Tag Archives: George Washington

A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am

The other day I got a particularly irate complaint on an older post in which I’d argued that Glenn Beck is a bit too credulous when it comes to stories about George Washington.  Something about these Beck posts really brings out the vitriol in people; I’ve got to stop doing them.

Anyway, this reader touched on a couple of my pet peeves, so I thought I might address his comment in some detail here.  His unedited remarks are in italics, mine inserted in plain type:

Isn’t it ironic that people who can’t even remember a world without electric lights (like Glenn Beck’s detractors) can tell us all about colonial times in America better than Mr. Beck can…?

Not really.  People who can’t remember a world without electric lights have access to colonial documents, books about the colonial era, colonial artifacts, and so on.  If being born before the advent of electricity is a requirement for discussing the colonial era, then I’m afraid Glenn Beck is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Well guys, I spent my first years in a log cabin–without electric lights, indoor plumbing or a telephone–and it wasn’t all that long ago…

Okay, this is Pet Peeve #1.

If his point is that living without electricity or plumbing gives you some unobtainable gnosis into the eighteenth century, I hope he’ll pardon my skepticism.  The problem here is that Washington’s life and times were about more than a lack of electricity and plumbing.  Knowing what it’s like to live without modern conveniences is of precious little help in determining whether George Washington really prayed at Valley Forge, which is the sort of thing I was dealing with in the post to which he responded.

If we follow this line of reasoning out to its conclusion, then I must have some insight into the childhood of John F. Kennedy which you don’t, because although I was born many years after his death into a family that did not consist of New England aristocrats, both JFK and I grew up with electricity and plumbing.

Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, personal experience has serious limitations as a means of understanding the past.  If you’re a former infantryman who served during WWII and you’re writing about mid-twentieth-century combat, then you’ve got a real leg up on the scholar who was born in 1968.  But if you’re trying to make sense of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century battles, your best bet is to go to the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature.  Likewise, I seriously doubt that merely growing up in a house with no phone lines is going to give you any profound insight into the lives of eighteenth-century Virginia planters.

There is a fundamental “otherness” to the past which is more pronounced the farther back in time we go, and this otherness is an insurmountable obstacle to the history-by-personal-experience approach, unless we’re talking about history that happened within the span of current lifetimes.  The fact that this gentleman is alive and breathing indicates that he probably doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

Funny, I have a slightly different opinion of what Mr. Beck is trying to do than you have. Could it be that I have just a little bit different perspective about our country’s origins than you have–and maybe I have seen and experienced some things beyond your wildest imaginings…!

I don’t know; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.  I actually met Bob Saget once.  I’m not making this up.  Remember those episodes of Full House when they all went to Disney World, and Saget was trying to propose to his girlfriend but could never find the right opportunity?  I was there with my family and I got to be in the background during the Indiana Jones sequence.  I’ve got a picture of me and Saget and my dad somewhere.  (That would make an awesome post, come to think of it.  I need to find it.)

And then when I was in grad school I went to a Shakira concert in Detroit, and when she did “Whenever, Wherever” she bellydanced while wearing a lit candelabra on top of her head.  You don’t see that every day.  I would’ve gone to see her on her next tour when she was in Atlanta, but I’d wasted like four hundred dollars on a birthstone ring for my girlfriend, so I couldn’t really justify spending the money on tickets so soon afterward.  And then that same girl dumped me by e-mail a week or two after that.

I mean, getting dumped is lousy enough, but what really had me peeved was the fact that Shakira was going to be performing only four hours away, and I’d knocked myself out of seeing it.  The only way I’d buy jewelry for a woman again would be if she actually was Shakira or if I was married to her.  Of course, Shakira’s got loads of cash, so she probably wouldn’t care about jewelry.  You could probably just take her to Baskin Robbins or something, and she’d be like, “Hey, it’s cool.  In fact, I’ll buy.”

Okay, where were we?

Why don’t you guys find something productive to do with your time–like finding some ANSWERS to our problems–maybe beyond the scope of “community organizing”…?

Ah, there we are.  This is Pet Peeve #2, the old “scratch someone who doubts your favorite historical myth and find a flaming liberal” routine.  I took issue with something Glenn Beck said about George Washington, so therefore I must be a left-winger.

Is agreeing with Glenn Beck’s historical claims a requirement for conservatives?  I really hope not, because I don’t particularly care for an interventionist government myself, but I have yet to listen to one of Beck’s historical lectures that did not involve the ladling out of more horseflop than most ranch hands move in an entire afternoon.  Remember his segment on Native Americans, when he tried to draw comparisons between Indian monuments and Egyptian pyramids?  Remember his lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the one that was so riddled with mangled statements—mixing up the DSS with something about Constantine building an army and placing them in the wrong century—that listening to it was embarrassing to the point of physical pain?

Can’t I oppose leftist politics and at the same time maintain that, when it comes to history, Glenn Beck is an uninformed buffoon? Do I have to agree with everything the man says in order to oppose liberalism, even when he’s saying things that have nothing to do with modern politics?

Anyway, I agree that it’s very important that we find some answers to our problems.  But since this is a history blog, I tend to spend more time discussing past events here than current ones.  This, alas, is pretty unavoidable. Most history involves the past—practically all of it, in fact.

Perhaps we can compromise on this.  At least let me finish this post, and then I might take a crack at the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Then I’ll look into the national debt; I’m pretty sure I can make some headway there.

At least drop the snobbish know-it-all attitude…!

Well, no promises on that one.  But I’m actually glad he brought that up. Coincidentally, I was hammering out some remarks on that very subject when I got this comment.  So in the next post we’ll look at my snobbish know-it-all attitude and I’ll try to explain my belief that not all ideas are created equal.

But first, duty calls—I’m off to find some answers to our problems, beyond the scope of community organizing.  History blogger, awaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!

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Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.

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Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

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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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Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.

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New light on the flag’s origins

…courtesy of America’s Finest News Source.  The Washington quote is the high point.

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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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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.

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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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