'Ancient Principles' Birthed the Greatest Nation the World Has Ever Known
On the same day that the Declaration of Independence became official, a telling event further reveals that our founders understood well the “ancient principles” upon which our republic must be built. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee -- consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams -- to design an official seal for the United States. Adams proposed an image of Hercules contemplating the persuasions of Virtue and Sloth.
Franklin proposed a biblical theme:
Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto: Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.
Nineteenth Century Artistic Rendition of Franklin’s Proposed Design for the U.S. Seal
Likewise, Jefferson preferred a biblical theme. According to a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail, Jefferson proposed:
The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night, and on the other Side Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.
Our Founders understood well that the story of Moses embodied what they hoped would be the story of America. Bruce Feiler, author of America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story, says that, more than any other ancient figure, “Moses embodies the American story. He is the champion of oppressed people; he transforms disparate tribes in a forbidding wilderness into a nation of laws; he is the original proponent of freedom and justice for all.”
The committee agreed on an image of thirteen linked shields, each bearing the designation of a state and the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” along with the all-seeing eye of the Creator inside a triangle. On the reverse side was the biblical scene and the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
However, Congress tabled the matter for several years and eventually adopted the seal and the motto as we have them today. On the reverse side of the seal is a 13-step pyramid, with the year 1776 in Roman numerals along the base. At the top of the pyramid is the Eye of Providence with the Latin motto ANNUIT COEPTIS (“[God] has favored our undertakings”) in the sky above. As the Revolutionary War had proven, God had indeed “favored” the undertakings of the United States. Such favor was no doubt due to the firm faith demonstrated by those who sought to build a nation that, as Puritan leader John Winthrop would envision nearly a century-and-a-half earlier, would serve the world as a “City upon a Hill.”
After defeating the British, the trouble for the new United States of America was far from over. Winning a war was one thing; creating a functioning and thriving nation was quite another. It was becoming clear that the U.S. was not going to survive under the Articles of Confederation. After the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America would wait another 11 years (13 years before it would actually go into effect) for the strong charter of liberty called the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution would provide the enduring legal strength necessary for the U.S. to survive and thrive as a republic.
On December 6, 1787, by unanimous consent, Delaware became the first state to ratify the new Constitution. New Jersey and Georgia soon followed, also by unanimous consent. On December 12, 1787, by a vote of 46 to 23, Pennsylvania approved the Constitution. In 1788, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina made it eight states.
New Hampshire was the last of the necessary nine states needed to ratify the Constitution. As I note in The Miracle and Magnificence of America, in order to persuade his fellow delegates to vote in favor of the Constitution, Samuel Langdon, a distinguished theologian and scholar, delivered an “election sermon” entitled, The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States.
After beginning by quoting Deuteronomy 4:5-8 in his sermon, Langdon noted,
[T]he Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages; and from them we may learn what will exalt our character, and what will depress and bring us to ruin. Let us therefore look over their constitution and laws, enquire into their practice, and observe how their prosperity and fame depended on their strict observance of the divine commands both as to their government and religion.
Langdon then gave an account of how Moses, upon the wise counsel of his father-in-law Jethro, “the priest of Midian,” set up a republican form of government, with representatives (“leaders,” “rulers,” “judges,” depending on the biblical translation) from groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. In addition, 70 elders, or wise-men -- a type of national Senate as described by biblical and Jewish scholars -- were selected by Moses and approved by the consent of the people.
A government thus settled on republican principles, required laws; without which it must have degenerated immediately into aristocracy, or absolute monarchy. But God did not leave a people, wholly unskilled in legislation, to make laws for themselves: he took this important matter wholly into His own hands, and beside the moral laws of the two tables, which directed their conduct as individuals, gave them by Moses a complete code of judicial laws.
Langdon goes on to describe how this republican form of government helped the nation of Israel grow from a “mere mob” to a “well regulated nation, under a government and laws far superior to what any other nation could boast!” After detailing Israel’s later struggles -- they would eventually “[neglect] their government, [corrupt] their religion, and [grow] dissolute in their morals” -- Langston exhorted his fellow citizens to learn from the nation of Israel.
That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured which a people can reasonably claim, and you are empowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his son Jesus Christ, who is far superior to Moses, a complete revelation of his will, and a perfect system of true religion, plainly delivered in the sacred writings; it will be your wisdom in the eyes of the nations, and your true interest and happiness, to conform your practice in the strictest manner to the excellent principles of your government, adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.
On September 21, 1788 the Constitution and the new government of the United States went into effect. Just over three years later, the Bill of Rights would be added. By 1790, when Rhode Island joined the Union, it was unanimous.
On July 4, 1837, in a speech delivered in the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, and the sixth U.S. President, proclaimed,
Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth?
Witnessing the events of the Revolution as a boy, and no doubt hearing from his father of the raucous debates that gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and then going on to serve his country in many various capacities, John Quincy Adams saw that Christmas and Independence Day were fundamentally linked. He understood well that the Founders took the principles that Christ brought to the world and incorporated them into civil government. This is what makes the U.S. government so distinctive, why it has been so durable, and why, to this day, we are the greatest nation the world has ever known.
Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor is the author of the The Miracle and Magnificence of America