James Thomas Flexner wrote in George Washington: In the American Revolution of what may be considered the most important unknown moment in American history. On March 15, 1783 in Newburgh, New York, General George Washington resisted the perennial revolutionary temptation advocated by some of his officers to address their frustrations by taking power as king. Although the troops gathered in a large hall were not deterred by Washington’s rhetoric, the atmosphere changed when he began to read a letter to the group and, as Flexner writes, “he pulled out something that only his intimates had seen him wear. A pair of glasses. With infinite sweetness and melancholy, he explained: ‘Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’”
This simple statement exposed his humility and his humanity, and the revolutionary temptation passed. As a result of that, many other decisions by men, and the providence of God, on Thursday we will observe an inauguration and not a coronation.
Every four years, inauguration is a solemn and celebratory passage for the republic. It marks the peaceful transition of administration, and although not a transfer of power this year (gratefully), it is a symbol of the strength and continuity of our representative democracy.
It is the day every four years when partisanship is at is lowest ebb. Although there’s a taste of it at every State of the Union gathering, the inauguration is the event most closely resembling the common patriotism that was felt so fervently in the days following 9/11. Short-lived though it may be, it is our nation at its best.
The inauguration is a very real function of transferring power and it is a symbol of two of the pillars of American stability—representative democracy and the rule of (constitutional) law. A third would be the independent judiciary. These pillars have remained because the founders and our ancestors understood the nature of man. They built into the Constitution protections against the inclination of human beings to grasp at power and to work for personal rather than common good.
They knew that people are depraved. This theological truth was obvious to enough of the founders to assure safeguards against it.
“The total depravity of man,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is the one doctrine empirically validated by 4,000 years of human history.” But we have lost sight of this in modern society, which endangers the republic.
“The most common myth of [our time] is that people are good. We aren’t,” wrote Charles Colson, who after a career in cut-throat politics and 20 years in prison and prison ministry knows of what he speaks.
The most valuable American export is the strength of its democratic model. In two weeks we will see—undoubtedly amid death and carnage—a new phase in Iraq in which that nation will continue building freedom and stability through free elections. We know that this will be a step forward for Iraq. But why? Why are we sure representative democracy is so good for Iraq, or Afghanistan, or for the Palestinian people? For the world?
It is not that we want to export all things American. To find the answer, follow freedom. Where does it blossom? In the nations where the people have a voice, freedom is growing, the weak and the minorities are better protected, economies are improving, and civil institutions are thriving. On the other hand, the concentration of power in a small number of people always ends badly.
Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
The Lord through Samuel warned the nation of Israel of the consequences of a being ruled by a king. “When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you’ve chosen for yourselves” (I Samuel 8:18). Israel endured hardships because of their choice, and throughout history, nations have suffered from the tyranny of concentrated power.
But this week, we celebrate American stability and we inaugurate the second term of a President who has recognized the importance of exporting freedom to the world, and protecting freedom at home. For that, all of America can be grateful.