The Green Papers Commentary

(section 1 of 'Part Six')

Friday, June 7, 2013

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

Editor's Note:

Previous installments in this series were as follows:

  • Part One (summarily contrasting the American and French Revolutions; Edmund Burke as at least the "grandfather" of modern Conservatism)
  • Part Two (summarily reviewing the development of "cosmopolitan" Federalism and "localist" Republicanism in America up till the 1796 Election cycle)
  • Part Three (summarily reviewing the key events of the French Revolution and its subsequent Reign of Terror; George Washington's contrasting, yet direct, response to the so-called 'Whisky Rebellion' of 1794)
  • Part Four (explaining how the heated political debate over Jay's Treaty made the "cosmopolitan"/"localist" [in modern terms, a Conservative/Libertarian] split more or less permanent on even the national level)
  • Part Five (summarizing both events in France as the Reign of Terror waned [and the Directory was established therein] and the politics, as well as the outcome, of the Presidential Election of 1796 [in relation, as well as reaction, to both the aforementioned events in France and George Washington's impending retirement from the Presidency])

It has been, most certainly, one of the more enduring images within American Conservatism throughout just about all of its History (perhaps second only- if that!- to the famous image[s] of Washington and his men being rowed across a Delaware River fairly filled with late December ice floes as they prepare to attack a garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, NJ around Christmastime 1776): an iconic scene that has, historically and on its own merit alone, called many- if not most- conservatives here in the United States of America back to the very core of the heritage behind their own, though all too often self-appointed, mission(s):

George Washington- the very man who would be revered as 'Father of Our Country' and eulogized as "first in War, first in Peace, first in the Hearts of his Countrymen" and was, at the time the event so depicted is said to have taken place, the Commanding General (by appointment of the Continental Congress) of the Continental Army then waging the fight for American Independence against a mighty British Empire seemingly hell bent on defeating and destroying- where not also, at the same time, pre-empting any and all future "backdrafts" of- such lofty aspirations, kneeling in the snows at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (where the bulk of said Continental Army would be encamped for some six full- and most difficult- months between mid-December 1777 and mid-June 1778), head either reverently bowed in prayer (as it is in more recent depictions of the scene) or looking up expectantly- where not also in an attitude of fervent appeal (where not even no little defiance!)- to Heaven whilst devoutly, as well as so privately (for he is all alone [except for his horse, of course], at least in most depictions of this moment [of which more later]: out in the middle of the woods- well away from his own troops as well as even the innermost circle of their- and, above all, his- Officers), entreating his Lord and Maker- God Almighty- for... something... but what?-- guidance? strength? solace? the best that can possibly be so long as it ever be within the very parameters of His Will?

We who have seen the many paintings and lithographs- even at least a few stained-glass windows!- depicting this scene, of course, cannot really know--

for we are, in truth, not ever meant to know: this is, after all, not at all an image of our own communion with either God Himself or, for that matter, that Unknowable Infinite that can, nonetheless, ever be reflected upon- even questioned- by Atheist and Believer alike; it is, instead, an image fairly replete with Vicarious Communion with Supreme Reality (that is: for those of us merely beholding this image, as opposed to the actor within it), here achieved through the icon of the ultimate American Liberator-- Our own American 'Moses', here seen beseeching Divine Providence in the very midst of his trying most earnestly to (in this case, through military means) convince 'Pharaoh' George III of Great Britain to, indeed, "Let my People go!" (in a sense, it is our 'Moses' confronting the Voice emanating from the Burning Bush, except that this American 'Moses' did not, thereafter, immediately flee to his own 'Midian') but this also occurring in the very midst of what most Americans, across the generations, have been taught were the darkest of days within the American Revolution itself (indeed, nearby Philadelphia- the very city in which the American Declaration of Independence had been drafted, adopted and proclaimed by the Continental Congress- was, at the time, under British occupation, leaving the Continental Congress a homeless itinerant of sorts wandering the same Pennsylvania countryside in which Washington himself is seen praying for the duration)...

in the end (where not also in the main): we who behold this image (in whatever form [Washington's head defiantly up or devoutly down]) can only look on; we cannot, therefore, any more the directly participate...

yet there is little doubt that this very iconic image of General Washington in either fervent plea or devout, silent prayer while kneeling in the snows of Valley Forge has contributed much to the mythos of George Washington the man as a God-fearing Christian of a most tradition-minded, where not also orthodox, bent-- a Father of Our Country most worthy of enshrinement as the highest example of Civic Morality combined with American Exceptionalism (no heterodox, Deist Thomas Jefferson or oft-hedonistic, Rationalist Benjamin Franklin, this!-- Franklin and Jefferson, each in their own way, sought to "bust" myths [Franklin, more often, in the service of Science; Jefferson seemingly more interested in serving Philosophy (though each man ended up dealing with both)]: in strongest contradistinction to these other two great Founders of the Republic within the American Mind, George Washington himself is Myth personified!)

Even Valley Forge's Washington Memorial Chapel (where I myself once attended ecumenical Sunday morning services while still a Boy Scout in my own early teens back during the very first month of that decade known as the 1970s) is, by most accounts, built on- or, at least, very near- the actual site where this event so depicted (as already described above) actually took place...

that is (of course): if it actually took place!

I consider myself to be, at best, something of an "amateur historian" (some- if not many, or even most- readers of my more historically-based writings for this website over the past more than 13 years might even be forgiven for thinking me an 'amateurish' historian!): indeed, I have, over more recent years, been described- both in print and on the radio, as well as on the Internet outside of The Green Papers- as just such an "amateur historian" and- much in the manner of President Obama accepting the descriptive 'Obamacare' during his First Debate with Governor Romney this past Fall- I most fully accept the designation "amateur historian" and have even willingly described myself thusly (as I have at the start of this very paragraph!).

Three things, however, must be well noted by the reader of such writings of mine as might regard my own take on this very designation:

1. As is the case as regards my writing-up of, for instance, the Major Party National Conventions (as I so thoroughly described my own approach to same this past 1 September), my interpretation of those events most perceptible as coming under the very rubric of History (whether specifically American, or more general World, History) is best defined as merely how one 'John Q. American Citizen' (this 'John Q. American Citizen: Richard E. Berg-Andersson) has perceived these as they have happened, the main difference here, obviously, being that- unlike as is the case when I deal with National Conventions and/or Presidential Debates in real time- I am utilizing whatever skills I might (or, for that matter, might not!) have, as a researcher, to best determine that which might have actually happened in the past (in some cases, long past-- that is: long before I was even born!)

[A quick, additional note here, if I might: many times when writing about events in recent History (that is: those events, now historical, which happened to have occurred within my own lifetime), this "research" is- by dint of circumstance- often a combination of raw Research and personal Memory: for instance, as regards my piece about what I might still remember of the 1968 Democratic Presidential Nomination campaign (originally posted on this website on the 40th Anniversary of Senator Bobby Kennedy's death), I certainly do still well recall (even though I was but 12 years old at the time these events were actually taking place) Senator Eugene McCarthy "defeating" (the word in quotes here because it all depends on one's own definition of "defeat" re: what was, at the time, a so-called 'Loophole' Primary [on with separated Presidential Preference and direct Delegate Selection ballots]) incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in their Democratic Party's New Hampshire Presidential Primary, the manner (and method) in which Bobby Kennedy entered the race for that Party's presidential nomination, President Johnson removing himself from consideration for a second full term in the White House, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. within the ensuing week and, of course, the later assassination of Bobby Kennedy himself on the night after his greatest electoral victory (in the California Democratic Presidential Primary) and the even later (and most tumultuous) Democratic National Convention of that year in Chicago. However- while I do remember (to take just one example) watching, on television, many speeches, on both sides of the issue, about the proposed Minority Platform Plank on the Vietnam War on the floor of that Convention (speeches but, at best, only half-understood by this 12 year old at the time!)- I most certainly did not remember (as seared into my brain's "memory banks" from all that time ago now) that the actual vote against that Minority Plank was 1567.75 to 1041.25-- no, dear reader, that factoid I had to actually look up!];

2. Apropos of the foregoing: I ever keep in mind the dictum by at least one historian to the effect that the greatest gift the historian can ever give to the field of History itself is the very notion of that which is known as Historical Sense which can best be defined- in its simplest form- via what is, arguably, the third most-well known statement by American TV's "Judge Judy" Sheindlin (that is: coming in behind both "Don't pee on my leg and tell me that it's raining!" and "'Um' is not an answer!" [;-)]) to the effect that "If it doesn't make sense, it probably isn't true". This latter pronunciamento is probably then best combined with the notion of trying one's best to avoid those so-called "Historians' Fallacies" (the first such Historians' Fallacy being the false notion that those living through- where not also acting within- what are, by now, events of History could at all know that which we might be able to know now- that is: what happened next [or even longer-term]- and the second of which [which itself flows from the first] fails to well appreciate that those who lived through and/or acted within History were but products of their own times and, therefore, should only be- in order to here best maintain that very concept of Historical Sense- looked at primarily, if not even solely, within the context of their own times [rather than later- or, especially, current- times] while interpreting, or otherwise judging, their words and actions [or, as regards the latter, the lack thereof!]);

and, finally, 3. The dear reader should know that, while wearing my 'hat' (or, at least, 'baseball cap'!) as an (again, admittedly, amateur) historian, I tend to approach History (at least at the first) primarily from the viewpoint/frame of reference of the Social and/or Cultural Historian (for I personally find Social/Cultural History [the study of the origins and development of Manners and Morals, Ethics and Values, Vices and Virtues, Art and Fashion, Vocations and Diversions] far more fascinating- despite all the arcane, politically/electorally-related material one can find within the very database of The Green Papers- than so-called "regular" or "REAL" [that is: political and economic] History [for instance, to here take a completely, unrelated current issue from the world of Sports: I am far more interested in how those sportswriters who vote for membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame might deal with, say, former Major League slugger Barry Bonds than whether or not Bonds actually used steroids and/or other Performance Enhancing Drugs (if only because there is no way now to drug-test the Barry Bonds who was still a player back in, say, 2001- the season in which he hit more Home Runs in the regular season [73] than anyone before or [so far] since: thus, when asked "Was Barry Bonds on steroids [whatever that means!] in 2001?", I can only reply- as [in this case] "amateur [Sports] historian" [here applying the very essence of Historical Sense]- "I don't know!")])...

only after having looked (hopefully, most "well and good"!) at a given subject of History from a Societal and/or Cultural and/or Civilizational perspective do I then "work it through" other historical perspectives- whether Political or Economic- and/or in relation to other relevant (that is, relevant to the subject at hand) disciplines- say: Law and Constitutionalism, Religion and Philosophy, and the like.

It is no less with my here dealing with the whole train of thought within this very series on 'Libertarianism' vs. 'Conservatism' in general or George Washington's relationship thereto (including the best historical approach to that iconic image of him praying alone amid the snows of Valley Forge) in particular!

So, in truth, what was George Washington's religion? That is: what were the personal spiritual (where not also theological) beliefs of the man who would become the first President of the United States?

Answer (most honestly here given, as well as well within that very concept of Historical Sense, as just described above): I don't know...

then again: neither does anyone else!

For what we do know about Washington's personal (and the emphasis here on "the personal" is purposeful, by the way: it will be seen why- by the reader- later in this, admittedly, rather long piece) religious beliefs is very little, if anything (that is: so long as we are willing to leave the realm of mythos and fairly enter into that which is covered by the aforementioned Historical Sense).

To here quote that which I wrote in Part Three of this particular series of my Commentaries:

Washington seems the least intellectual of the "Big Six" 'Founding Fathers' of the United States of America: the other five- three others, besides Washington, who would be President (John Adams, Jefferson and Madison) and the two who did not (Franklin and Hamilton [Franklin, by the way, was already deceased by 1796])- had all written well-circulated political monographs and/or philosophical brochures where not also larger whole volumes on such topics... not so Washington: perhaps he could, indeed, be "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen" only because he didn't leave all that much of a 'paper trail' of such personal observations (his own journal is altogether sparse and practical; his official papers are, just that, official [whether military or administrative]).

This is not to say that Washington, somehow, wasn't smart or even intellectually curious-- it is to say that Washington ever "played his cards close to his vest"!

By the time his second term as President of the United States was coming to its constitutionally appointed end as the 1796 Elections approached, George Washington's deep immersion in those personal manners and habits most reflective of the Tidewater Virginia gentry had been going on for more than half a century-- indeed, such "gentlemanly education" as George had so gained went back to not all that long after Washington's father, Augustus, had died when George was still but 11 years old, after which George was to come under the rather strong influence of his much older brother, Lawrence, at the time still the squire of that Mount Vernon along the Potomac we now so strongly associate with George Washington himself.

Going all the way back to his apprenticeship in the late 1740s as a teenage surveyor for an 'Ohio Company' in which Lawrence Washington himself was heavily invested (hence little brother George's even getting that "gig")- and, yes, there is a certain delicious historical irony that what would become far western Pennsylvania (still thought to be a part of Virginia in the days of Lawrence's 'Ohio Company' so claiming large tracts of land within that very region [as well as during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution itself]) would itself be the very epicenter of that Whisky Rebellion a President George Washington would later have to directly deal with (as also recounted in Part Three of this series)!- George Washington quite well learned the lesson of (as one recent historian has so well put it) "speech [being] merely the small change of silence"...

and such would also be not all that less the case in Washington's own writings, whether or not these might be for public consumption.

It has been said that there are many 'Thomas Jeffersons': after all, Jefferson has been quoted (often the very same quote!) by such diverse persons as- say- Ho Chi Minh, founder of what eventually became the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, and the apparently jurisprudentially "conservative" Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. There are so many 'Jeffersons' to so many people of such widely disparate political and ideological bent precisely because Jefferson wrote (and said) so much, much of which- in turn- is quite contradictory: Jefferson, therefore, can be many different things to many different persons and groups because there is so much within his writings (both public utterances and private correspondence) and recorded (though only on paper back then) spoken words from which to choose!

But- truth be told- there can also be many 'George Washington's (which well explains why many conservatives have so strongly- and for so long a time, too!- ever raised the battle standard for only one George Washington- the one represented by, among other images of the man in action [in many cases, "action" through inaction (such as standing stoically in the boat taking him across the Delaware or in front of the Constitutional Convention over which he presides while the assembled delegates to same are either debating or voting)], the iconic 'Prayer in the Valley Forge snows'), precisely because George Washington wrote- and, indeed, said- rather little and, in addition, what rather little he did say and write (or, more accurately, that among Washington's written and spoken utterances which have survived down to our own time) was largely within the public arena and, therefore, for all due public consumption and consideration (which, in turn, immediately [here, once again, applying the criterion behind the very concept of Historical Sense], brings such utterances in their capacity as, primarily, reflections of Washington's own personal views, beliefs and feelings into more than a little suspicion).

Simply put: just because George Washington- whether as Commanding General of the Continental Army, President of the United States or mere "man about town" in that Alexandria, Virginia so close to his beloved Mount Vernon- might have opined publicly about, in this case, Religion, this does not mean said opinion necessarily reflected his own private thoughts on the subject per se or, for that matter, alone!

Especially as Our Nation's first President, Washington was ever careful- prudent, indeed!- as he very well knew that he was well setting precedent for future American Chief Executives in just about everything he did, wrote or said (in fact, another reason American conservatives- to this very day- have put forth "their" 'George Washington' so forcefully is to, thereby, allow them to then expect the incumbent President of moment to match the standards they themselves claim Washington himself first set!-- the problem with such a view is: Washington himself was not necessarily so "setting standards" as he served in Our Nation's Highest Office-- a fair perusal of earlier Parts of this very series of my Commentaries should so clearly show that he was dealing with the issues of his day [the Whisky Rebellion, the real possibility of renewed hostilities with Great Britain absent Jay's Treaty and the like], more or less, "on the fly", no less than would his successors in that same Office deal with the issues of their respective days as they might come before them).

For instance: Washington did, in fact, issue General Orders- from time to time- enjoining each Brigade equipped with a Chaplain to hold Sunday services in the late morning, services which all Officers were expected to attend (as a good example to the men under their respective commands) and any units without a Chaplain were to attend the service happening to be held nearest to their own encampment. Washington did, in at least one such set of General Orders, favorably compare "soldiers... not... inattentive to the higher duties of Religion" to the very "Character of Patriot" but this, in its barest essence, merely reflects a general sentiment (one not the least bit controversial in his own time [in fact, it would have been most controversial had he not taken just such a position!]) and, thereby, does not have anything to do with Washington's own personal religiosity per se!

In truth: General Washington's issuing such General Orders had no necessary connection- within their original context of the better enforcing Military Discipline- to George Washington's personal religious convictions (unless one is arguing that Washington was- and in a most unseemly manner- here seeking to use his own considerable military authority to inculcate those under his command as regarded their own religious beliefs!... hardly the case!!... besides, the very religious diversity of the Continental Army [after all, Calvinists bivouacked with High Church Anglicans (and, I dare say, even more than a few Papists!)] strongly suggests that just such a stance on the Commanding General's part would have been a real threat to the very essence of that concept known as Unit Cohesion!). In truth, the Sunday services in Washington's Army were- much like such services in the Military today- generally ecumenical in overall tone and tenor (that is: so long as we, today, well recognize that such "ecumenicism" only went so far as the late 18th Century in America might permit [and that the cleric conducting said services was not at all above putting his own denomination's "spin" on the Christianity he was therein dispensing: then again, a minister or pastor appointed Chaplain was still formally required to fulfill his own denomination's version of 'Holy Orders' in any event!])...

therefore, it is a violation of the very notion of Historical Sense to see more within Washington's General Orders of that era than actually meets the eye.

The same (at least historical) problem is acute whenever one encounters references to Religion within the public papers of George Washington- whether as Commanding General or President of the United States: for his own public utterances are replete with what many historians see as the very language of Deism. Such General Orders as described above never mention God, although there are numerous references within these to "Providential Goodness" and the "Supreme Author of All Good" and, throughout his Presidency, Washington's public pronouncements (for example, his calling for 'Days of Thanksgiving' from time to time [the usual practice of Presidents before Thanksgiving Day itself became a holiday set at a specific time of the year (now, the fourth Thursday in November) in the early 20th Century]) speak far more of "the beneficent Author of all the Good that was, that is, or that will be" or "the great Lord and Ruler of nations" or "the kind Author of these blessings" than of, specifically, God (whose very name only appears the more directly within the "purpose clauses" [the 'Whereas's]- in effect, what we today would term 'Mission Statements'- of such proclamations).

Yes, President Washington did acknowledge, within these 'Whereas' clauses of such proclamations, that- for example- "it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly implore His protection and favor" but was this his position or merely that of his Administration exercising a cultural expression of Religion (again, one that would be unlikely to generate all that much controversy in its own time), as opposed to a personal one? (Later on in the same proclamation in which this particular "purpose clause" is found, by the way, President Washington- and, yes, it was President Washington!- "recommend[ed] and assign[ed]" that his fellow Citizens "beseech" that same "great Lord and Ruler of Nations" "to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations [especially such as have shown kindness to us], and to bless them with good government, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best" but this last hardly committed the United States of America over which Washington then presided to a Federal program of religious prosyletization! In addition, he certainly knew that at least some nations with which the United States of America had, or would soon have, diplomatic relations did not at all practice Christianity (and, by the end of Washington's second term in the Presidency, his Administration was already in the process of negotiating a treaty with the Bey of Tripoli in which it was proclaimed that the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion: surely Washington and those serving his Administration well knew that "true religion and virtue" would not necessarily be a mirror image as regarded each and every sovereign and nation so blessed with such "good government, peace and concord" as they might, or might not, enjoy!)]

The fact is that there is more than a mere shade of difference between public expression of religiosity on behalf of all (especially within a polity as diverse and pluralistic as the United States of America has itself, historically, been [and, even in Washington's own time, it cannot be well argued that the USofA was not at least already pluralistically Protestant in its general sociocultural outlook!]) and that same person's personal religious convictions (else current President Barack Obama's constant invocation of the phrase "God Bless the United States of America" at the end of most of his public appearances would have long ago put all due pay to those out there [and I do mean "out there"! ;-)] who still see Our Nation's current President as a closet Muslim or, at the very least, irreligious where not also outright anti-Religion!).

It is altogether disingenuous as well as, at least potentially, well outside the very realm of Historical Sense to apply the public statements of a policy-maker as strongest evidence of his or her personal beliefs and feelings (many a politician has found that he or she has had to abandon at least some of the platform on which he or she had been elected to public office in order to, thereafter, govern [in addition, here coming back to the notion of the Historians' Fallacies already outlined above, persons campaigning for office quite often say things with which their actions once in office later contradict not necessarily because of any nefarious attempt to deceive the electorate before said election but, rather, because the candidate cannot possibly know- ahead of time- what will face him or her after having taken his or her respective Oath of Office. It would be most uncharitable, in such cases, to suggest that the politician's personal religious views have, somehow, been altered significantly simply because of changes in his/her policy positions! Yet, at the same time, this- in and of itself- is the very basis of the 'True Believer' (whether we are talking about Politics or Religion, where not even both) seeing the goings-on in the Capital of the State or Nation as having corrupted "their" candidates after they have been elected and are already serving])...

it is no less disingenuous and (at least historically) nonsensical when contemplating, in particular, the Administration of President George Washington!

Therefore, Washington's public references to Religion during his own lifetime should not be employed as so many "clues" as to his own personal religiosity, especially as we actually know very little- if, indeed, anything- about the latter.

Presumably, Washington was- as a child- brought up Anglican (that is: within the Church of England that was, at the time, the established religion of the then-Royal Province of Virginia)... then again, albeit a decade later, so was inveterate Deist Thomas Jefferson. Whatever direct spiritual effect such an upbringing might have had on him (as already noted above, Washington's father had died before George reached his teens), Washington himself did not share with the world and one, therefore, cannot but conclude that Washington's Anglicanism was merely typical of that of the Virginia gentry of the later Colonial Period.

Much is made of the fact that- while serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colonial assembly- thus, the effective "lower house" of Virginia's then-legislature), to which he had first been elected in 1758 (after a failed bid three years before, in the immediate wake of his military service in the earliest months of the then-still ongoing French and Indian War) and in which he would serve until sent as a delegate from Virginia to the Second Continental Congress in 1775 (which, in turn, would serve to gain him Command of the Continental Army then being raised in the immediate aftermath of that "shot heard round the world" "by the rude bridge that arched the flood" in Massachusetts)- Washington accepted appointment as Vestryman in Pohick Parish of Virginia's Fairfax County in 1762 (interestingly, Washington had only just been returned to the House of Burgesses as member from Fairfax County just the year before [he had originally been member from Frederick County, further inland within the so-called 'Northern Neck' between the Potomac to the north and the Rappahannock to the south]).

Pohick Church (about which more later in this piece) has been most vehement- over the years and decades- in its claiming Washington as its own, describing him as "vestryman for Pohick Church" (in fact, the 250th Anniversary of his appointment as such was celebrated by that congregation just this past Fall) but the position was, in actuality (as well as legally), "vestryman for the Parish" and was as much a political office (no less than his service in the colonial legislature) as a religious one, as Parishes were the Minor Civil Divisions of the Counties in Virginia (when the Magisterial District came to replace the Parish in this regard, Parish boundaries were often used as those of said Districts, at least at the start) and the Vestryman served primarily as a Southern equivalent of what, in New England, would have been the Town(ship)'s Overseer of the Poor (well keep in mind that, in New England, the venerable institution of Town Meeting evolved from what was- in the early years of Puritan colonization- the Church Meeting [hence the very term "Meetinghouse" so prevalent in that region of the country]: the same can well be said [despite the different Denomination involved] of local governance in colonial Virginia).

In any event, being Vestryman is- in and of itself- no real evidence of significant traditional, let alone orthodox, religiosity on George Washington's part for serving in such a public, yet local, position was- at the time- a way for the up and coming younger gentleman of Virginia to gain social status and much notoriety- in the positive (actually, now more British) sense of the term (and know that Thomas Jefferson, too, once served as Vestryman for his Parish in Virginia for pretty much the same reasons!)

There is also the little matter of George Washington never (that is: as far as we can now know!) having become a Communicant in the Anglican- later (after Independence) Episcopal- Church. Indeed, much was made- from time to time during Washington's Presidency- of his ever leaving worship services at either of the two Episcopal Churches in the then-temporary National Capital of Philadelphia in which he and Martha attended Sunday services before Communion (Martha, on the other hand, almost always stayed behind to take Communion). No one knows why (Washington himself appears never to have said [or written] why) but such behavior on his part led at least one clergyman who regularly conducted services in said churches- though he did not say so until after Washington had already died, by which time said clergyman had become Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia- to conclude (this in the earliest years of the 19th Century) that Washington had been, in fact, a Deist no less than was by-then President Jefferson!

Washington's adopted granddaughter published her own memoir of her famous grandfather- evidently in an effort to attest to George Washington's being a most devout Christian (albethis years after his death and well after the recollections of the Bishop cited in the previous paragraph)- yet could not fail to note that, nevertheless, [o]n Communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother [meaning, of course, George's wife Martha (who, as already noted, almost always stayed in church to take Communion)]. In her own opinion, however, George Washington had simply well lived the admonition of the 6th verse of the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to "pray to thy Father which is in secret" (especially in relation to the immediately preceding verse of that particular New Testament passage- itself a portion of that known as 'the Sermon on the Mount'- in which Jesus refers to those who pray "that they may be seen of men" as "hypocrites")...

that's as may be (and we certainly have to give someone in Washington's own family her due in this regard) but it still has to be fairly noted that this was all being revealed publicly once the apotheosis of Washington throughout the early to mid 19th Century was already well underway.

Finally, there is the fact that- on his own deathbed (Washington had taken ill while inspecting his property at Mount Vernon on horseback one cold, raw mid-December day in 1799 and lingered on until finally passing away on the third day thereafter)- there was no little difficulty in finding a clergyman to be present when the moment of death finally came. Most likely this is not because of any thought, at the time, of lack of religiosity on Washington's own part but simply the result of the rules and rubrics of High Church Episcopalianism as the 18th was becoming the 19th Century (not having ever been- to anyone's knowledge, by all accounts- a Communicant of the Anglican Rite meant that Washington could not reasonably expect to be administered to by clergy above a certain level); yet, at the same time, it has been intriguing for many an historian to at least consider that what the Bishop of Philadelphia would later publicly declaim (that Washington had, indeed, been a Deist) had already well circulated- privately, via letters- amongst Episcopalian clergy all up and down the Seaboard and that this might well have given such clergy as might have been called to Mount Vernon- even from nearby Alexandria, Virginia- no little pause!

What we do know- that is: if we only consider that which is historically credible (more on this later in this piece as well)- is that the difficulty in breathing Washington had been suffering for some three days subsided enough to allow him to take his own pulse before expiring. There is no record of any last minute confession or communion or any other aspect of religious behavior in this final scene (in addition, it is known that- for some days prior to his last illness- Washington was greatly concerned with the preservation of certain personal papers [as well as making sure that others were not preserved-- for instance: all his letters to Martha (in which he might well have expressed his own personal religious convictions over time) were burned soon after his death, presumably on some directive he left behind (though the decision might very well have also been Martha's own)]: some historians have gone so far as to suggest that such an attitude- an effort to insure a kind of immortality while he still lived- somehow evinced little belief in an Afterlife on Washington's part [though I myself find this just as devoid of Historical Sense as utilizing Washington's public utterances and writings to so strongly suggest the opposite!]).

So, was George Washington a Deist, no less than- say- his own first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson?

Of late, many historians have said so (with many of these tying Washington's alleged Deism to his membership within Freemasonry). Against what they themselves perceive as "charges" that Washington was just such an inveterate Deist, many American conservatives have cited much of what I have already noted above (that is: besides the iconic images of Washington kneeling alone in the snows of Valley Forge)- his service as a Parish Vestryman, his General Orders, his fairly regular attendance at church when he was back home in Virginia (all of which I have already dealt with from a different perspective).

Nevertheless, to the very question "Was George Washington a Deist?", I have to say I don't know...

then, was George Washington- instead- a devout, orthodox/traditional High Church Anglican/Episcopalian?

I don't know that either.

Tim LeHaye, famous for his Left Behind series of novels so popular within so-called 'Rapture Culture', has opined that George Washington would have fit in quite well with Bible-believing evangelical American Christians of our own time... well, to him I would say that demographics alone might well suggest otherwise (Washington favoring attendance at an Anglican/Episcopal Church when he could; Washington being of a Southern landed gentry that, while not considered to be of a status equal even to the lowest Baronets [those "knighted" so as to be able to use the title 'Sir' in front of their names and, in many cases, their descendants] back in England, still saw itself- and was itself seen- as being at least a rung or two higher on the social ladder than the 18th Century equivalent of today's lumpen evangelicals; Washington's ability, as Commanding General, to be well with his men without ever being of them [not all that far from where I now type this is Ford's Mansion in Morristown, New Jersey- Washington's Headquarters (as it is known in its capacity as part of a National Historical Park) during the Winter of 1780: no, Washington did not live like those who served under him shivering through the Winter on into early Spring in nearby Jockey Hollow!])...

but, of course, *I* don't know!

Then again, gentle reader, neither do you!

Assuming (if only for sake of this argument) that the story about (hence all the images of) Washington kneeling in prayer in the snows of Valley Forge is, in fact, false-- or, at least, historically inaccurate (and, yes, there is a difference, however technical within History as a field of study)-- we must ask: where did this story come from? More to the point, how did it first become so widely disseminated (let alone so- perhaps, blindly- accepted)?

The question of widest dissemination is the easiest one to answer: for that was the doing of one Mason Locke Weems, better known to History as "Parson Weems" (born: 1759; died: 1825). Weems is, almost singlehandedly, responsible for two of the most iconic (to this very day!) stories of George Washington's life otherwise unknown from Washington's own surviving private and public papers: the famous "Father, I cannot tell a lie" 'Cherry Tree' story about Washington's childhood and, as already stated, the story about Washington, all alone (except for the company of his horse, as aforesaid), kneeling in the snows of Valley Forge in prayer.

First of all, a bit here- if I might- about Weems himself:

Yes, Weems was a parson and the circumstances of his entering that profession are most interesting (in particular because it appears he- despite being an American by birth- missed the entirety of the American Revolution/War for American Independence as he himself entered manhood).

Born in Maryland, Weems ended up in Scotland (at the age of 14!) on the eve of the Revolution itself (this would be in 1773): he had been sent there to study Medicine but, soon enough, he turned to the study of Religion and was ordained a priest of the Church of England- in England!- in 1784 (an interesting factoid as, by complete coincidence, this was the same year Washington- who, despite being "on the road" for some eight years whilst in command of the Continental Army, had retained his position as Vestryman of Pohick Parish- finally gave up that position, after having been Vestryman for over two decades). Returning to his native land that had since become the United States of America, Weems became an itinerant Episcopalian preacher in both Maryland and Virginia who supplemented any meager income from this by also selling books on the side while he traveled (he also married a woman from Virginia by whom he sired 10 children, though he was away from home much- if not most- of the time during his entire marriage).

As part of his bookselling sideline he became associated with a Philadelphia publisher, an association that allowed him to also become an author beginning in the mid-1790s (at which time he began to wean himself away from preaching and more into intinerant bookselling, a career- one which occupied the last three decades of Weems' life- that took him as far south as Georgia and as far north as New Jersey [apparently, Weems never got to either New York State or New England, although his works would become as popular therein as anywhere else in the still-young country]). Weems wrote on many topics but his principal writings were popular biographies of the founders of the Republic (particularly those who had already passed on- such as Benjamin Franklin, who had died in 1790) and, in 1800 (a year after the great man's death), Weems produced the first edition of what would become his most famous work The Life and Memorable Acts of George Washington (colloquially known as "Weems's Life of Washington").

The timing was most fortuitous: Washington was already being apotheosized in the immediate wake of his passing (again, the very phrase "First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen" was in wide circulation by the end of 1799, a little over a fortnight after Washington had died) and Weems's own book about Washington would, as things turned out, well facilitate this. Weems's Life of Franklin was, by then, already well received by the public as an antidote to the rather stodgy style of historiography already being seen by the Turn of the 19th Century and which would still be in vogue, amongst historians of a more scholarly bent, for a few more decades hence (I happen to own a facsimile- no, not an original- of both volumes of Timothy Pitkin's A Political and Civil History of the United States of America: 1763-1797, first published in 1828 [interestingly, the same year Noah Webster published what is widely considered to be the "classic" edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language (which I also own in facsimile)]: Pitkin's verbiage [in which, for example, his account of what has come to be known as the 'Boston Tea Party' is quite matter-of-fact and altogether devoid of that sense of adventure with which the event was later to be imbued in its telling] was, perhaps, the very death knell of this rather dry style of American historical writing): by contrast, Weems made the lives of those about whom he wrote seem much more like an "action-adventure" story (an early 19th Century version of the later 'Dime Novel' or Comic Book-- or even Video Game!); in the course of making them out to be more heroic than they, perhaps, actually were he also (ever "Parson Weems", after all) tied it all to a general moral lesson for a young America...

in this regard, George Washington served Weems' purposes better than any other personage; it also helped that Weems had, in fact, once preached in Washington's own neck of the woods (although Weems' claim [in later editions of his Life of Washington] that he had been rector in a "Mount-Vernon Parish" in Virginia is purest fiction [there would, as Fairfax County's population (especially its Episcopalian population) increased, eventually be a Mount Vernon parish- largely due to the strongest connection of the place name itself with a George Washington already quite dead- which, in turn, would become the basis of a Mount Vernon magisterial district, as parishes gave way to such districts as Virginia's principal Minor Civil Division in the early 19th Century, but not at the time Weems first so claimed]) and, yes, it is possible the two men crossed paths- perhaps, even met (albeit briefly)- as Weems was, during the calendar year 1794, preaching semi-regularly in the same Pohick Church the parish of which Washington himself had once served as Vestryman and, for three weeks during the early summer of that same year (after the political battle over President Washington's having named the still-sitting Chief Justice John Jay "Envoy Extraordinary of the United States to His Britannic Majesty" [as recounted in this series' Part Four] but before the President was forced to turn his attentions to the 'Whisky rebels' of western Pennsylvania [as described in Part Three of this series]), Washington had returned to Mount Vernon (the First Session of the Third Congress had adjourned about a week before the President departed the then-temporary National Capital of Philadelphia). After all, in early Federal Period America, it was common practice for "country vicars" (for a vicar [an itinerant clergyman], and not a rector [that is: a resident pastor], was what Weems actually was) to preach in other nearby parishes from time to time and it is, therefore, quite possible that Weems might have also preached in Alexandria itself (where the Washingtons more usually worshipped by then) while George Washington himself was in attendance...

possible, yes, but- here again- *I* don't know!

In any event, Weems' claim to a clerical position suggestive of no little access to some "inside dope" about Our Nation's first President (including, in particular, Washington's own personal religious convictions) seems most disingenuous at best and downright misleading at worst (though Weems might well still be forgiven this, if only on grounds that his was- in the main- what Biblical Scholars themselves term a "Pious Fraud" [that is: an exaggeration- where not also an outright fabrication- on behalf of a system of Religious Belief; in other words, the True Believer not at all above advancing his/her Cause through at least a bit of "fudging"]).

Yet such "fudging" (even in the manner of just such a "Pious Fraud") certainly all too much surrounds the 'Washington Praying at Valley Forge' story as it came to be widely disseminated via the writings of Parson Weems:

As told in the most well-known version of Weems' most famous work, a local Pennsylvania Quaker- "name of Potts, if I mistake not", Weems tells us- riding along the main coaching road in the vicinity of Valley Forge while the Continental Army was encamped there during that difficult Winter of 1778 stumbled upon George Washington alone in a clearing surrounded by a grove of trees, kneeling in the snow besides his horse and, by all appearances, praying most fervently ("Potts" had, Weems tells us, crept up behind nearby bushes in order to get an even closer look at the future President of the United States [it was only by doing so that "Potts" could be more certain of the supplicant's identity] but, or so we are assured, did not in any way disturb the great man's so praying: many of the iconic images of the scene published in the years and decades since [as described at the start of this very piece] even show a "peeping Potts" somewhere in their respective backgrounds)...

"Potts" rushes home to report this apparition to his own wife, declaiming- or so Weems quotes him- that "All's well! George Washington will yet prevail!" and then, after noting his own strong opinion that "[i]f George Washington be not a man of God, I am greatly deceived", he adds his own prophecy that God will "through him, work out a great salvation for America".

Thus, we have a narrative that is thereafter taken as "proof" that George Washington was, indeed, a "man of God" (of course, just what that means is ever in the eye of the beholder, but those who have been most disposed- throughout American History- to so behold see Washington as the personal refutation of the Deism of a Thomas Jefferson and the Rationalism, even nascent Secularism, of a Benjamin Franklin within the pantheon of America's Founding Fathers) from which flows the notion that, because he later became Our Nation's First President, the United States of America itself is, by its very existence under a Constitution drafted under Washington's- as well as God's- watchful eye, a nation touched by the hand of God (this despite the fact that that very Constitution never once mentions God [a fact that later caused early 19th Century President of Yale College, the theologian Timothy Dwight, to lament that the Constitutional Convention never asked once, His direction, or His blessings, upon their labors; thus we commenced our national existence, under the present system, without God: fortunately for men such as Dwight, along- soon enough- would come enough paintings and lithographs of Washington kneeling in the snows of Valley Forge to (or so it would be claimed by those promoting- where not also selling- such images) well refute Dwight's own jeremiad!])

Of course, the story itself is fraught with problems not the least of which is that a Quaker of that era would not have expressed his experience in the manner in which "Potts" so expresses it to his wife (though an Episcopalian like Weems himself might have!). However, Weems himself was not above "making up quotes", though (in his story of Washington's death in the same work, Weems has everyone ordered out of the room so that Washington might be alone with his God as his final breath approaches: at length, "he extends himself on the bed"- Weems tells us- "closes his eyes for the last time, with his own hands- folds his arms decently on his breast, then breathing out 'Father of mercies! Take me to thyself!'- he fell asleep"...

surely a "ripping yarn", to be sure, and far more interesting than the reality of a Man of History simply gaining enough consciousness (if not also scientific inquiry) to check his own pulse just before dying... after all, the reality of Washington's end seems more pagan (almost Roman!) than Weems' accounting of it.

Going back to Valley Forge, there is the issue, for the historian, of this "Potts"-- for there was an Isaac Potts who lived in that area in the late 18th Century who was, indeed, a Quaker and who later would serve in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. In addition, the journal of a theologian at Princeton in the early 19th Century has surfaced in which it is recounted (or so this theologian claims) that he was out riding with Isaac Potts (while Potts is still serving as a state legislator-- thus no little time after 1778) when Potts points out where he himself once saw Washington praying so fervently...

problem is: the theologian is writing this story some years after it (allegedly) took place and, further, at a time when the edition of Weems's Life of Washington containing the above-redacted version of the 'Washington Praying at Valley Forge' story was already in wide circulation. Historical Sense demands the historian at least ask the question: which came first- Weems's version or the theologian's journal entry? Was the theologian a source for Weems or did the theologian merely "piggyback" a journal entry (perhaps one he never expected to see the light of day) onto a story said theologian might have already read?

Further: as for Isaac Potts himself-- Pennsylvania kept very good land and census records, even before the First Federal Census of 1790, and Isaac Potts and family didn't arrive anywhere near Valley Forge until the early 1780s (but note that Weems himself does not provide the man "name of Potts" with a first name to begin with: in any event, Weems' colloquial- as well as offhand- "if I mistake not" following "Potts"'s name should give one more than little pause!).

In the end, however, it doesn't all that much matter: as I have said all along, we cannot really know just how religious (or not) Washington, in fact, was-- not even taking into account all the possible variations as to just what the term "religious" itself might even mean in this particular context of time and place!

So why, then, bring all this up in the first place? If, in fact, it- as I have only just written above- doesn't all that much matter, why have I even bothered to expend so much effort explaining all I have already written herein so far...

so the dear reader of this piece might well ask.

The reason I have discussed all that I have discussed above is that- in the next section of this 'Part Six' of this particular series of my Commentaries, I am going to deal with that famous document of American History known as Washington's Farewell Address and, in order to fairly assess its meaning (both at the time it was first published, as well as down to the present day) while retaining that which I have earlier described as Historical Sense, we have to free our own minds from the simplicism suggested by the syllogism 'Washington- at least once in the historical record- knelt down in most fervent, devout prayer during one of the most trying times of his military career, let alone public persona; therefore, he was not only a religious man but he was, with no question whatsoever, devout and religious in the most traditional manner available to [small 'o' here!] orthodox Christianity in America, not only in his own time but also in relation to our present era; and therefore, further, especially as he became Our Nation's First President, the United States of America is- and was, in fact, purposely intended to be just as devout and religious- that is: just as traditionally and orthodox Christian- as he' (and all this despite a Federal Constitution specifically declaiming that Congress shall make no Law respecting Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the Free Exercise thereof [not to also mention State Constitutions containing such provisions as that the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, within this State, to all mankind (this from the original Constitution of the State of New York [1777] and retained in all Constitutions of that State- the very scene of the 'Park 51'/so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy about which I have, in the recent past, written for his website- down to the present day!)])

Yes, there is no doubt that George Washington believed in God (even if it only be- from the experiences born of his military service [both as a young man and later, as well as more famously, as an adult]- but a prototype of the later axiom "There are no atheists in foxholes") and that he also considered himself to be a Christian (regardless of whether or not others amongst his contemporaries so considered him as such)-- his own regular attendance in church (at least when he wasn't bivouacked somewhere out on the frontier, either as surveyor or soldier) throughout his life attests to that (though it has also to be admitted that a Virginia gentleman of Washington's lineage and station, as well as his era, would have been expected to do no less!)...

the issue at hand, however, is just what Washington himself thought God Himself was and, once again, none of us now more than two centuries after his passing are at all privy to this; as a result, any claims to his being a Deist or merely run-of-the-mill High Church Anglican, Rationalist or Bible-believing Christian, is merest speculation (though we, as free Americans, are- in turn- certainly free to so speculate [it's just that we should not confuse merest speculation with History per se]) and, more to the point, devoid of Historical Sense. The very plethora of 'Washington Praying at Valley Forge' images produced throughout the existence of the United States of America well testifies to this very void as much as anything else as, where facts are but a precious few, mythos then rushes in to "fill the gaps"!

But none of the foregoing at all diminishes the so obviously iconic character of the 'Washington Praying in the snows of Valley Forge' image itself (despite the event's seeming lack of credible historicity) and its iconic nature is, in fact, quite compelling when one contemplates that (and this has credible historicity!) a rather concerted effort within the Continental Congress to remove George Washington as its Commander-in-Chief (and replace him with General Horatio Gates, at the time considered the Hero of the Battle of Saratoga the previous autumn [much to the dismay and consternation, by the way, of a certain American General named Benedict Arnold who- this being before his later (and more [in]famous) Treason- was a true hero of Saratoga]) was already well underway while the Continental Army was still encamped at Valley Forge!

Indeed, in what surely must be one of most ironic twists on an iconic image in American History, one written remonstration to Congress urging Washington's dismissal complained that "the people of America have been guilty of Idolatry by making [Washington] their god"!

We, today, must- as we contemplate the actions and words (again, so long as we are also willing to properly apply the concept of Historical Sense) of George Washington the man- well avoid that same "Idolatry" of which the above-quoted long-ago colonial American once complained.

Find the latter portion of this PART SIX of this series here


Commentary Home