George Washington’s Circular Letter of 1783

While serving as commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies George Washington annually sent letters to the government of each of the several states. So Joseph J. Ellis tells us in his Pulitzer winner Founding Brothers. Particularly notable is the Circular Letter of 1783, wherein Washington offers a profound vision of America that I think is worth considering:

“The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, and acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”

After wading through superfluous capitalization and strings of clauses laced together with no period in sight, I find the following meaning in Washington’s observation:

Now blessed with freedom from British rule, Americans were in the ultimate position to do what no man had comprehended prior. With unprecedented individual liberty afforded by a remarkable republican government and placed on a continent teeming with every imaginable natural resource, Americans had no excuse for not exhibiting human greatness and happiness. Indeed, given the extraordinary nature of this opportunity, it was only to be expected that the world’s eyes would be on the newly formed nation. The circumstances were such that it was as if God had created the moment for some specific reason, and we for whatever reason were the chosen for the event.

With privilege comes an equal measure of responsibility, and certainly if we look at Washington’s letter through that lense I think we find that rightly much has been expected of America and continues to be expected of us. It is incumbent upon us to strive to maintain our worthiness of what Washington described. Doubtful some may detect in all this a note of the American Exceptionalism which offends some contemporary observers. I contend that the unique facts of our nation’s genesis simply set the bar higher, and it is not arrogance that should arise from that outlook but rather the challenge of being the best we can be. Despite self-inflicted wounds that have shamed the vision, America remains the singular place with the least intrusion upon one’s ambition–one’s pursuit of happiness if you will.

If we should fail to be happy and prosperous, the fault is only ours, said Washington. Something to think about as we look at what has brought us to where we are today as a nation, and likewise as we look at where we are headed.