The Netflix series The Crown chronicles Queen Elizabeth II’s constitutional continuity as chief of state while heads of government, Churchill-Eden-Macmillan, quit in not always planned ways. It also spotlights the monarchy’s and British state’s ultimate reliance on transcendence. Kings and queens are anointed by God and serve Him, Elizabeth was instructed by her grandmother Queen Mary. Elizabeth of course is head of state and head of church for her realm. Her encounter with visiting Billy Graham strengthens her faith while also allowing her the pleasure of briefly being, as she explained to him, a “simple Christian.”
Graham’s America, although a child of Britain, of course has no monarchy or state church and finds transcendent authority for its constitutional order somewhat differently. Gordon Wood’s recent book Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson describes the contrasting visions of America’s new order offered by the two Founding Fathers across their decades of political collaboration and friendship, interrupted by enmity, then concluding in renewed concord if not full agreement.
Jefferson was a hyper American exceptionalist who saw America divorced from Britain and Europe as a new and superior creation. Adams saw America as intrinsically interconnected with the traditions and sins of the old world. Jefferson romanticized the French Revolution before finally and reluctantly realizing its disastrous consequence. Adams dreamt that America would be, like Britain, a place of inevitable hierarchy and inherited positions as elites supinely rose and ruled over the common people. Both at times across long lives lost touch with the original aspirations of the Declaration of Independence.
Both Jefferson and Adams were at times bonkers and erratic, if still brilliant. They were essential to America’s founding but only together and with others could they synthesize the new republic and its constitutional order. Wood’s history focuses on the two frenemies of 50 years, but by explaining their flaws and incomplete visions it also illustrates the sanity and irreplaceability of George Washington.
Adams often resented the man he nominated to command the Revolution and under whom he served as first Vice President. Jefferson as Washington’s Secretary of State, and later, plotted against the policies of the administration and privately mocked the president. Yet each knew and acknowledged to each other in the correspondence of their last years that their experiment in America’s new regime needed him. In 1814 Jefferson recalled Washington in a lengthy review to another correspondent:
His was the singular destiny & merit of leading the armies of his country succesfully thro’ an arduous war for the establishment of it’s independance, of conducting it’s councils thro’ the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train, and of scrupulously obeying the laws, thro’ the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.
Jefferson concluded of Washington: “His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, & a great man.”
Washington had to do what Jefferson and Adams did not: serve as the model for all following presidents and governments. Absent a monarch, his example would have to suffice. And so it has. Despite their criticisms and sometimes jealousies, the presidencies of Jefferson and Adams yielded to Washington’s precedent and built upon it, even when contrary to their own original views. Washington was the rock and ballast that would steady America’s constitutional order. He also understood its need for transcendence.
Jefferson, a great friend to religious liberty, often went too far in denying the state’s need for roots in transcendence, advocating a more separationist approach. Adams was more European, effectively believing state supported churches were required to uphold morals and social order. Both were Unitarians who had lost faith in orthodoxy and were perplexed by early America’s turn to revivalism.
Washington was reserved about his religion but worshiped throughout his life in Anglican churches, as James Madison noted: “He took these things [religion] as he found them existing, and was constant in his observance of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church in which he was brought up.”
As the longtime communicant of a state church that was disestablished, Washington understood the need for society and the state to rest on transcendence without imposition of specific dogma. He was first president but was also first priest of American civil religion, which he mediated through his acts and words, setting a precedent his successors wisely would follow.
This American civil religion, with the Constitution that Washington helped craft, and the presidential rites he punctiliously invented, have provided for America the social and political order that the monarchy has ensured for Britain. Jefferson didn’t like celebrating Washington’s Birthday during Washington’s presidency, which he thought monarchical. But surely he would approve its celebration today, as should all who are grateful to Washington as founder of the world’s oldest and most successful great republic, of “which the history of the world furnishes no other example.”