The 400-year love affair between America and Moses began this week in 1620. On August 15, the Mayflower set sail set from Southampton with 102 passengers on board. The pilgrims' leader described them as the chosen people, casting off the yoke of their pharaoh, King James. Their governor proclaimed their mission to be as vital as that of "Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt." And the first thing they did when they arrived on Cape Cod was thank God for allowing them to cross their "Red Sea."
Why so many references to Moses?
For centuries, European explorers had set out for new lands without using expressions like pharaoh and promised land, Exodus and Moses. By choosing these evocative lyrics, the founders of America introduced the themes of oppression and redemption, freedom and law, that would carry through the next four centuries. Because of them, the story of Moses became the story of America.
The sheer depth of that influence is staggering.
The Liberty Bell has a quote from Moses on its side. George Washington was hailed as the American Moses. Harriet Tubman called herself the "Moses of her people." Abraham Lincoln quoted Moses at Gettysburg. Cecil B. DeMille cast Moses as a hero for the Cold War. Martin Luther King compared himself to Moses on the night before he was killed. And nearly every American president, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, has likened himself to Moses.
For 400 years, one figure stands out as the surprising symbol of America. One person has inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses.
For two years, I traveled across America looking at the influence of Moses in shaping our nation's history. I sailed on Plymouth Harbor, I climbed the Bell Tower of Independence Hall, I retracted the Underground Railroad, I tried on Charlton Heston's robe from "The Ten Commandments," and I visited the Oval Office. And I was surprised how relevant the Moses story was to contemporary American debates -- from our ongoing debate about values, to our role as champions of freedom, to our place as a country that welcome immigrants.
The impact of the Moses story on shaping America spanned the centuries, and occurred throughout the year. Perhaps the most potent example also happened this month.
Immediately after approving the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to design a seal for the new United States. As proof of its importance, the committee had three members, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
Six weeks later, on August 20, the committee submitted its recommendation. The seal should depict Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. Three of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence and three of the defining faces of the Revolution proposed that Moses be the face of the United States of America.
Moses is our true founding father.
This entry is part of a series, "This Month in Moses," chronicling the 400-year relationship between the United States and "America's prophet." For more information, and to read the entire series, visit www.brucefeiler.com, or sign up at twitter.com/brucefeiler.