According to George Washington’s biographer, James Flexner, he was the “indispensable man” of US history. While other statesmen were signing documents, Washington was in the field training an army in the courage, stamina, and skill required to stand behind those documents. Outnumbered by the enemy, Washington’s ability to keep his troops together under dire circumstances was indispensable. In securing our Independence, he did the impossible against all odds and against the most powerful military force on earth.
Washington lived in an era of tyrants; like King George III, Robespierre, and Napoleon. He had enough popularity and prestige to become America’s first king, but he refused! He symbolized the American spirit at its best with his personal virtue, integrity, perseverance and sacrifice. In exile, the power-hungry Napoleon whined, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” Despite his military genius, Napoleon was incapable of that. Even King George III called his nemesis “the most distinguished man alive.”
In his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, Washington told us what he considered as indispensable, and it was not himself:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
At Washington’s funeral in 1799, Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee famously said the father of our country was: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Still, despite his passing, America survived.
There comes a time in every human life when politics, science, entertainment, education, money, and romance can no longer hold the hope we need to carry on. Yet, we often see this hope rise in brave hearts facing desperate circumstances. Where do they get it?
Funerals present a unique challenge to ministers like me who are no less human than those we are called on to comfort. So much is lost when death takes its toll. Devoted moms and dads seem indispensable. Loving wives and husbands, irreplaceable! Priceless legacies of faith, patriotic gratitude, and family values are often buried along with breathless bodies. As the minister, I try to bring the perspective of eternity to help mourners cope with the inevitable dispensability of our bodies. I also work to keep young people hinged to the positive, often indispensable, life legacies of the dear departed.
On February 13, 2016, the passing of a great American once again seemed to rob us of an indispensable man. In nearly 30 years of service on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia (1936 –2016) became the single greatest defender of the US Constitution in an era when America needed it most.
Scalia graduated from high school in 1953 as the valedictorian, first in his class, and then from Georgetown University, summa cum laude, in 1957. While at Harvard law School, he met Maureen on a blind date and married her in 1960. She bore him nine children and they were together for 55 years. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and then served as a law school professor at the University of Virginia and at the University of Chicago. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia as judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Four years later, Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court where he gained a unique reputation for a firm commitment to Constitutional textualism and originalism. He respected the Constitution as a binding legal document that meant what it said, not what power-players wanted it to say.
Our first President would be proud. Washington once said, “The Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all.”
Alas, too few of America’s most powerful leaders today share Washington and Scalia’s convictions on the US Constitution. Thus, Scalia’s passing left the impression on the hearts of millions that an indispensable defender of the Constitution was gone. However, Scalia himself understood the folly of thinking that a seat on the bench is somehow essential to the preservation of the society. He cited the time when Charles de Gaulle (1890 – 1970), President of France, was told he could not resign because he was indispensable. The French leader said, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”