Patrick T. Brown
January 23, 2017
odging a bullet” isn’t always a figure of speech. George Washington, a British colonel standing six inches taller than the average man of his time, tallied two dead horses, four bullet holes in his coat, and getting his hat shot off during the Battle of the Monongahela in the French-Indian Wars. Two decades later, a British sniper had him in his sights during the Battle of Brandywine but declined to fire on an American officer.
With surprising frequency, America’s fate has been decided by close calls and against long odds. In The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, radio host and film critic Michael Medved claims America cannot be understood without seeing the hidden hand at work in the country’s formation, founding, and early flourishing. From the Mayflower’s landing in a location previously inhabited, but subsequently depopulated, to Civil War battles influenced by lost cigars, Medved specializes in unlikely happenings and uncanny coincidences.
Some of these stories are familiar—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on July 4, 1826—and others have a whiff of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Another leader might well have led Texas into the Union, for example, if Sam Houston hadn’t survived his alcoholic youth. Other incidents, and their sheer number, are harder to explain without recourse to some notion of the providential. Medved’s love of history, particularly the Revolutionary War era, is evident in the details he finds in such tales as the eerily-timed fog during the Battle of Brooklyn Heights.
Like the Old Testament battle in which the sun hung high enough in the sky for Joshua to defeat the Amorites, the mist surrounding Brooklyn came just in time to hide the evacuating American troops, only to disperse when they needed clear visibility for safe passage. At the same time, the slave of a Loyalist seeking to raise the alarm was found by Hessian troops, who were unable to understand his warning of escaping American troops until it was too late. In 1776, David McCullough calls the Revolution-saving fog “the hand of God.”
Another historical turn of the kind Medved highlights is the story of Maryland delegate Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer. During the debate over whether states should be represented proportionally or equally under the new Constitution, Medved recounts, Jenifer “inexplicably” left the Pennsylvania State House before a crucial vote. His vote would have secured proportional representation in the Senate, ensuring small states’ rejection of the new union. Instead, he absented himself from the proceedings. “Without the foresight of this forgotten founder, it’s likely that several states would have left the convention and ruined any chance that the Constitution could have been ratified.” Instead, St. Thomas Jenifer’s quiet walk around Philadelphia ensured “the defeat of his faction in order to deliver a larger victory for his country.”
Another chapter is devoted to Nicholas Philip Trist, a little-remembered American diplomat connected to Presidents from Jefferson to James Buchanan. He ignored a direct order from President James Polk and negotiated the treaty ending the Mexican War. Mere days before gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the compact handed California to the United States, forever changing American westward expansion.
In his treatment of Abraham Lincoln, “American’s most unlikely President,” Medved reminds the reader of the Rabbinic tradition of malakh, angels sent by God to achieve a specific divine purpose before returning to heaven. Perhaps, Medved suggests, the hand that preserved Lincoln through multiple foiled plots during the Civil War kept him from harm’s way as long as was necessary to secure the success of the Union and emancipation, then welcomed home a good and faithful servant who had completed his mission.
Certainly, contemporary sentiment indicates the founders thought providence intervened to create and sustain the United States. In Federalist 37, Madison writes “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in [the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand which has so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Medved opens his work with Franklin’s famous quotation: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Such attribution to divine intervention is, of course, scorned in today’s analyses, which see America’s founding made possible by economic determinism, white supremacy, or luck. Many enlightened progressives defend American exceptionalism merely in terms of what America could be. The “Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” said President Obama.
But reinterpreting our founding as a string of coincidences or, to the other extreme, tablets handed down from Sinai, obscures the lesson of The American Miracle. Medved argues that our appreciation is deepened, not shaken, when we realize the precariousness of our nation’s emergence: “Even among those who most revere the Constitution, few recognize how close the founders came to failure in drafting it, and then again in fighting for its ratification,” he writes. “The what-ifs haunted them, as they should amaze us.”
To read the coincidences, strokes of luck and genius, and flat out improbabilities that fill Medved’s book is to be reminded that America’s greatness is never guaranteed. Aa focus on the providential is a reminder of the nation’s unexpected resilience. Even when the world is turned upside down, history compels us to trust that, in the words of John Page’s letter to Jefferson, “an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.”