Tag Archives: Peter Lillback

Beck and Lillback stumble through Native American history

Some kind soul has posted video of Beck’s train wreck-like foray into Native American history (the subject of a lengthy tirade in my last post) to YouTube.

After delving into Pre-Columbian archaeology, Beck gets Peter Lillback’s take on colonial Indian-white interaction.  Lillback argues that the earliest English settlers got along swimmingly with the local tribes, a statement with which the Virginia Indians who ran afoul of the Jamestown colonists would probably take issue.  He also seems to believe that William Penn’s conciliatory Indian policies were something other than an aberration.

Anyway, here you go.  I hope you find it as stupefyingly appalling as I did.


Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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