Faith of the Founders #3: Washington's God-Saturated Inaugural Address
Making Wisdom Popular
The “Faith of the Founders” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt to unpack the profound and ubiquitous role of faith in the American Founding. You can read all the individual articles here.
The influence of religion on the Founders is readily apparent when one takes a look at the inaugural addresses of our first four Presidents. That will therefore be done in the next four articles in the Faith of the Founders series.
It is important to notice key features common to each inaugural:
(1) They each assert an objective moral order that is anchored in a divine standard;
(2) Each assumes that the God who is appealed to is a God who is active in human affairs, not the deistic god who merely created the world and left it alone (contrary to popular belief, not one Founder was a “deist” in this sense); and
(3) Since the United States had an overwhelmingly Christian, protestant population, such references to God would no doubt have been understood within the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition with which Americans were so familiar.
In his first Inaugural Address, President George Washington made sure to emphasize his belief that the new nation must acknowledge, and rely on God:
[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States…In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either: No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their United Government, the tranquil deliberations, and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. [Emphasis added]
Echoing the Biblical assertion that “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34, KJV), Washington emphasized the importance of morality to the body politic:
[T]he foundations of our national policy, will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality…[W]e ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained…
In concluding his address, Washington once again addressed God with gratitude and supplication:
I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the human race, in humble supplication that since he has been pleased to favor the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of Government, for the security of their Union, and the advancement of their happiness; so this divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views—the temperate consultation, and the wise measures on which the success of this government must depend.
In summary, the first Inaugural Address of our first President acknowledged, addressed, and supplicated God in the most reverent terms. Biblical concepts of God’s rule over the nations, His blessings for righteous behavior, and His continuing guidance of the new nation are emphatically asserted. It is undeniable that in his first great act as President, Washington intended to involve not just his countrymen, but God, in the event.