Category Archives: Historiography

Founders with green thumbs

Here’s an aspect of the Revolutionary era that I’d never considered, and I’m not aware that anybody else has, either.  Looks kind of interesting.

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Hess on Lincoln Memorial University and Bergeron on Andrew Johnson

Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.

First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.

As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history.  Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.

Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him.  This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.


Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

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A new biography of Robert Morris

…the controversial financier of the American Revolution, hit the shelves just a few days ago.  Morris is one of those critically important but often-overlooked figures who’s gone without a full-scale cradle-to-grave treatment for quite some time.

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Monmouth Court House in context

One of the most complicated and controversial battles of the Revolutionary War took place at Monmouth Court House, NJ on June 28, 1778.  The war had just changed fundamentally, since France’s entry as a belligerent forced the British to contract their commitment in the colonies.  This meant, among other things, abandoning Philadelphia, which they had captured the previous autumn.  The British march away from the rebel capital presented Washington with an opportunity to inflict some damage on his enemy’s force as it crossed New Jersey.  The ensuing engagement demonstrated that the Continental Army, so often defeated in the war’s previous two years, had become a formidable fighting machine.  This battle and the events surrounding it are the subject of Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, by Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins, released this summer by Westholme Publishing.  It is a book much wider ins cope than its title suggests.

The Revolution in New Jersey was a civil war, and the course of that civil war depended greatly on the fortunes of the regular armies.  The Tory ascendancy in of 1776 in New Jersey proved relatively brief.  British and Hessian rapacity alienated many civilians, Washington’s enterprising attacks at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that his army was not subdued, and an active local militia proved that while New Jersey was occupied, it remained unpacified. Fighting in the state continued through 1777, as both sides skirmished and foraged throughout the countryside.

The residents of Monmouth County experienced the effects of this fighting firsthand, both before and after the climactic battle that erupted among their homes in the summer of 1778.  They also participated, often as militia or members of impromptu bands that coalesced in response to local military, social, or religious conditions.  Organized Loyalists benefited from the presence of British regulars, attacking Whigs and confiscating their goods, but when control of New Jersey shifted to the Patriots, the tables were turned and Loyalists suffered accordingly.  Some Tories joined armed bands of outliers, like the one led by an ex-slave that terrorized local Whigs from a base at Sandy Hook.  Legal and extralegal Patriot groups targeted these Tories and those suspected of sympathizing with them, resulting in a kind of see-saw partisan conflict in which each side persecuted the other while operating in the shadow of whichever occupying force was most prominent at that particular time.  Bilby and Jenkins use local records and correspondence to illuminate the inner workings of this struggle within Monmouth County.

The fortunes of the regular armies shifted back and forth, also.  By the summer of 1778 the Continental Army was a matured fighting force.  While the British had occupied Philadelphia, the Americans spent their winter at Valley Forge training under the tutelage of the colorful Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben.  The British abandonment of Philadelphia, supervised by Sir Henry Clinton, was a necessary consequence of France’s entry into the war, but it meant marching across dusty roads in intense heat, exposed to an enemy more proficient at making battle than it had ever been.

Some of Washington’s subordinates urged their commander to use the British withdrawal march as an opportunity to attack.  One who disagreed was General Charles Lee, a onetime veteran of the British Army who was also a critic of his commander and until recently a prisoner of war; while in captivity his behavior was sufficiently questionable as to bring his loyalty to the American cause into doubt.  Lee warned that the army was not prepared for an all-out engagement, and recommended the use of small-scale harassment.  Washington determined to divide his force and send a portion of it against the British flank and rear, seeking an opportunity to harass the enemy’s army and perhaps inflict serious damage.  Once it became clear that this force would be considerable in size, Lee insisted that his seniority entitled him to command it.  Washington relented, allowing Lee to take charge of a detachment faced with a task that he had vocally opposed.  According to Bilby and Jenkins, Lee’s unfamiliarity with the troops under his command and with the terrain over which he would have to fight caused much of the confusion that followed.

When the two armies caught up with each other along the fields, marshes, and ravines near Monmouth Court House on June 28, the British counter-attacked.  Faced with ever-increasing numbers of British troops, American units began to withdraw from the field, and shortly thereafter Lee himself ordered a general withdrawal and tried to establish a defensive position to the rear.  Washington arrived on the field surprised to find his troops retreating; encountering a confused and flustered Lee, he failed to secure a satisfactory answer as to why the withdrawal was taking place.  Washington himself then took command of the army and oversaw the establishment of new defensive positions along elevated ground, which the British found difficult to crack.  After a two-hour artillery duel and a number of localized American attacks, the British completed their withdrawal from the battlefield, marching away to Sandy Hook for embarkation to New York that evening.  The Americans had demonstrated their ability to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in formal combat.

Still, the initial American withdrawal at Monmouth Court House ended the Revolutionary career of Charles Lee.  The combative general insisted on a court-martial to clear his name and dashed off a series of insulting messages to Washington, which did little to help his cause.  The American commander obliged Lee’s wish for an inquiry, which found Lee guilty of disobedience for failure to attack the British, conducting an improper retreat, and disrespect to his commander. Suspended from command for a year, Lee continued his crusade to vindicate his reputation, eventually getting himself removed from the army altogether.  Bilby and Jenkins find Lee largely responsible for his own misfortunes.  While the court-martial leveled accusations against Lee that were partly untrue (Washington had not ordered him to bring on a general engagement, despite the accusations of some of Lee’s enemies), and while his conduct of the defense following the confused retreat was admirable, the initial American withdrawal itself was, they argue, largely the result of Lee’s own ill-preparedness and his poor initiation of the battle.  Likewise, the collapse of his military career was essentially his own fault, attributable to his belligerent behavior after the battle.

If Lee’s reputation suffered as a result of Monmouth, though, the Continental Army had vindicated itself after the embarrassing defeats of 1776 and 1777 by facing the British in a pitched battle.  Over the next century, as Americans turned to the Revolution as a symbol of national unity and spirit, the battle and the field found their own places in American memory.  The most prominent figure in the memory of Monmouth was (and remains) Molly Pitcher, a campfollower who supposedly helped man one of the artillery pieces.  Bilby and Jenkins find that the Molly Pitcher legend, while embellished over time, likely has a basis in fact; it appears in some later participant accounts, and a likely candidate can be found in surviving records and recollections. The book concludes with a description of efforts to commemorate and preserve the battlefield, which is now a state park.

If all this sounds like more than a discussion of a battle, it is.  The authors’ intention is to “tell the story of the Battle of Monmouth Court House in a holistic manner” (x).  As such, much of the book is more concerned with the battle’s context than with the actual clash near Monmouth, delving into the course of the war in the Mid-Atlantic, its effects on the community, the organization and composition of the opposing armies, and eighteenth-century weapons and tactics.  Much of this background material will already be familiar to students of the Revolution, but it does place the battle itself in a larger perspective.

As one of the most complicated and controversial engagements of the war, Monmouth seems ripe for the sort of painstaking critique of command decisions that characterize many battle studies, and some readers will probably find the authors’ reluctance to engage in such minute dissection frustrating.  Still, this is a useful and enlightening account, one that clearly presents the story of Monmouth and puts that story within its proper place. It will be of interest to any reader interested in the Revolution or American military history.

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Two bestselling authors

…have new books out on the American Revolution, and they’re completely different.

Bernard Cornwell’s latest is The Fort, his second novel set during the War for Independence.  It’s about the Penobscot Expedition, of all things.  I’ve never read Cornwell, but I find it intriguing that he’d focus on an obscure subject like this.

Second, Ron Chernow has tackled the formidable job of a one-volume life of Washington.  It’ll be interesting to see what place this bio finds on the shelf of Washington books.  There are quite a few substantial, fairly recent, and still-popular one-volume lives of Washington out there—Willard Sterne Randall‘s is still in a lot of stores, and so is the acclaimed abridgment of James Thomas Flexner‘s work.  Oxford brought out a new printing of John Ferling’s The First of Men earlier this year, too.  Of course, Chernow’s got a built-in readership from his life of Hamilton, which was very well received, so that momentum may bump this book to the top of the stack of Washington bios as far as most readers of the next decade or so will be concerned.  We’ll see what happens.

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Homeland history

One of the many pernicious stereotypes about Appalachia is the notion that the region is homogenous.  No matter how distinct different parts of the region or segments of its population are, many people have a preconceived notion of the whole entity, and they accordingly dismiss those aspects that don’t fit the image they’ve created in their own minds.  In truth, there are many Appalachias—small towns, big cities, agricultural communities, areas reliant on extractive industries, others based on manufacturing or retail, and so on.  Whenever somebody says something to me about “Appalachian culture,” my response is invariably to ask which one.  If you’re going to speak accurately about this region, you need to take all of its different manifestations and their relationships into account.

This is one of the central contentions of Mark Banker’s fine new book Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region.  It’s a scholarly book, in the sense that it’s the result of research and an engagement with the relevant literature, but it’s also meant to be accessible and highly personal.  Banker is, like me, an East Tennessee native, and this work is a result of his desire to make sense of his own past and that of his homeland.

Banker recognizes that Appalachia consists of various distinct but intertwined parts.  Accordingly, Appalachians All focuses on three different subregions of East Tennessee: the central valley metropolis of Knoxville, the “coal Appalachia” of the northern Clearfork Valley, and the “timber-tourism Appalachia” of the Smokies, specifically the now-extinct settlement of Cades Cove.  Incorporating his own family’s history into his narrative, he demonstrates that many successful Valley inhabitants and hinterland elites, such as his own immediate forebears, have long had an ambivalent relationship with traditionally “Appalachian” culture.  Despite the fact that Knoxville’s growth and relative good fortune has been deeply dependent on outlying, less-advantaged areas, many of these “successful” Appalachians have consciously distanced themselves from those subregions and the people who live in them.

Indeed, the interdependence of these different East Tennessee subregions is one of the central arguments in the book, echoing William Cronon’s examination of early Chicago’s relationship with its own hinterland.  Knoxville’s centralized location made it a clearinghouse for trade from outlying communities, such as the relatively comfortable settlement of Cades Cove and the more hardscrabble Clearfork Valley, where ever-shrinking farms eventually became so small and depleted that they were unable to provide a satisfactory standard of living.  Even in Knoxville, political and geographic forces combined to erode the city’s influence in both the state and the nation.  While some regional advocates argued for improved transportation networks to link cities like Knoxville to broader markets, this did not happen until 1858, on the eve of a war that further damaged the region’s economy.

After the Civil War, Knoxville experienced an economic boom with the expansion of rail networks and an influx of migrants, becoming an important wholesaling center for the larger region and a hub for the extractive industries that moved into areas like the Smokies and the Clearfork Valley.  This connection to its hinterland was the key to the city’s growth.  In those hinterlands, this very same era was a turning point of a more ominous kind.  As both regional elites and outside investors profited from the cutting of Smokies timber and the mining of Clearfork coal, these extractive industries devastated East Tennessee’s landscape and created a fresh set of economic problems for her inhabitants.

The postwar era was also the age of the “discovery” of Appalachia, when local color writers and missionaries crafted the canon of Appalachian stereotypes that continue to plague her people: isolation, backwardness, ignorance, violence, and so on.  The notion of Appalachia as a unique, peculiar, and monolithic region was partly the work of outsiders, but Banker (drawing heavily from the work of David Hsiung) stresses that elites within Appalachia share much of the blame.  By hastening to differentiate themselves from their neighbors whom they saw as less progressive and successful than themselves, they helped legitimize the stereotyping and exploitation of their own region.  Some longterm missionaries and scholars, whom Banker terms “insider outsiders,” offered more complex, subtle, and realistic appraisals of the region and its ills, but the simpler images put forth by less-informed observers proved more pervasive.

During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, this pattern in which some parts of the region benefited at the expense of others continued.  When tourism replaced the timber industry in the Smokies, residents of Cades Cove were expelled from their community, which became a hollowed-out shell of the vibrant community it had been as part of the new national park, surrounded by tourist traps that catered to stereotypical “hillbilly” imagery.  Wealthier owners of seasonal homes, meanwhile, secured more favorable long-term leases.  Meanwhile, America’s increasingly insatiable demand for coal, and the development of technology to enable surface and mountaintop removal mining, continued to wreak havoc in the Clearfork, although some locals managed to profit from setting up their own extractive businesses or by finding work in the industry.

The later twentieth century brought about an “Appalachian awakening,” with the emergence of more sophisticated scholarly appraisals of the region and the birth of activist movements that sought to alleviate environmental and economic ills as well as counter the bigotry from outsiders that helped these ills to persist.  Today, Banker argues, Knoxvillians remain ambivalent about “Appalachia,” although there is evidence of greater economic cooperation and regional awareness within East Tennessee as a whole.

Appalachians All is a unique piece of work, both scholarly and deeply felt.  Banker draws deeply from academic scholarship on the southern highlands—as mentioned, his account of the birth of Appalachian stereotypes owes much to David Hsiung, and he relies heavily on Durwood Dunn’s acclaimed study of Cades Cove for his sections on the life and eventual death of that Smokies community.  Banker also draws from other standards in the field of Appalachian studies, such as the work of Henry Shapiro, Allan Batteau, and John Gaventa.

Furthermore, he is careful to put the history of East Tennessee into its proper context within the history of America as a whole.  For example, he stresses that the complacency and conservatism that some critics of the region have noted during various time periods were actually quite normative for the entire country during those same eras, and at various points he notes the interplay between national and regional political and cultural forces.  This sensitivity to broader historical forces is one of the book’s great strengths, and distinguishes it from many other treatments of Appalachian history that are focused exclusively on regional “uniqueness” and the possible reasons for it.  Banker disagrees with both early observers who have attributed Appalachia’s supposed singularity to isolation and later commentators who have laid all the region’s problem at the feet of outside exploiters.  Regional interdependence, he finds, is a key that unlocks many doors in the surprisingly complicated passageways of East Tennessee’s history.

Despite his engagement with specialized scholarship, Banker seeks a broader audience.  The history of his own family and of his own life, interspersed throughout the book, make this a very personal book.  Banker realizes that it is difficult for those of us who are from this region to separate ourselves from images of its past and present, and so he yields fully to the need to integrate his own story with the story of his homeland.   Many Appalachian writers have grounded themselves deeply in a sense of place, but none to my knowledge has done so with the benefit of the insights of serious history as successfully as he has.

The result is a look at East Tennessee that is informed and balanced without cold, clinical detachment.  Banker realizes that his own forebears exemplify the desire of many “successful” Appalachians to engage in “successful acculturation,” to distance themselves from less desirable aspects of their own culture while holding on to others.  It is a process at which many Appalachians, always carrying the burden of coming from a misunderstood region, have become adept.  In some ways East Tennessee has suffered as a result, because by denying that they are “Appalachian,” some of her citizens have accordingly misunderstood their own shared history, leaving them ill-prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities of the present.

Appalachians All is being published by a university press, and that fact, combined with its regional focus, might unfairly limit its audience.  I fervently hope that doesn’t happen, because this is a book that needs to be widely read.  It synthesizes a great deal of important scholarship, and suggests ways in which we can apply insights from the past.  East Tennesseans and all Appalachians have allowed themselves to be told what “Appalachia” is and was for far too long, and they need to be reminded of the reality of the different Appalachias and Appalachians.  And outsiders desperately, desperately need a more informed and less prejudicial view of the southern mountains.  Banker’s book should help us East Tennesseans see ourselves and our past more clearly, with all its complexity.  It’s certainly done that for me, having grown up just east of the Clearfork and an hour’s drive north from Knoxville.  This book is a wonderful contribution to a conversation we Appalachians need to be having, and one that non-Appalachians need to join.

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Listening to details

I’m reading Stephen Brumwell’s excellent Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  One of his chapters deals with the unique challenges of campaigning in the New World: rugged terrain, severe weather…and insects.  Lots and lots of insects. 

I usually don’t think much about insects when I read military history, but to a lot of eighteenth-century British soldiers who crossed the Atlantic, they were an inescapable and ubiquitous fact of life.  This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t occur to you unless you read accounts from people who were there and experienced it.  One of the strengths of Brumwell’s book is his intensive research in first-person accounts, and in fact it’s surprising to see how abundant and rich the primary material from these soldiers is.

This outstanding use of primary sources reminded me of another fine book I read several years ago called City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.  Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up out of nowhere, built solely as a home for the effort to create the radioactive material used in the first atomic weapons.  Because the city was built so quickly, there was a lot of mud everywhere, a fact that early residents remembered in great detail.  Again, this was an aspect of the historical experience that probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the fact that it was so prominent in the reminiscences of early residents, so the authors gave it the emphasis it deserved.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to be receptive to primary sources.  By “being receptive” I don’t just mean consulting them; I mean listening to them as well as asking questions of them.  We can get so caught up in framing our questions properly that we miss the things they’re telling us that we don’t even think to ask.  These two otherwise unrelated books are both well worth reading, partly because of the questions the authors asked but also because they remembered to listen.

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Missing the point on Washington and the Bible

Last time I argued that in his book George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback occasionally sees meanings in Washington’s writings that aren’t there.  In other words, he commits a fallacy that scholars of the Bible call eisegesis—reading meanings into a text, rather than extracting the original meaning out of it.  He finds allusions to Scripture where I think Washington didn’t necessarily intend to make them.

Washington did quote or reference Scripture with some frequency, of course, as Lillback correctly points out.  And he also correctly points out that his favorite allusion was to the image of the “vine and fig tree.”  In the Old Testament this phrase connotes peace, comfort, and safety.  In 1 Kings 4:25, it’s part of the description of Israel’s prosperity in the days of Solomon’s reign: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.”  It’s also in 2 Kings 18 and Isaiah 36, when the Assyrians besieging Jerusalem try to convince the inhabitants to surrender, “and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree,” until the time comes for their deportation.

Most notably, the image of vine and fig tree appears in Micah chapter 4, as part of a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem:

1But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it.

 2And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

 3And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

 4But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.

 5For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.

Micah 4:4 was, according to Lillback, Washington’s favorite verse, and it’s hard to argue with him.  Here’s just a small sample of Washingtonian references to this passage.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, from Wikimedia Commons

Washington to Charles Thomson (Jan. 22, 1784): “…I shall soon be enabled, I expect, to discharge that duty on which Nature and inclination have a call; and shall be ready afterwards to welcome my friends to the shadow of this Vine and Fig tree; where I hope it is unnecessary to add, I should be exceedingly happy to see you, and any of my late Masters, now representatives.”

Washington to John Quincy Adams (June 25, 1797): “I am now, as you supposed the case would be when you then wrote, seated under my Vine and Fig-tree; where, while I am permitted to enjoy the shade of it, my vows will be continually offered for the welfare and prosperity of our country; and for the support, ease and honor of the Gentleman to whom the Administration of its concerns are entrusted.”

Washington to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (May 15, 1797): “If to these I could now and then meet the friends I esteem, it would fill the measuse and add zest to my enjoyments but if ever this happens it must be under my own Vine and Fig tree as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond the radius of 20 miles from them.”

Washington to Landon Carter (October 17, 1796): “A few months more will put an end to my political existence and place me in the shades of Mount Vernon under my Vine and Fig Tree; where at all times I should be glad to see you.”

Washington to Charles C. Pinckney (June 24, 1797): “As for myself I am now seated in the shade of my Vine and Fig tree, and altho’ I look with regret on many transactions which do not comport with my ideas, I shall, notwithstanding “view them in the calm lights of mild philosophy”, persuaded, if any great crisis should occur, to require it, that the good sense and Spirit of the Major part of the people of this country, will direct them properly.”

Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax (May 16, 1798): “Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine and Fig tree, and wish I could add that, there are none to make us affraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and Allies, are endeavouring, if not to make us affraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of self-defence, which may lead to War.”

There are a couple dozen more, but you get the idea.  Now, what I find interesting about this is the fact that Washington’s use of the “vine and fig tree” motif is quite radically different from Micah’s.  Micah used it to describe a time in the “last days” when God would set things right, when Jerusalem would be restored to its rightful place and the nations’ proper relationships with each other and with the Lord would be established.  It’s a classic instance of an Old Testament restoration oracle.

Washington uses it in a more everyday sense.  He doesn’t refer to Kingdom Come; he just wants to go home to Mt. Vernon and stay there, away from the stresses of military command or political office.  Lillback catches the Micah reference, but equally important here is the way Washington uses it to express the Cincinnatus ideal of the savior of the nation who hangs up his sword and heads back to the farm when his job is done. 

I’m not denying that Washington got the image from the Bible.  In fact, I’m quite certain that this is a conscious invocation of Scripture.  I don’t, however, think there’s anything specifically religious about the invocation.  It serves him as a figure of speech as much as anything else, and in this respect he’s not at all unusual.

In fact, the entire enterprise of trying to use biblical quotations or allusions to bolster the case for some historical figure’s religious beliefs seems dubious to me.  The Bible was such an important cultural touchstone that even deists could quote it with ease.  (For the record, I don’t think Washington was a strict deist.)

Lillback’s least convincing attempt to use this tactic is in the same chapter that deals with the vine and fig tree motif.  Lillback notes a couple of instances in which Washington made humorous references to the Bible, such as a letter written to Annis Boudinot Stockton in 1783, and then makes the incredible contention that there is something distinctly Christian about this theological humor.  Washington knows the Bible and Christian tradition well enough to kid about it, and therefore he must have had some intimate familiarity with it.  “His humor avoids derision,” Lillback states, “but still evokes a smile.” 

I don’t mind telling you that this treatment of Washington’s words seems remarkably cavalier, and even a bit sloppy.  How anyone could believe that allusions to such a well-known text as the Bible serve as a reliable indicator of personal faith is entirely beyond me.  If Lillback ever decides to take a crack at Lincoln, that other famous American who never made a formal profession of faith but nevertheless steeped his words in Scripture, he’ll have a field day.

There’s a considerable amount of irony to all this.  Lillback has tried to use Washington’s use of the Bible to build up his case that he was a Christian, and he’s become an intellectual darling of those who argue that the Bible played a critical role in America’s founding era.  I think there’s a sense in which Lillback has unintentionally understated the Bible’s prominent place in early America. 

He has assumed that since Washington quoted it, he must have had the same relationship to it that all orthodox Christians share.  The truth is probably even more remarkable.  The Bible was ingrained so deeply in the American mind that even a nominal churchgoer like Washington, whose Christian faith was and is a matter of dispute, was culturally hardwired to sprinkle it liberally throughout his writings.

If Lillback wants to make the case for a Christian America, he might more profitably explain why a guy like Washington could quote Micah in his letters and assume that his correspondents would catch the reference, as they undoubtedly did.  Whether or not he was a Christian, he lived in a young nation that had already steeped in the Bible for so long that it was virtually saturated in it.


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

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.


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography