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Washington's Faith and the Birth of America

Michael Novak and Jana Novak

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Almost everything about George Washington was hard-earned, and his faith was no exception. Although he ended up owning a library of nearly 1,000 books, some 40 or so concerning religious questions, his preferred teacher was experience. In his father's line there was at least one Anglican cleric, and his mother was unusually devout and quite attentive to the religious life of her children. But Washington's faith mostly grew out of his diligent efforts at self-improvement.

Washington studied the thinking of British generals and European monarchs, the manners of Indian chiefs, the habits of fur trappers of the frontier, good farmers and bad, and trustworthy and untrustworthy merchants. He pondered the ways of Congress and the surges of public sentiment. He watched closely the inner passions of his own fighting men.

He learned how all sorts of humans reason, what they fear, what attracts them, and what moves them to action. Washington was nearly a genius in getting the best out of his own hotly rivalrous cabinet. He had enormous common sense and a wordless instinct for how things actually work in the real world. He understood the dramatics of gesture, raiment, and dress; he understood the role of imagination as well as reason in life, of passion as well as logic. His was not a highly verbal nor academic mind. But his practical judgments were sure.

Washington knew that the tasks he undertook were too big for him, that he was too unlearned and lacked some of the necessary gifts, that the odds he faced were steep. He truly, genuinely, feared failure.

He got nearly his fill of excruciating disappointment on many occasions. At Monongahela, on Long Island, at Valley Forge, on the icy Delaware, at the Newburgh meeting, he could taste failure, it came so close. His was not a fake humility. He knew he had many limitations, and that given the immense tasks handed to him, he might embarrass all who depended on his success.

So how did George Washington persevere? As he acknowledged many times, he trusted "Providence." George Washington had a silent ally to whom he regularly gave thanks, publicly and privately.

A world of good and evil

Washington had been born into a Virginia family of moderate wealth (roughly the equivalent of today's upper middle class). The family, although not demonstrative, was faithful: lessons in religion, regular prayers, reverence for the Almighty, observant attendance at Sunday services at least once a month. Washington's mother had a daily ritual of retiring with a book of religious readings to a secluded spot a short way from the house, where she would spend time in reflection. We have records from her grandchildren of her perched on her favorite rock, with its view of the river below. She had her share of tribulations. Her husband died when her oldest son--George--was only 11. That made George the titular head of the household.

By the time he was a teenager, Washington had already assumed serious responsibilities. He was in the western lands of Virginia operating as a professional surveyor at age 17. By the age of 20, he won a commission as a major in the Virginia militia, shortly before being sent to the wilderness of the Monongahela valley on a military/diplomatic mission to resist French and Indian encroachment on British America's western fringe. His dangerous adventures in these wild lands were to have a profound impact on his life, and become the stuff of legend. He learned lessons of incalculable value about the military, Indians, and the British, and the very different peoples of America (Marylanders, Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers). Most important, he began to understand the character of men, and of Providence. The vivid experience of an intervening force sparing his life brought him quiet knowledge that was to sustain him through the rest of his days.

Calming his own inner furies was an arduous task for Washington. As a young man, he was prone to outbursts of anger, so he well understood the contest between good and ill that takes place within all men. His portraitist Gilbert Stuart later commented that: "All his features were indicative of the strongest passions.... Had he been born in the forests ... he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." His sense of the gentleness of the "Author of our religion" helped Washington solve this struggle in himself.

For Washington, both the Bible and the writings of the ancients (especially military heroes) were storehouses of wisdom, and he studied each. When he ordered busts and portraits for the ornamentation of his parlors at Mount Vernon, he chose exemplars of the use of power from across the centuries: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick II of Prussia. He also hung prominently on the wall of his large dining room, the most public room at Mount Vernon, two key portraits: the Virgin Mary and St. John. He kept clearly in mind--and exemplified in his own speech and behavior--the dual message of the Bible: that men are capable of both brutishness and nobility.

Washington's Christianity

Some historians seem to fear religious interpretations of Washington. More recent biographers often suggest Washington was at best a lukewarm Anglican, that he was more a deist than a Christian, and that his concept of "Providence" was closer to the Greek or Roman "Fate" or "Fortuna" than to the Biblical God. Yet Washington's own stepgranddaughter, "Nelly" Custis, thought his words and actions were so plain and obvious that she could not understand how anybody failed to see that he had always lived as a serious Christian. As she wrote to one of Washington's early biographers:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions, I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.

At times Washington spoke boldly, once urging the Delaware chiefs, "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all the religion of Jesus Christ." For the most part, however, Washington kept his religious beliefs and sentiments private. Such undemonstrativeness was common among Anglicans of his time and station, as was resistance to "enthusiasm," and a preference for decorum and formality. (Nonetheless, some Virginian Anglicans, like Washington's best friend Bryan Fairfax and Virginia governor Patrick Henry, did write movingly of their spiritual struggles as Anglicans, at least in private letters and diaries.) The fact that Washington sometimes spent a whole day in prayer and fasting, and that he was unusually attentive to his duties as church vestryman, may have said enough in Washington's own mind about his seriousness in matters religious.

Washington was neither prude nor hermit, but a lively man of the world who was at the same time always aware of his duties and obligations. One of those duties entailed living as a good Christian ought to live, especially in private, where, he knew, God was quite capable of seeing. About the core questions of the Jewish and Christian religions--the sovereignty of God over all of history, the commandments to love both God and neighbor, the recognition of human weakness in humbleness, and the obligation to be thankful for the blessings of the Almighty--Washington was secure in his own beliefs. Nor is there any evidence that he ever denied the tenets of the Nicene Creed recited from time to time in Anglican services.

Indeed, George Washington was sufficiently secure in his faith as to feel little need to say much about it. One need only look at what he did.

A religious nation goes to war

There is some dispute concerning how religious most of America was during the years of the War of Independence. The shortage of clergymen and even churches was always severe along the paths of the westward migration. On the other hand, recent studies suggest that religious practice was more intense than previously thought. The "First Great Awakening," a broad renewal of religious conviction, was slowly spreading through the colonies, even in the Anglican South, threatening the laws of religious establishment, for example, in Virginia.

Thus, it can be no surprise that at the first meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in September 1774, when news was received of the sudden outbreak of war in Boston, the very first motion on the floor was for a prayer to seek the guidance of Almighty God. Resistance immediately erupted--not because prayer was thought inappropriate, but because John Jay and others protested that they could not pray in the same terms as other people present (Anabaptists with Quakers, Congregationalists with Episcopalians, Unitarians with Presbyterians). Sam Adams settled the dispute by announcing loudly that he was no bigot and could pray along with any minister so long as he was a patriot.

And so George Washington meditated alongside Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Jay, Edward Rutledge, and Richard Henry Lee. In a letter written to Abigail a week later, John Adams described the electrifying effect of that prayer, which was from Psalm 35. "It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning," he explained to his wife. "It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here."

The Second Continental Congress opened in May 1775, after the flare-up of battles in Lexington and Concord and the taking of the British fort at Ticonderoga. The 43-year-old Washington chose to wear his military uniform. He was troubled, however, when rumors began to fly that he might be appointed commander in chief of a continental army. He urged some of his friends to stamp out the movement to draft him. Despite his best efforts, he was elected unanimously. He accepted on June 16, 1775, cautioning, "I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust ... . I beg it may be remembered, by every Gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with my utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with." After refusing to take a salary, he promised to keep "an exact account" of the expenses for which he could be reimbursed.

At this time, Washington was the only man on the continent with sword in hand, since no "Continental Army" yet existed. To British eyes, then, he was the continent's supreme "traitor," in open rebellion to the King. His neck was at risk, and independence for the colonies now rested on his shoulders.

The war--against the globe's most formidable military machine--did not prove easy. The campaign became long and bloody. It ended up being fought as a war of retreats by the Continental Army--basically a defensive engagement in which Washington concentrated on escaping British maneuvers, only occasionally daring to make his own attacks. One of the most difficult tasks in warfare is to keep up the morale of young men during retreat after retreat, after taking sometimes humiliating losses. So Washington's campaign demanded patience, steadiness, and determination. Plus a quiet confidence in ultimate victory, and the favor of the Lord of battles.

A good shepherd

During this time, Washington often drew on his religious convictions, as he fulfilled his duties as general, role model, teacher, and "nursing father" (a Biblical phrase which appeared often in tributes to Washington after his death). He encountered many ethnic and social divisions in need of bridging, and drew on faith for both practical and philosophical help.

Each of the distinctive American regions represented in Washington's army meant something different by the battle cry of "liberty." The regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, for instance, had a very strong sense of community even though it included men of mixed race, Negroes, and Indians--many of whom had gone to sea together, where they had depended on one another for their lives. When these men shouted "liberty," they included the freedom to form and to choose their own personal associations.

By contrast, when many Virginians and other southern aristocrats huzzahed for "liberty," they had in mind the vivid contrast between freemen and slaves. About this they knew a lot, since many had seen slaves whipped for insubordination. They did not want to be slaves themselves; that was the most vivid contrast they had for liberty. They thought property an important condition for liberty, and the freedom to acquire it sacred. The passion for material equality, as James Madison put it, was "a wicked project." They worked to build up property, and valued social standing, class, good manners, and moral seriousness.

The rough yeomen in dyed hunting shirts from western Virginia, meanwhile, had a still different idea of liberty, an idea that was deeply individualistic. Their distinctive white flag depicted an aroused rattlesnake and bore the warning in black: "Don't tread on me!" Theirs was neither the covenanted community of New England nor the aristocratic liberty of the gentleman patriots, but a "keep off our backs" determination that was consistently found on America's westward frontier.

In Pennsylvania and New York, the primary meaning of liberty seemed to be freedom from central government--liberty meant, at the very least, minimal government. In part, this flowed from the Whig tradition of Britain, and its strong emphasis on commercial and market liberty. It was also fed by Adam Smith and other Scottish commonsense philosophers who, along with John Locke, saw in human nature a "system of natural liberty."

In Maryland, Catholics were forbidden to hold civic office or even to seek higher education for their sons. So their first expectation from liberty was different yet again. Freedom from "religious tests" was critical to Marylanders.

In the field, Washington was often deeply frustrated over the behavior and attitudes of "men as they are." He and his fellow gentlemen from the South found the northern commoners a dirty, nasty, and unpleasant lot, hostile to any corporal punishment for insubordination, stubborn, and hard to work with. Yet they soon learned to admire them as fighting men; the Marblehead regiment proved itself to be one of the very best in the entire Continental Army. As did the glistening red-coated, silk-ruffled Maryland regiment of gentlemen, at first made fun of and mocked by the northerners, until their fierce bravery under fire saved the army from a rout on Long Island.

Christian reform

The stresses never drove Washington off balance--for he had learned to work with, not against, reality and the rough edges of life. This didn't mean blind acceptance, however. He was intent on making his fighting force worthy of God's favor, and worked hard to clean up their behavior. "We can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly," stated one of his orders. "Let vice and immorality of every kind be discouraged, as much as possible, in your brigade; and as a chaplain is allowed to each regiment, see that the men regularly attend divine Worship," stipulated another.

As he had while leading Virginian forces earlier in life, he put chaplains in position throughout his army, and had the government pay their salaries: $40 per month. He issued many orders enjoining his troops to pray, fast, attend worship, and observe days of thanksgiving. Washington insisted that soldiers respect the free exercise of religion among local citizens. In New England, he forbade the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day with its fierce anti-Catholic symbolism.

One of his orders stated that "All chaplains are to perform divine service tomorrow, and on every succeeding Sunday ... . The commander in chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in future as an invariable rule of practice--and every neglect will be considered not only a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion." Washington grew even more explicit as the war dragged on: "While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."

Despite urgings from the Congress to live off the land, Washington ordered his troops to go hungry rather than force citizens to part with victuals at bayonet point. He forbade his troops under pain of death to utter blasphemies, even profanity. They must live among the people as Christian soldiers, he explained, and demonstrate the moral character of the American cause.

At the same time, experience had taught Washington that it is wrong to expect too much from virtue alone, and that it is wise not to be surprised by failure, poor performance, or even disgraceful behavior, for these will most assuredly occur from time to time. A great commander must aim his men high, to draw more from them than seems humanly possible. Yet while leading his citizen army Washington often tasted the bitter cup of human weakness and failure. In this realism, he acted as a Christian general.

Leading by example

Washington's most pressing concern was getting the Continental Congress to supply the money they had pledged for the war, but failed to deliver as the nation teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. This delinquency left his beloved soldiers in desperate straits, unable to send money home to their needy families, unable to obtain medical care for their own wounds and wasting illnesses, hungry, meanly clad, short of ammunition, and often bleeding in the snow for want of boots. Until the very end, it was unclear who would be forced to quit first, the colonies or the faraway seat of empire.

Just to survive--and avoid hanging by the British--Washington had to serve day after day as the indispensable man who was nonetheless modest and circumspect. Then as the war drew to a close and the country was roiled by political crisis, many influential patriots became convinced that the United States needed a strong, one-man government, at least temporarily, for its own survival. Some approached Washington. "You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable," Washington replied, turning aside the ultimate temptation of absolute power.

A little later, he had to act even more strongly in defense of a republican form of government. Surprising a group of officers meeting to discuss extreme ways of forcing long-delayed justice for the suffering troops, Washington dramatically quashed the mutiny with a carefully calculated use of theater. He pleaded with the men not to falsify all they had fought and bled for. Then, fumbling for the eyeglasses he needed to read a letter from a congressman, he excused himself by saying that he had "grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind." Many of his officers ended up in tears at his words, and he quelled the discord.

"The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish," remarked Thomas Jefferson later.

A good and faithful servant

George Washington lost a great deal of money during the war by paying for things out of his own pocket when Congress could not. In addition to refusing a salary, he accepted as expense reimbursements the nearly worthless certificates of indebtedness in the new Continental currency. He never took any public help for necessary entertainment of foreign emissaries and other official visitors.

All of this left Washington in a fairly grim financial situation. Nonetheless, the years after the Revolution were a very happy period for him and his wife. They had each other, and they lived in peace on the spot above the Potomac that they loved the best in all the world. This idyll, all too quickly, came to an end in the spring of 1787, when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia.

Though he felt himself ill suited for political debate, Washington decided that he must risk his reputation once again, lest everything he had sacrificed so much for during the war come to naught. He soon was elected president of the convention, and his personal prestige kept the assemblage on an even keel, and brought disparate parties together. The compromises necessary for crafting the Constitution most likely would never have occurred apart from his influence. And the confidence of the people in the convention's proceedings would not have been nearly as high.

After approval of the Constitution, the next challenge was now staring Washington in the face--the Presidency. Must he again push his personal life aside? And for what? The arguments, rivalries, divisions, and pure politics of a government office? He had already sacrificed in excess for his country.

On February 4, 1789, Washington was singled out as President by unanimous vote of the Electoral College. Once again, he headed north to an unknown future. On April 30, 1789, wearing a suit made of American-woven cloth, he gave his inaugural address to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress, and spoke both passionately and reflectively about religion and Providence.

Washington assembled a very talented group to be his heads of departments. Henry Knox was Secretary of War, John Jay was named chief justice of the Supreme Court, Edmund Randolph was Attorney General, Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of Treasury, and the Secretary of State was Thomas Jefferson. With a minimum of strife, our government had been established. Virtually all of the methods and procedures that Washington chose during these days became national traditions--the unwritten law of the land.

Few, if any, Presidents in our history turned out to be better than Washington in getting talented rivals to produce at their highest levels. The new President turned out to have a deft touch, showing strength yet affability, firmness with modesty in his own role, and deference toward others. He understood how to use power almost effortlessly, as an unimpeachable actor on the national stage. He gave slack to a lively cabinet to fight out issues among themselves, without pulling on the reins sharply himself. Alas, Hamilton and Jefferson developed a profound hatred for each other, and their rivalry, as well as that between Jefferson and Adams, later spilled into public view and complicated government business. The intensity of these disputes surprised Washington. He believed that most men shared his own desire to do what was "best for the nation."

Bridging church and state

During his two terms as President, Washington made long, arduous, and bumpy tours of the new nation, north and south, both to acquaint himself with the countryside and to permit America's new citizens to examine their President close up. He was already well known in New England from his campaign to liberate Boston, and that tour consisted of great and glorious ceremonies and parades. The south, though, was another matter. There, he found a less populated landscape, poor roads, and large tracts where he moved about in virtual anonymity. At each city, he would attend religious services, sometimes as many as three in one day.

Washington believed the activities of church leaders in each community were crucial to the nation's health. He wanted church people to feel as though this republic belonged to them, and that each of them had a clear channel to address their President. He made it a point to respond to all the letters he received from congregations of various religious groups. He clearly recognized, as Alexis de Tocqueville did, that the whole people of the nation regarded religion "as indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions" and as "the first of their political institutions."

After a difficult second term, Washington returned home in March 1797, to an estate falling apart from lack of competent supervision. If it had not been for Washington's astute business acumen and success in land speculation in the west, he would now have been penniless. As it was, he was severely cash-poor.

In his remaining time, Washington performed several additional "revolutionary" acts. The most far-reaching was his decision in his will to free his slaves after his death, and Martha's after her death--the only Founding Father to do so. He had already made several earlier decisions regarding slavery, based on his conscience: He would not sell or even move slaves without their permission (rarely, if ever, given). He pressed for the granting of freedom to blacks who had enlisted during the war. He freed several of his house slaves at the end of his Presidency, based on Pennsylvania law. And he encouraged slave marriages. Unfortunately, Virginia passed laws preventing the education of blacks, so Washington's wish that his newly freed slaves be prepared for the wider world through education was not possible.

On December 14, 1799, as midnight neared, Washington felt his own pulse and then peacefully died. Hundreds of eulogies were preached to mark his passing. Few men in history have been so generously praised, history having seen no one quite like him. Most of his memorialists noted that Washington had made the guidance of Providence the lodestar of his life.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett scholar at AEI. Jana Novak is a co-author of Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions About God. This is adapted from their new book Washington's God.

Read the entire article on The American Enterprise Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 26-Apr-06



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