Faith of the Founders #1: George Washington and America's Divine Shot at Glory

Making Wisdom Popular

The “Faith of the Founders” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size attempt to unpack the profound and ubiquitous role of faith in the American Founding. You can read all the individual articles here.

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The role of the Bible, and religious faith in general, on the American founding remains a highly debated topic.  Unfortunately, many who comment on this issue have not read the writings (i.e. not just individual quotes) of the Founders themselves, let alone in any depth.  But doing so reveals that religious faith exerted a profound and ubiquitous influence on the founding generation, including those who were not particularly orthodox.

The Faith of the Founders blog series seeks to unpack this reality.

What better place to begin than with the first “farewell address” of our first President, George Washington?

Many are familiar with the Farewell Address of President George Washington.  But fewer people are familiar with Washington’s first “farewell address,” namely the farewell he thought would be his final public one.  I refer to his 1783 Circular to the State Governments.[1]

Written to the governors of each state in the new United States, flush with victory in the Revolutionary War, and on the brink of signing a peace treaty with Great Britain, the timing of Washington’s letter was, as far as he knew, the end of his public career.  He had entered public (national) life reluctantly in 1775 as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, but with his mission accomplished, and America’s independence established, he now sought to enthusiastically exit.

Fate would have other duties in store for George Washington.  But his Circular is fascinating precisely because it was, as far as he knew, the final farewell of his public career, and thus contained the advice he considered the most important.  The United States may have been flush with victory, but now it was embarking on its existence as a nation, and many challenges appeared on the horizon.  In general, while Washington gave his advice on specific policies, the Circular is full of admonition for Americans to recognize that they had been given a truly unique opportunity by God, and they best not waste it.

At the opening of the letter, Washington first reflected on the country’s unique opportunity, which he ascribed to “Heaven”:

But before I carry this resolution [his desire to retire] into effect, I think it a duty incumbent on me, to make this my last official communication, to congratulate you on the glorious events which Heaven has been pleased to produce in our favor, to offer my sentiments respecting some important subjects, which appear to me, to be intimately connected with the tranquility of the United States, to take my leave of your Excellency as a public Character, and to give my final blessing to that Country, in whose service I have spent the prime of my life, for whose sake I have consumed so many anxious days and watchful nights, and whose happiness being extremely dear to me, will always constitute no inconsiderable part of my own.

He again ascribed the turn of events to Providence (God):

[W]e shall have equal occasion to felicitate ourselves on the lot which Providence has assigned us, whether we view it in a natural, a political or moral point of light.

He continued his reflection on the historically unlikely situation of the new nation, again attributing it to Divine guidance:

They [the United States] are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theater, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity; Here, they are not only surrounded with everything which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other Nation has ever been favored with. Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our Republic assumed its rank among the Nations…

Although many not familiar with 18th-century-speak may not recognize it, Washington ascribed the singularity of the event to revealed religion, which in this context could only mean Christianity/the Bible:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha where the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period…and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation [Christianity/the Bible], have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.  At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own. [Emphasis added]

“Revelation” in the 18th century was a term of art for revealed religion—in other words, religion that was revealed by God, rather than deduced from reason alone (the only religion he reasonably had in mind was Christianity).  Also, “revelation” was often used to refer to the Bible itself, as the written revelation of God.  Thus, it is significant that Washington ascribes the establishment of the American Republic to, “above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation…”  Washington is not referring to “natural religion,” or religion that was merely spiritual or apprehended by reason.

He continued, alluding to the biblical books of 1 Corinthians and Deuteronomy:

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Such is our situation, and such are our prospects: but notwithstanding the cup of blessing [1 Cor. 10:16] is thus reached out to us, notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet, it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable as a Nation; This is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever…For, according to the system of Policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse [Deut. 11:26; 28]: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.

He then warned the states (while alluding to the biblical books of Proverbs and Luke) to comply with the requisitions of money requested by Congress to pay the interest on the national debt (under the Articles of Confederation, Congress did not have the power to force the states to pay up).  If they did not, he warned that “Congress, who have in all their Transaction shown a great degree of magnanimity and justice, will stand justified in the sight of God and Man [Prov. 3:4; Luke 2:52], and the State alone which puts itself in opposition to the aggregate Wisdom of the Continent, and follows such mistaken and pernicious Councils, will be responsible for all the consequences.”

Washington ended this, his first “farewell address,” with a citation of the prophet Micah, and an exhortation to imitate the conduct of Jesus for the sake of the nation:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy [Mic. 6:8], and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion [Jesus], and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.