WHAT I SAW IN AMERICA

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century. His prolific and diverse output included philosophy, ontology, poetry, journalism, biography, Christian apologetics, fantasy and detective fiction. He had published over 111 books before his death in 1936. One major work was Orthodoxy (1908), which has become a classic of Christian apologetics.

G. K. Chesterton, on coming to the United States for a series of lectures, wrote an essay entitled, “What I saw in America”. In the opening he made the statement that America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed, referring to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Here is what he wrote in the opening of his essay:

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly.” [1]

Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was echoing what he understood in the Christian New Testament. His terms Creator and self-evident echoes Paul’s statement in the New Testament, ” . . . because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” [2]

Jefferson was writing to Christians who understood these terms. He was also establishing our independence by severing our ties with Great Britain on the grounds that it had violated the laws of nature and of nature’s God. He based the statement of “unalienable rights” on the gift of God towards men. He wrote:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.” [3]

G. K. Chesterton certainly saw the greatness of America in the Declaration of Independence as the Creed of a nation. Thomas Jefferson, prime author of the Declaration of Independence, indicated that on his death it was important to reflect what he had given the people, not what people had given him. In line with his wishes, his epitaph reads,

HERE WAS BURIED
THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE
DECLARATION
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
FOR
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

The epitaph is a fitting tribute to Thomas Jefferson, yet a stronger testimony to the Divine Providence of God that led to the founding of this nation and guiding our founding fathers.

[1] What I Saw in America, G. K. Chesterton, The Project Gutenberg EBook, November 2008; “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We . . . solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states. . . And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”, as quoted on Panel One, Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.
[2] Romans 1:19-20 (NAS)
[3] As quoted on Panel Three, Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

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