Did George Washington believe in original sin?

Since each copy of Peter Lillback’s book George Washington’s Sacred Fire is about the same size as a Kenmore refrigerator, I haven’t read the entire thing.  What I have read has left me unimpressed, particularly the section on Washington’s relationship with the Bible. 

It seems to me that this material contains very basic errors in interpretation.  Lillback reads far too much into the evidence he cites.  To borrow a couple of terms from Biblical studies, what we have in Lillback’s book is not exegesis of Washington’s writings, but eisegesis.  Whereas the exegete finds the meaning in the text and interprets it, eisegesis is reading one’s own viewpoint into the text.  Lillback’s book bristles with excerpts from Washington’s writings, but he finds meanings in those excerpts that aren’t really there. 

To take an example, Lillback flatly states that “George Washington believed in the biblical doctrine of original sin.”  Now, when we’re talking about the doctrine of original sin, we’re talking about something more than a belief that humans are fallible or even thoroughly evil.  The doctrine is not just a belief about human nature, but a theological explanation of why humans are they way they are.  

“Original sin” refers to the corruption of humanity resulting from the Fall of Man in Eden.  Various theologians have formulated the concept in different ways.  Some argue that humans are totally depraved as a result of primordial sin, while others that the Fall merely gave humans a propensity to sin.  Some believe that mankind inherited Adam’s guilt as well as his sinful nature, while others hold that his descendants merely inherited his tendency to do evil.  But in all these cases, the doctrine of original sin involves an explanation of human nature that relies somehow on the primordial transgression in the Garden of Eden.  To believe that mankind is flawed or evil is neither specifically Christian nor religious.  A belief in original sin is not merely a belief in human depravity, but a belief about the reason for it. 

Lillback makes a convincing case that Washington had a low view of human nature, which of course is hardly new information.  He cites a number of excerpts from Washington’s own writings, one of them from a letter sent to Lund Washington on December 17, 1778 in which the general said, “I see so many instances of the rascallity of Mankind, that I am almost out of conceit of my own species; and am convinced that the only way to make men honest, is to prevent their being otherwise, by tying them firmly to the accomplishmt. of their contracts.”  

Washington by Peale, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s worth noting  that Washington’s concern here is as much practical as metaphysical.  Taken by itself, the statement comes across as an almost dogmatic formulation about human depravity.  In reality, Washington’s main point here is not about human nature, but his irritation at people who try to weasel their way out of a deal.  Here’s the statement embedded within its surrounding text.  I apologize for the length of the excerpt, but there is simply no other way to appreciate the sentence’s role in the letter: 

I observe what you say in your Letter of the 2d. Instt. respecting specting [sic] the measurement of Marshalls land. I have already, in a letter about the last of November, given you full directions on this head, and in the one from Elizabethtown desired you to fix the quantity at 500 Acres, to save trouble; but to get it lower if you can, as, from Memory, I think the number of Acres less than that; but could tell almost to a certainty if I could have recourse to my Papers; however, I again repeat, that I had rather fix it at that quantity than let the matter lie open, or run the hazard of disputing with him about bounds. In short, than to delay a moment; for as I have mentioned to you in some former letters, I shall not be in the least surprized to hear that he has hit upon some expedient (if in consequence of his Sale he has not made purchases wch. he may be equally desirous of fulfiling) to get off his bargain with you; for when he comes to find that a barrel of Corn which usually sold for 10/ well now fetch £ 5 and so with respect to other Articles, he will soon discover that the great (nominal) price which he got for his land, is, in fact, nothing, comparitively speaking; for by the simple rule of preportion, he ought to have got £ 20 at least; as I would, in the best times of money, have given him 50/. or more for his land by the Acre. but this under the rose. We need not open his, or the eyes of others to these matters, if they do not already see them. This leads me to say, that I am afraid Jack Custis, in spite of all the admonition and advice I gave him against selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate; and if he has not closed his bargains beyond the possibility of a caval, I shall not be much surprized to hear of his having trouble with the Alexanders; notwithstanding your opinion of Bobs disposition to fulfil engagements. Jack will have made a delightful hand of it, should the money continue to depreciate as it has lately done, having Sold his own land in a manner for a Song, and be flung in his purchases of the Alexanders. If this should be the case, it will be only adding to the many proofs we dayly see of the folly of leaving bargains unbound by solemn covenants. I see so many instances of the rascallity of Mankind, that I am almost out of conceit of my own species; and am convinced that the only way to make men honest, is to prevent their being otherwise, by tying them firmly to the accomplishmt. of their contracts. 

Washington’s aim here was not to issue a decree about human depravity, but to remind his recipient how important it was to lock down business transactions with solid agreements. 

Still, whatever the context, Washington is undeniably expressing an extremely pessimistic appraisal of human nature.  What he is not doing is appealing to the doctrine of original sin in order to account for it.  He doesn’t mention a primordial Fall or inherited depravity.  He simply states that you can’t trust people, and that when you’re doing business with them you have to take that fact into account. 

Lillback also quotes a lengthy report submitted to a committee of Congress in 1778.  Here Washington argues (as he argued often during the war) that it is necessary to create incentives to convince men to commit to lengthy terms of service in the army, since expecting them to do so without reward is naive: “It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.” 

At first glance, this quote is a little more tantalizing.  Washington even uses the term “depravity,” with all its connotations of Calvinist anthropology.  But once again, this statement that human nature is deeply flawed does not invoke any specifically Christian explanations for why it is flawed.  Nowhere does Washington connect his belief in human corruption to the original act of sin in the Garden of Eden.  He merely states that the corruption exists. 

Finally, Lillback cites a letter from December 1782: “The most hardened villain, altho’ he Sins without remorse, wishes to cloak his iniquity, if possible, under specious appearances; but when character is no more, he bids defiance to the opinions of Mankind, and is under no other restraint than that of the Law, and the punishments it inflicts.” 

In other words, a man will try to hide his wrongdoing to preserve his reputation, but when that’s no longer a factor, “when character is no more,” the only thing that will make him think twice is “the Law, and the punishments it inflicts.”  All this is textbook thinking for a Revolutionary officer.  You can find similar sentiments about the importance of reputation in the letters of countless eighteenth-century aspiring gentlemen.

Once again, there is nothing in the passage that specifically relates to the doctrine of original sin.  What we have is another observation about human nature with no reference to a primordial Fall or a specifically inherited propensity for evil. 

In short, I think that in his attempt to paint Washington as a believer in original sin, Lillback is leaning on a very thin reed.  He convincingly and correctly demonstrates that Washington believed in human depravity—but we’ve known this about him for quite some time.  Lillback never ties these remarks to the specific theological assumptions that the doctrine of original sin demands.  By this measure, anyone who placed little stock in mankind could theoretically qualify as a believer in original sin, whether he believed in the Edenic Fall or not.  A disillusionment with mankind is an important corollary of a belief in original sin, but they’re not the same thing. 

Of course, we can find numerous instances in Washington’s writings where there are clear and unmistakable references to Biblical passages.  In a future installment we’ll have a look at the way Lillback handles these references.

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11 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

11 responses to “Did George Washington believe in original sin?

  1. I fear Lillback is corrupting an entire segment of the population into believing his biased interpretation of history. I’m really glad you took the time to dissect his “scholarship” in this area, and look forward to future posts on this topic. Well done!

    - Gordon Belt

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  3. Michael Lynch

    Thanks, Gordon. To be honest, some of the basic errors in interpretation Lillback makes have quite surprised me. From what I’ve heard of him, he’s an intelligent, educated, accomplished guy, and you wouldn’t expect him to have such a problem interpreting primary source material. He jumps the gun even worse in some of the other passages in his section on Washington and the Bible, and I’m going over some of that stuff now.

    –ML

  4. Excellent post, Michael. I also wonder if you can interpret these passages as a reflection of the changes underway that undercut the authority of the gentry. This is something that Gordon Wood has explored thoroughly over the years. It sounds to me that Washington’s pessimism (and even more so, John Adams) about human nature/character is much better understood within this context.

  5. Michael Lynch

    Thanks, Kevin. I think you’ve hit on an excellent point here. I strongly suspect that if you took all of Washington’s comments on the depravity of man and plotted them out chronologically, you’d find him getting more and more pessimistic over time. His experiences as a commander in trying to marshal human resources made him and a lot of other Revolutionaries lose some of their confidence in people’s willingness to sacrifice without any reward, or to subvert their interests to the good of the nation’s. I think the impulses that led Washington to believe in human depravity are the same impulses that led other Federalists to believe that a stronger federal government was necessary to restrain democratic excesses.

    –ML

  6. Chris Sherman

    It is interesting that you claim that Lillback is making wrong interpretations of the data. I am curious as to why you think your interpretation is sound. Your argument seems to rest on the idea that Washington didn’t connect his view of human depravity to the theological doctrine of Original Sin. That is an argument from silence that doesn’t hold water. If Washington had been a theologian, then you might expect him to make a verbal connection. I see no logical reason why he would do that in a letter or any public document. However, if you decide to read the entire book, you might find this connection with Original Sin is a valid interpretation…certainly as much as yours. If you study other founders, if seems like a pretty consistent belief and explains why they were able to agree on the importance of limited government and separation of powers.

    • Michael Lynch

      Let me reiterate that a belief in human depravity is not the same as a belief in original sin. Original sin is an explanation for human depravity. The two are not synonymous. Furthermore, a belief in the doctrine is not the only source of a belief in human depravity. The belief that individuals were corrupt could not be trusted with power was a staple of eighteenth-century Whig ideology, but it was based on frustration with executive use of bribery and patronage rather than on Genesis. Plenty of contemporaries who didn’t hold to Christian doctrine believed in human corruption.

      If Lillback wants to argue that a belief in the doctrine of original sin was the source of Washington’s belief in depravity, then the burden of proof is on him to demonstrate it. It’s not on the rest of us to prove that this isn’t the case. The examples Lillback cites simply don’t connect Washignton’s belief in human corruption to the primeval fall in the Garden of Eden.

      –ML

  7. Chris Sherman

    This quote from Washington seems to make a pretty strong connection to Original Sin and human depravity unless you are assuming his total ignorance of the scriptures…

    “The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances, be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.”

    I think Lillback has by far the best of the argument.

    • Michael Lynch

      Let’s look at that quote in context:

      “If the blessings of Heaven showered thick around us should be spilled on the ground or converted to curses, through the fault of those for whom they were intended, it would not be the first instance of folly or perverseness in short-sighted mortals. The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes. Should, hereafter, those who are intrusted [sic] with the management of this government, incited by the lust of power and prompted by the Supineness or venality of their Constituents, overleap the known barriers of this Constitution and violate the unalienable rights of humanity: it will only serve to shew, that no compact among men (however provident in its construction and sacred in its ratification) can be pronounced everlasting and inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no Wall of words, that no mound of [parchment] can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”

      What we’ve got here is another statement about human depravity. Washington is saying that the Constitution is dependent on the character of those entrusted with power and those who entrust them with it, because no institution will function properly if it’s composed of corrupt people. And he cites the example of the Christian religion to demonstrate what can happen when a good institution is used for bad purposes. Good institutions suffer from the depravity of their members. He refers to religion to support an argument that depravity exists; he doesn’t refer to a specific doctrine to explain *why* depravity exists.

      We know Washington believed that men were subject to corruption, a belief he shared with many of his contemporaries. What’s at issue here is whether he believed human corruption was due to a primeval fall. That’s not what Washington is saying here.

      –ML

      • Chris Sherman

        Your point is well taken on how this sentence supports Washington’s point on human depravity. (By the way I appreciate the fuller context of the quote.) However, I would like to know what other explanations for human depravity exist that make any sense whatsoever.

        You state, “Furthermore, a belief in the doctrine is not the only source of a belief in human depravity. The belief that individuals were corrupt could not be trusted with power was a staple of eighteenth-century Whig ideology, but it was based on frustration with executive use of bribery and patronage rather than on Genesis.” I don’t know if you are trying to say that “frustration with executive use of bribery and patronage” is the source of human depravity or not, but you have not given a *why* for human depravity anymore than Washington.

        I reiterate you are requiring that unless Washington wrote out his reason for believing in human depravity, then it is not valid to say that he believed in Original Sin. Of course, Lillback’s argument is that Washington was a Christian and not a Deist in the classic sense. Lillback gives ample evidence that this is true, and given Washington’s familiarity with the scriptures and the moral life that he live, it would be surprising if he didn’t believe in Original Sin.

        I would like to know from you what other explanations of human depravity exist that account for the universal evidence of evil in the human heart even in the best of us. What was it in the heart of St. Augustine that drove him to steal the pears and then throw them away?

        • Michael Lynch

          Personally, I think depravity exists because of original sin. But it’s not my opinion that matters; it’s Washington’s. I don’t think he ever specifically defined what he believed to be the explanation for it. My point about the fear of corruption wasn’t an attempt to explain where the Whigs thought depravity came from, but to explain where some of them got the idea. It was an assumption for many eighteenth-century observers; they recognized the fact of corruption even if they didn’t hold to a specific belief in its source. Some believed it was original sin, many just said people were prone to rottenness without saying why. Since some of them believed in corruption without subscribing to basic tenets of Christianity, a belief in depravity wasn’t limited to those who believed in original sin.

          –ML

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