The Founders of the American Republic were well-informed, educated, intelligent men. When it came to establishing a republic, they did their homework. They familiarized themselves with history and grasped the principles and lessons to be learned from the past. They understood not only how to initiate a new nation, but also recognized what would be necessary to perpetuate and sustain it. What’s more, they articulated very firmly the circumstances that they predicted would lead to the dissolution of the Republic.
One such political prophet was Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Having graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York, Morris was admitted to the colonial bar in 1771 and became a member of the New York provincial congress from 1775-1777. He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the New York State militia in 1776. He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1778-1779, and signed the Articles of Confederation. He was a delegate to the convention that framed the Constitution of the United States, speaking more than any other delegate, and serving as the head of the Committee on Style that was responsible for the final wording of the Constitution—which he signed in 1787. He then served as America’s Minister Plenipotentiary to France (1792-1794) and also served in the U.S. Senate from 1800-1803. He is buried in St. Anne’s Episcopal Churchyard in the Bronx in New York (“Morris…,” n.d.).
On September 4, 1816, just two months before his death, Gouverneur Morris delivered a speech to the New York Historical Society on the occasion of the 206th anniversary of the discovery of his home state of New York by English explorer Henry Hudson (Morris, 1816). In that oration, Morris made several insightful, eerily descriptive observations of current American culture. First, he insisted that the Bible is the key to making sense of history and learning from the mistakes of the past: “The reflection and experience of many years have led me to consider the holy writings, not only as most authentic and instructive in themselves, but as the clue to all other history. They tell us what man is, and they, alone, tell us why he is what he is” (pp. 7-8). Making brief allusion to the biblical characters Joseph, Moses, and David, Morris explained:
From the same pure Fountain of Wisdom [i.e., the Bible—DM] we learn that vice destroys freedom; that arbitrary power is founded on public immorality, and that misconduct in those who rule a republic, necessary consequence of general licentiousness, so disgusts and degrades the nation, that, dead to generous sentiment, they become willing slaves…. Then laws to protect the weak against the strong, the innocent against the wicked, become instruments of oppression and torture (pp. 8-9, emp. added).
One would have difficulty finding a more applicable description of what has happened to America in the last 50 years—from the widespread surge of crime and immorality, to the governmental encroachments on personal freedom, and the use of those legions of laws to favor the lawbreaker over the victim, as well as promote hedonism.
Second, Morris insisted that the “profound lesson of political wisdom” to be learned from 1 Samuel 8, acknowledged by such authors as Machiavelli and Montesquieu, is that “virtue is the principle of republics” (p. 10). Even the government that God Himself set up (i.e., for the Israelites) “became intolerable from the prevalence of vice and impiety” (p. 10). Here, again, is an uncanny anticipation of America’s present spiritual condition. Vice, impiety, immorality, and crime are rampant and continue to increase. What can be done?
Morris noted that man is governed by hope and fear. People are motivated by hope when their desires for pleasure, wealth, and power are achieved. They are motivated by fear when they are able to avoid poverty, pain, and death. They are likewise governed by “prompt generous reward” and “speedy severe punishment.” These “are the human means to invigorate duty, stimulate zeal, correct perversity, and restrain guilt” (p. 10). However, these tools are insufficient. After all, is not America the wealthiest nation in human history, having provided for a larger percentage of her citizenry a higher standard of living than any previous civilization? And is it not the case that Americans experience more pleasure, wealth, and power, and have surpassed all previous human progress in reducing poverty, masking pain, and postponing death? Yet, despite these incredible advancements, America is experiencing widespread social chaos and moral decline—in the government, school, workplace, and home. As Morris foreshadowed: “criminals escape punishment, by the perpetration of new and more atrocious crimes” (p. 10).
So something more is needed. Morris pinpointed that “something”:
Something more, then, is required to encourage virtue, suppress vice, preserve public peace, and secure national independence. There must be something more to hope than pleasure, wealth, and power. Something more to fear than poverty and pain. Something after death more terrible than death. There must be religion. When that ligament is torn, society is disjointed and its members perish. The nation is exposed to foreign violence and domestic convulsion. Vicious rulers, chosen by vicious people, turn back the current of corruption to its source. Placed in a situation where they can exercise authority for their own emolument, they betray their trust. They take bribes. They sell statutes and decrees. They sell honor and office. They sell their conscience. They sell their country. By this vile traffic they become odious and contemptible…. But the most important of all lessons is the denunciation of ruin to every State that rejects the precepts of religion (pp. 10-11,13, emp. added).
The religion to which Founder Morris referred is the Christian religion—to the exclusion of all others.
According to Founders like Morris, the general doctrines and moral principles of the Christian religion must thoroughly permeate our civilization if our nation is to avoid “the denunciation of ruin.” Otherwise, America will be subjected to violence inflicted by foreign enemies (terrorists?). And the nation will find itself in the throes of “domestic convulsion.” Domestic convulsion? What better epithet to identify America’s current national condition?
The key to securing America’s future is simple and definitive: “May it be secured by a pious obedience to that divine will, which prescribes the moral orbit of empire with the same precision that his wisdom and power have displayed, in whirling millions of planets round millions of suns through the vastness of infinite space” (p. 24, emp. added). In the words of the inspired writers: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).
Morris, Gouverneur (1816), An Inaugural Discourse, Delivered Before the New York Historical Society, 4th September, 1816; the 206th Anniversary of the Discovery of New-York, by Hudson (New York: T. & W. Mercein), [On-line], URL: http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nys;cc=nys;idno=nys004;view=toc;node=nys004%3A3.
“Morris, Gouverneur, (1752-1816)” (no date), Biographical Dictionary of the United States, [On-line], URL: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=M000976.
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