With a Firm Reliance on Divine Providence

Remarks upon receiving the Barbara Olson Award at the 45th Annual American Spectator Bartley Gala, Delivered by Michael Novak on November 14, 2012


It is such an honor to receive an award named for an American heroine, and here, at a gala named for Robert Bartley – whose editorial pages taught this poor theologian his first lessons in job-creating economics.

It is an especially precious honor to receive this high Award in the name of Barbara Olson. Most of us here loved Barbara Olson. How could we not? Brave, bold, enterprising, beautiful, lively, smart, courageous to a fault, Barbara was the best of Americans.

She started life humbly, began a professional career performing in ballet – on stage in Houston, and in Los Angeles. Then she attacked the law and mastered it, moved to Washington and conquered it, and after regular appearances on cable television, she was on her way to crack the Maginot Line of leftish comedians – that morning she was flying out to California to do the Bill Maher show.

Tonight I remember Barbara’s courage when she learned her plane had been hijacked, for the purposes of mass murder. She immediately set to thinking how to attack that enemy too. Barbara fought back, and made this country – once more, in one more woman – “the land of the free … and the home of the brave.”

In Barbara’s honor, I would like to tell a brief story about Dr. Joseph Warren. I first heard it in Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural. Joseph Warren was the doctor who delivered the babies of Abigail and John Adams. He was a leader of the Minutemen at Lexington. He told his men, Our country is in peril now, but not to be despaired of. At Lexington a British bullet clipped off some hair right behind his ear. It did not fell him. His few men, abetted by their fellows hidden in the trees, sent the large British force back toward Boston carrying their wounded and their dead.

Not long after, Joseph Warren was commissioned a Major General in the Massachusetts militia. When he heard that a small band of Patriots had sneaked up Bunker Hill in the dark, and were silently fortifying the flank toward Boston, Warren rode as fast as he could to take a place in their ranks. Below, the British marched out toward Bunker Hill with 2200 men. Behind them burned the brown smoke and orange flames of Charlestown, where the British had already torched 500 homes. On a hillside to the South, Abigail Adams, hearing the booming guns, watched breathless as the awful battle lasted five long hours.

The American irregulars carried but limited shot per soldier, and that day they proved their discipline. With the accuracy of lifetime huntsmen they fired with individual aim, in concentrated bursts. Twice they broke the forward march of the British Regulars with fire so withering they blew away as many as 70 to 90 percent of the closest companies. The Redcoats lost that day more than a thousand dead and wounded. Then the ammunition of the Americans ran out.

While the bulk of the Massachusetts militia retreated Indian-like, the last units stayed in the trenches to delay the British hand-to-hand. That is where Major General Warren was last seen standing as a close-range bullet felled him.

Think about the next two years of fighting. Put yourself in the place of these badly equipped Americans. Perhaps fewer than a third in the colonies supported them, or were willing actually to fight for Independence. These few, these valorous few, faced scores of thousands well-trained Redcoats, supported by the guns of more than 350 British warships – the most disciplined army and most powerful navy in the world.

No wonder the framers of the Declaration of Independence placed their “firm Reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” If you have no army, and have no navy, you had better rely on Providence.

But why? What shred of reason had they for such trust? Did not the British pray to the same Providence? What right had the Americans to think the Lord Almighty favored their cause, favored them?

Here is how they reasoned. Many in our midst do not reason so today. But hear them out. At least hear them out. For our Founders, the logic was easy.

The reason that God created the universe, they believed, is so that somewhere in its vastness there would be at least one creature to whom God could offer his friendship. But if the good and gracious Lord meant us for His friendship, then He had to make us free. Friendship coerced is not friendship. If friendship, then liberty, William Penn wrote. That was the logic of placing America’s “firm Reliance in the protection of Divine Providence.” If the whole universe has been made for liberty, then at least in one place it must in time prevail. But liberty was made for all human beings, and thus the shots fired for liberty at Concord and Bunker Hill have been heard around the world. Our Founders often warned us: Freedom is the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can refuse to bear its costs and – just throw it away. Every generation must decide.

The American Spectator today is the Paul Revere of the Party of Liberty. We Americans do not want to be another European welfare state. Our appetite is not for security, or commandments from coercive czars. We want to live as free women, and free men. For that, there are costs.

So now it is plain why Dr. Joseph Warren – seeing the masses of British soldiers – could tell the Minutemen with whom he served in Massachusetts: Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves.

Joseph Warren, Barbara Olson, Divine Providence protect you still.