not, why are Prime Ministers more common in modern governments?

Do our presidents have too much power or not enough?

What does it mean to be “presidential”?

Who do you think was our greatest president? The top five?

 

Is the U.S. Constitution obsolete?

[An earlier version of this post went up with just the raw quotation and with my introduction, edits, and commentary  not showing up, for some reason.  Sorry for the confusion.]

Conservatives worry that the U. S. Constitution is being ignored.  The next step is for the Constitution to be spoken against and then repudiated.  That seems to be happening, even by a Supreme Court Justice!  In the meantime, the rest of the world has stopped imitating America’s constitutional system, which, in many people’s minds does not parcel out enough rights, and the rights it does recognize are the wrong ones:

In a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court seemed to agree [with the irrelevance of the Constitution to new nations today]. “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

The rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber. As Sanford Levinson wrote in 2006 in “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” “the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently existing in the world today.” (Yugoslavia used to hold that title, but Yugoslavia did not work out.)

Other nations routinely trade in their constitutions wholesale, replacing them on average every 19 years. By odd coincidence, Thomas Jefferson, in a 1789 letter to James Madison, once said that every constitution “naturally expires at the end of 19 years” because “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” These days, the overlap between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and those most popular around the world is spotty.

Americans recognize rights not widely protected, including ones to a speedy and public trial, and are outliers in prohibiting government establishment of religion. But the Constitution is out of step with the rest of the world in failing to protect, at least in so many words, a right to travel, the presumption of innocence and entitlement to food, education and health care.

It has its idiosyncrasies. Only 2 percent of the world’s constitutions protect, as the Second Amendment does, a right to bear arms. (Its brothers in arms are Guatemala and Mexico.) . . . .

“America is in danger, I think, of becoming something of a legal backwater,” Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia said in a 2001 interview. He said that he looked instead to India, South Africa and New Zealand.

Mr. Barak, for his part, identified a new constitutional superpower: “Canadian law,” he wrote, “serves as a source of inspiration for many countries around the world.” The new study also suggests that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, may now be more influential than its American counterpart.

The Canadian Charter is both more expansive and less absolute. It guarantees equal rights for women and disabled people, allows affirmative action and requires that those arrested be informed of their rights. On the other hand, it balances those rights against “such reasonable limits” as “can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

via ‘We the People’ Loses Appeal With People Around the World – NYTimes.com.

I suspect that in the years ahead, since nations come and go, that eventually we will be hearing calls to eliminate our obsolete constitution in favor of something new.   The new constitution will feature new rights (to food?  to health care? to travel?), but other rights will pass away–the right to keep and bear arms will be sure to go.  Also, if Canada is to be our guide, the right to express criticisms of Islam.  And we can be sure that there will be lots of other “reasonable limits” to what we will be allowed to do.

I am a bad American

I did not watch the Superbowl.  I turned my back on America’s great unifying festival, in which citizens of all political persuasions, subcultures,  creeds, and no-creeds set aside their differences for one night of football, snacks, and television commercials.  I really have no excuse.  My heart hasn’t been in football since the Packers flamed out, and I know that I would just torment myself with thoughts of what might have been.  The half-time extravaganzas nearly always annoy me, and the prospect of Madonna putting on a show filled me with dismay.  And watching the game solely to see the commercials would fill me with self-loathing.  So I did something else.  I am one of the few Americans to sink so low–I hope for my country’s sake that I am the only American to remain aloof from our moment of national unity.

So what did I miss?

Calls for an American dictator

George Will notes progressivism’s impatience–”We can’t wait!” in the words of President Obama’s campaign–which manifests itself in an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to get around them.

His column, which I also posted about yesterday, includes some interesting quotations from journalists during the depression of the 1930s who were actually calling for a dictatorship:

Commonweal, a magazine for liberal Catholics, said that Roosevelt should have “the powers of a virtual dictatorship to reorganize the government.” Walter Lippmann, then America’s preeminent columnist, said: “A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” The New York Daily News, then the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, cheerfully editorialized: “A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. Now we have one. . . . It is Roosevelt. . . . Dictatorship in crises was ancient Rome’s best era.” The New York Herald Tribune titled an editorial “For Dictatorship if Necessary.”

via Obama follows the progressive president’s model of martial language – The Washington Post.

As we face our national problems, economic and otherwise, we must take care not to jettison our liberties in a panicked  desire for the government to “do something.”


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