by Robert Morrison
August 22, 2014
I recently celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of my thirty-ninth birthday by climbing to the top of our Old State House in Maryland. The gracious capitol building dates from the 1770s and is the oldest legislative building in continuous use in America. This Old State House was the scene of many important events in U.S. history. General Washington came here to meet with Congress in 1783. He wanted to resign his commission to the civil authorities from whom he had first received it. This noble action would make him, King George III of England said, “the greatest man in the world.”
Previous victorious commanders — like Caesar, like Cromwell — had used their military renown to establish dictatorships. Washington’s model was Cincinnatus, the Roman general who had been called from his plow to defend the republic.
Thomas Jefferson had been in the Old Senate Chamber that cold winter’s day in December 1783, when Washington appeared before a tearful body of legislators. Congressman Jefferson had in fact drafted the response that the President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin, would give to Gen. Washington.
Intentionally, the Members of Congress remained seated while His Excellency stood before them. They wanted to emphasize the fact that their new nation was a republic. In England, when the King delivered his Speech from the Throne, Members of Parliament would stand before their seated Sovereign. America would be different; we would be a Novus Ordo Seclorum — a New Order of the Ages.
Climbing to the top of the Old State House affords a commanding view of the little seaport town of Annapolis. You can walk the entire city in an hour. You can go to City Dock, to Middleton Tavern, still serving dinners as it has since 1750.
Doubtless Alexander Hamilton and James Madison dined there in 1786 when they convened their Annapolis Convention. These young men (Madison at 35 was senior to Hamilton, just 31) had hoped to bring together delegates from all the newly united States to try to repair the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Only five states were represented and their twelve delegates could do little more than to issue a call for a general convention to meet the next year in Philadelphia. It would be called upon to revise the frame of government to “enable the United States in Congress assembled, effectually to provide for the exigencies of the Union.” But these young Framers would wholly overhaul the government. They gave us the Constitution, which all officeholders and members of our armed forces swear (or affirm) they will preserve, protect, and defend.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had climbed these very stairs to the top of the Capitol dome in 1791. By that time, they had split with Hamilton’s faction in the new federal government and were intent on forming a new political alliance, joining Southerners with Northerners who opposed Hamilton’s financial plans and his centralizing of power. Jefferson and Madison’s new political party would be called the Republicans, but they were in fact the ancestors of today’s Democratic Party. (Today’s Republicans date from 1854 and descend, mostly, from Hamilton’s Federalists.)
I am mindful as I climb in the footsteps of Jefferson and Madison to the top of the dome that they were also two of our leading advocates for religious freedom. Jefferson had introduced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in that state’s legislature in 1779. It took James Madison’s skillful advocacy and legislative savvy to guide that historic measure to successful adoption in 1786.
Today’s world needs the wisdom of Jefferson and Madison more than ever.
In our own time, our State Department has collaborated with Islamic factions in Iraq and Afghanistan to produce unworkable constitutions that effectively deny religious freedom. “Nothing shall by done by this government that is repugnant to Islam,” say the clauses that our advisers placed in the constitutions of these two countries. These are lands and peoples our brave soldiers sacrificed to liberate. The present chaos we see throughout that Bloody Crescent derives in no small part from the simple fact that these people believe you should murder your neighbor if he leaves Islam. Or even your own child.
From the top of the Old State House, you can clearly make out the steeples of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. The Methodist and Presbyterian churches can also be seen. Across the way you can see the majestic dome of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel.
Beyond that dome is the newer Jewish Chapel, an architectural jewel and a house of worship that honors the contributions of U.S. Navy Commodore Uriah Philips Levy.
Here in Annapolis, you can walk from one of these cherished religious sites to another, each one standing apart from the other, but every one united in its respect for its neighbors’ rights. We need less bowing to desert despots and more candid talk. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in our own Declaration of Independence. The fact is, those who murder their neighbors because they worship differently never have and never will enjoy true democracy. [When 89% of German voters affirmed Adolf Hitler as their Fürer in 1934, their votes didn’t express democracy, they killed it!]
Madison explained the link between civil and religious freedom most cogently in Federalist 51. He showed how religious freedom forms the foundation for political freedom:
In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.
The view from this Capitol dome helps one to consider how much of Jefferson and Madison’s wisdom is being disregarded today.
Our foreign policy — conducted by both parties — routinely ignores religious freedom. Our U.S. State Department has forgotten the strong beliefs of Jefferson and Madison, who were also two of our most eminent Secretaries of State!
Domestically, the Union that Washington called “sacred” is being subverted by ObamaCare. Under this most perilous measure, the religious freedom of Americans has been threatened as it has not been threatened since 1786. Under ObamaCare, the states cease to be states and become instead mere branch offices of the federal HHS Department.
In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson struck out the word Subjects and inserted the word Citizens. Our National Archives celebrated this important emendation with a press release on July 4, 2010, the very year that President Obama signed the legislation that will make us Subjects once again.
It took two years of patient petitioning with my State Senator, an honorable Democrat, to make that climb to the top of the Old State House dome. I’m glad I persisted. I pray I never forget the Capitol view it gave me.