Washington and Lincoln weren’t theocrats – but they believed in the common good

US supporters hold up portraits of Lincoln and Washington at the 2010 World Cup (Getty)

Today, our social principle is lost amid statism and individualism

George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation reads, “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” Nearly seventy-five years later, to a nation torn asunder by the Civil War, Lincoln would say that Americans are “prone to forget the source from which” all our bounties come. So it is “fit and proper” for the whole American people to “solemnly, reverently, and gratefully” give thanks and praise to “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Lincoln adds a note of penitence to his proclamation, asking Americans to remember those who suffer from our “lamentable civil strife,” to work for their benefit, and “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

These iconic presidents were not theocrats. They were not fascists. They were not naive. They were men who recognized that the common good of a nation is a benefit, a bounty, a gift from God. Their fundamental presupposition was that God is the cause of all such goods, all such benefits, all such bounties, and most especially they understood that God is the cause of the bounty of union.

Washington and Lincoln believed that the political common good was meant to assist the people in their obligations. But they were not collectivists, or statists. They believed in something like the principle of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity is a word that comes into Catholic social thought in the 19th century, but it has a much more ancient pedigree. It’s an idea which goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Politics. It’s the idea that there are diverse societies which are prior to the formation of the city. This may seem obvious, but it is quite a profound counterweight to Plato’s vision of the common good which can look by contrast, well, collectivist at times — overriding the common goods of the family, the village, the estates. Instead, Aristotle thought the unity of the city must include, without overriding, the diverse and distinct social unities which precede it.

For Augustine, Aquinas, and Catholic social teaching, this has a hierarchical resonance rooted in human nature itself as God’s image and likeness. The rational soul is already a complex unity, which is in turn relational, first in being matrimonial by nature, the family being the first society, and also political by nature, the kind of creature who forms political unions out of prior social unions. Any political union which sought to homogenize the diverse social units that precede it, such as family, village, estate — or exceed it, such as church — would, in fact, undermine its own unity by usurping any of the others.

One only needs to look to 1789 — the year of Washington’s proclamation — to witness the French state imposing a terrifying and bloody kind of unity that obliterated every preexistent social order, and aimed at the destruction of the Catholic Church. Like the progressive idealist today, the Jacobins sought a false kind of unity, one which undermined itself.

Yet as the Thanksgiving Day proclamations attest, the American hope was different. It was not one of coerced solidarity, but a union of unions which was ordered from the lowest to the highest with God as the first principle of union. Put differently, God was a kind of sine qua non of the principle of American solidarity — call it our social principle. Though they did not properly recognize true religion, they very clearly believed that the state should assist the people in thanking and praising the cause of all the goods which are prior to their union as a people.

America’s social principle is lost today. We are struggling to find it. On the one hand, those who think the principle of subsidiarity means devolution of all things to their lowest level, tend to make common goods disappear into individual and private goods. On the other hand, those who think the principle of solidarity means that the political common good must obliterate every social unity before or above it, collapse the hierarchy of goods which come from God into a monolithic tyrannical statism. In this way, the individualist and the statist are locked into the same error, the same collapsing of the hierarchy. America’s social principle is thus lost under the rubble of these twin errors.

Thanksgiving has lodged God into the metaphysical memory of the nation. It’s for this reason that the neo-Jacobins, so bent on the denial of God, seek to turn family dinners into political events that destroy true social unities by coercing false ones. As Lincoln said, to find our social principle again we should remember God and do penance — just in time for Advent.