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Lessons From The Washington Centennial

( Originally Published 1916 )


Picture to yourselves the joy and expectation of that day which saw the establishment of our Government a century ago. As the patriots of that day in the midst of festivity and joy look back upon famine and nakedness and peril and sword, upon battlefields and garments rolled in blood, as they think of their emergence from the long struggle weary and exhausted, as they recall their precarious existence as a nation under the articles of confederation, as they behold the blessing of God upon their faith and courage and energy, can we not hear those voices, hushed so long ago, speaking to us and assuring us that they that sow in tears shall reap in joy?

We think of the founding of our Government and we recall at this moment the representatives of three generations of statesmen, Washington and Hamilton, Clay and Webster, Lincoln and Sumner. Our attention will be concentrated on the unique and commanding figure of the first President. Through the renewed study and statement of his public career many lessons, familiar indeed, but of fresh importance, will be read into the hearts of our country.

We cannot doubt in the case of Washington the fact of a divine call. Joshua was not more evidently called to command the armies of Israel than Washington to lead the forces of the united colonies. David was not more signally summoned from the sheep-folds to the throne of his people than Washington from his quiet home on the Potomac to the seat of supreme power over his countrymen. There was not a single believer in the Divine Being in the Constitutional Congress who did not hear in the voice of John Adams, when he moved the appointment of George Washington as Commander in-Chief of all the forces raised or to be raised, the creation and appointment of God.

So, in his election and re-election to the office of President, Hamilton set forth the clearness and urgency of the call in the remark that circumstances left Washington no option. That wonderful triumphal procession from Mount Vernon to New York, through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Trenton, is in response to the appeal and command not only of earth, but of Heaven. As the nation's first President was called of God, so is the nation itself called. The divine ideal is before it as it was before him. God had work for Washington; he had work for his nation; he had work for every one of his fellow-citizens. An ideal good is before every man, and divine power behind him. Let him consent to the control of the power.

The nation's life and each individual life within it is founded on the sense of obligation. We have in the model of Washington a definition of duty in the special sense of the term, in the saying, " I most heartily wish the choice may not fall upon me. The wish of my soul is to spend the evening of my days as a private citizen on my farm." There is the power of inclination, the pleading of personal ease and comfort, the assertion of individual good. In all this there is nothing wrong, until it comes into conflict with the national call, with the universal good. Then came the fight between the special and the general, the private and the public, the individual and the universal good.

The hope of a nation is in the choice of office of its best men. The historic peril of the republic lies in the choice of unfit men for eminent official position. This is our peril. It is well we are becoming more and more alive to it. Nevertheless it is well to remember that there have been times in our history when the voice of electors has been the voice of God. When Washington was elected, the fittest man was chosen. His was the rule of the wisest and best man. There are few living who will not confess that Abraham Lincoln was another example of the choice by the people of the best man. We turn in hope to the great future. After he had taken the oath, Washington bowed his head, kissed the Bible, and, with the deepest feeling, uttered the words, " So help me God." There was his hope. There is the hope of every man. There is the hope of the nation.

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