‘To which the wise and honest can repair’
Does not, then, the Almighty clearly impress an awe of the persons and authority of Kings upon the minds of their subjects, hereby proving Government of Divine origin?” So asked the Reverend J. R. Walsh in a pamphlet printed in 1829. “For, otherwise, by what principle could any one mortal command subjection from so many millions of fellow creatures”?
That was a question very much upon the mind of King George IV, whose coronation provided the inspiration for the Reverend Walsh’s essay: That king’s father, George III, had been treated with a notable lack of awe by his American subjects, who gave him the shoe and set up their own republic, without any king at all. This experiment in awelessness, all the smart people of the late 18th century assured one another, was doomed to failure: Awelessness was next to lawlessness, they believed, and a people without a king to tell them how to behave or a king’s church to tell them why to behave were doomed to anarchy.
Here’s to 240 years of glorious anarchy.
Awe was very much on the minds of those early republicans. George Washington, whose name appears frequently in sentences containing the word “awe,” wrote that one of the purposes of our northern fortifications was to “awe the Indians.” Thomas Paine, who had no great awe of the state, wrote of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms: “Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property.” You’ll find a man’s heart where you find his awe: Walter Bagehot, founder of (that other) National Review and later editor of The Economist, lived to learn: “A schoolmaster should have an atmosphere of awe,” he wrote, “and walk wonderingly, as if he was amazed at being himself.”
Edmund Burke believed that even when addressing the defects of the state, we should treat it “with pious awe and trembling solicitude,” hence his hesitancy about the American Revolution and his detestation of the French one. The libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard would later argue the opposite, that failed revolutions are valuable to the extent that they “decrease the awe in which the constituted authority is held by the populace, and in that way will increase the chance of a later revolt against tyranny.”
When the Reverend Walsh connected awe with divinity in government, he had in mind Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Burke had in mind a kind of holy terror, too, though one that less closely resembled the apostle’s fear of the Almighty than it did Thomas Hobbes’s fear of bellum omnium contra omnes. But in many ways those come down to the same thing: Without someone to keep them in line — to keep them in awe — what’s to keep the people from running amok?
The American Founders did not contemplate a world without awe of government, but they did intuit that a free, self-governing, democratic republic could get by with a good deal less of it. George Washington famously rejected an offer to make him king and thought that calling the president “Your Excellency” might be a bit much, too. We hear a great deal now about the “dignity of the office” and the need to have “respect for the presidency,” if not for the president himself, but nobody ever really says why. Why should we be awed at the chief bureaucrat of the federal administrative apparatus? Why should we hold in awe our employee? “Only I can fix” is Donald Trump’s illiterate shorthand for the idea that presidents are, like kings, products of divine election. George Washington never said anything like that; he didn’t need to convince anybody that he was the man for the job, and he knew that the job was governing, not ruling.
There is something in us, something ugly and atavistic, that loves a king. Some unhappy people — and they are legion — long for a strong man before whom they can abase themselves, and thereby be relieved of the stress and terror of being responsible for their own lives. Unhappy with the state of your personal finances? Let the Great Father take care of it for you. Burke would have recognized what was going on right now in American politics. He argued that the American colonists had legitimate grievances but that those were married to a “dangerous spirit of disquisition, not in the coolness of philosophic inquiry, but inflamed with all the passions of a haughty, resentful people, who thought themselves deeply injured, and that they were contending for everything that was valuable in the world.”
And they didn’t even have cable news.
It is pleasing and strange that on this Independence Day weekend we Americans are thinking in a special way about our British cousins, who, all these years after their damned stupid tea taxes and quartering troops in our houses, have gotten around to declaring their own independence, not from the Crown (which is now only a kind of Easter bonnet) but from the European Union, which began as a trading bloc and metastasized into another version of the cracked dream of a unitary European state, this one headquartered in Brussels rather than in Paris or Berlin. The European Union has all the usual trappings of awe: a banner, an anthem (from Beethoven’s Ninth), titles, etc. The great political genius of Nigel Farage and his hectoring, insulting EU speeches was his simple refusal to be awed by the European authorities. Perhaps the French, who were on the right side of the American Revolution, will join in next year, and remember who it was they sent us a statue of.
We’ve done pretty well without an overabundance of awe: saved the world from awe-addled Germans — twice — and then went to the moon just to show that we could. Some Rotarians a few years back got together for lunch and decided that what they should do with their spare time is wipe out polio: They’re pretty close. We still have too much awe of the state for my taste, but nobody’s perfect.
When he was named president of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington didn’t set his sights on inspiring awe or on any exercise in political and philosophical grandiosity intended to “command subjection,” in the Reverend Walsh’s words, but instead suggested a much more modest target: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”
Good advice then. Good advice now.
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent at National Review.