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The Founding Fathers realized that two practices were essential to maintaining freedom and liberty in the U.S. The first was operating under the rule of law, or upholding the Constitution. The second was encouraging and defending religious liberty.

On June 21, 1776, John Adams was in Philadelphia, helping to hammer out the American Declaration of Independence, when he wrote to Zabdiel Adams, “Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people … they may change their rulers, and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty — They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.” (See founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0011.)

One of the United States' great Founding Fathers and its second president, Adams was slower than most to advocate revolution because he understood that without a foundational legal document securing and preserving liberty and freedom, war with Great Britain would likely do nothing more than replace one tyrant with another.

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John Adams, second president of the U.S. from 1797 to 1801, is shown in this steel engraving.

To avoid this, he advocated a two-part solution:

First, “a government of laws, and not of men.” This was first published in the Boston Gazette, No. 7; this was incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. Adams recognized that obedience to the rule of law is one of a nation’s best defenses against despotism. The U.S. Constitution — the nation’s foundational document — is the basis for American law and its Bill of Rights extends extraordinary liberties and legal protections to U.S. citizens. Defending and maintaining the Constitution protects citizens against overreaching government and powerful leaders’ attempts to obstruct freedom and impose tyranny. Only by carefully adhering to and defending the Constitution can liberty and freedom be perpetuated in the United States.

Second, and equally essential to preserving the union, is obedience to God and his divine laws. Beloved as the Father of the Country, George Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, presided over the Constitutional Convention and was unanimously chosen first president of the United States. An experienced and wise statesman, in his First Inaugural Address (online atwww.archives.gov), he readily proclaimed God’s hand in the creation of the U.S. and “fervent(ly) supplicat(ed the aid of) … that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe. ... No People can … acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”

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"The vision of a non-partisan Republic was already on life support when George Washington warned in his farewell address of 'the baneful effects of the spirit of party.'"

Besides acknowledging God’s hand in bringing the nation into being, Washington instructed citizens that their fragile experiment in liberty and happiness, and its perpetuation, depended on continued obedience to Christian precepts. “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in … nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness. … The propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.” He concluded his address with “humble supplication” for the “benign parent of the human race … to favour the American people” as they “conspicuous(ly enact) wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.”

Eight years later, although a lifetime presidency was virtually assured him — because he despised even the scent of kingship — Washington refused to stand for a third term, intentionally setting a precedent for later presidents against long-term rule and a descent to despotism.

Repeating the same cautions he issued throughout the war and his presidency, he drew upon his vast experience and great wisdom to plead with U.S. residents in his 1796 Farewell Address (online at avalon.law.yale.edu), “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … (No one can) claim … patriotism who should labor to subvert (religion and Christian morality), these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politicians, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.” Washington understood that those who truly love freedom and country will honor and defend the religious rights of its residents.

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The Capitol Rotunda is seen with the statue of George Washington on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, ahead of the State of the Union address by President Donald Trump.

He also expressed concern for “security for property, for reputation, for life.” And what if Christian religious sensibilities erode? He posited and answered the question, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education … reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. … Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. … (Religion is) the foundation of the fabric.” Washington recognized that Christian moral sensibilities were essential to maintaining America’s fragile experiment in representative democracy and freedom.

12 comments on this story

As the Fourth of July approaches, freedom-loving people everywhere need to reflect on the myriad sacrifices of others that they might live as free people today. They too should willingly sacrifice, standing shoulder to shoulder in defense of the Constitution, the rule of law and religious liberty — recognizing such actions as essential to the continued success and prosperity of the United States. As John Adams pleaded with those who live today in a letter to his wife (and online at founders.archives.gov), “Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make … good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it."