How George Washington would tell you to celebrate the Fourth

Before you say, “I wish people would pay more respect for our nation on July 4th, rather than just lighting fireworks or getting drunk,” it might be useful to remember that George Washington celebrated the second anniversary of Independence Day by giving his soldiers extra rations of rum. If that’s not enough, here is what John Adams said about Independence Day in 1776, before the first one was even celebrated: “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

I get as annoyed as anyone with people who seem to believe that the point of Memorial Day is swimming pools and mattress sales, or that the point of Christmas is shopping. But we are doing exactly the right thing by having as big a party, as John Adams first suggested in 1776. And if George Washington encouraged his soldiers to get a bit tipsy, what’s wrong with that?

Nothing. The real problem–the difference between us and George Washington & Co.–is that they knew what to do the other 364 days of the year.

Do we?

For just a moment, today, it might be wise to inject a drop of perspective into the froth of festivities (and beer), and consider what we should be doing to keep the spirit of 1776 alive. I think a good way to start is by recalling what George Washington suggested we do.

George Washington realized that it was not our institutions, nor even our Constitution, that kept our country alive.

Liberia, after all, was also started by Americans. Liberia’s1847 constitution was almost a carbon copy of our own constitution. But Liberia didn’t become another United States. I don’t want to ruin your holiday by reminding you of what happened to Liberia, but the country eventually self-destructed; in fact, the Liberians spent several decades destroying each other. If you think it???s the Constitution or our institutions that can protect us, you’d seem to be wrong.

So what makes America America? Well, according to George Washington it’s you. (And me.)

Specifically, George Washington thought the most effective way to keep America alive was our “religion and morality.” He called those two things the “indispensible supports” of a free country. So can we put George Washington firmly on the side of the moral majority, then? Not so fast. At least once, George Washington publicly worshiped the Indians’ “Great Spirit,” and as president he refused to take communion in his own church. When someone pointed out that he might scandalize the other parishioners, he simply stopped going to church altogether. What “religion” and whose “morality” did he think we should follow?

Until recently, it wasn’t clear. A tiny scrawl to the side of George Washington’s accounting entry for the first purchase of his life was the clue to his ideas about religion and morality, to his character, to how he became George Washington and helped make America America. But it was overlooked for more than two hundred years (and in more than three thousand biographies).

But now the key has been discovered. When George Washington was fifteen, he bought a guide to greatness that took the place of the formal education he never got when his father died, leaving no money for the English boarding school he had wanted to go to. That guide introduced George Washington to an idealized surrogate father, and gave the teenager the wisdom to take on the world when he was only seventeen.

This guide to greatness was not only the first purchase of George Washington’s life, it was the only book he bought for many years. The little guide conveyed, in a distilled form, the most important lessons of Western civilization. Its secrets not only enabled George Washington to out-do any Horatio Alger character in terms of mere material success, but it also gave him the grace and wisdom to use that success in the best way possible, for himself, and for others.

So, while the fireworks explode and the beer flows, consider that it is you who makes America America. And if you want America to stay great,and free, you might consider paying at least a little of the same kind of attention to the content of your character as George Washington paid to his.