To Bigotry No Sanction
George Washington was a big man, and the larger-than-life awe in which he was held by contemporaries may have been due to his gargantuan stature. At a time when the average American male was just five feet six inches in height, Washington was fully six feet four inches tall, weighing in at just over two hundred pounds when he had Martha’s cooking to sustain him. A champion wrestler, he could still throw contenders half his age when commanding the armies of the republic. While he never tossed a silver dollar across the Potomac, he did claim to be able to fling a stone farther than anyone he’d ever met. In addition, he was an outstanding equestrian who in one battle had five mounts shot out from under him, managing repeatedly amid the confusion of combat to snag a new steed from among those who had lost their riders. Thomas Jefferson called him the best horseman of his day. Women found him captivating. In short, he was a hunk.
Washington’s was a lordly bearing, but it was the inner man, not the outer, that seemed most impressive. He was quiet, not given to boasting (except about his pitching arm), and his words were always well-chosen. Calm in crisis, Washington exuded steadiness and considered judgmenta man others might turn to when the fighting started.
The air of competence and command that he carried was acquired, not inherited, the product of hard work. He was mostly self-taught, for the boy’s hopes of studying in England ended at age eleven, when his father died. Augustine Washington had belonged to the middling level of Virginia planters; the modest home where George lived with his four younger siblings and two older half-brothers had just six rooms. An inventory listed the family’s possessions: one plated soup spoon, but most of the household utensils were whittled of wood. From an early age, George realized that his fortune would have to be self-made.
He applied himself to his studies with determination, and character education formed an important part of the curriculum. Lesson books preserved from his childhood contain 110 maxims for how a gentleman should comport himself. Some, like rule number nine, stressed good manners: "Spit not in the fire." Others involved table etiquette: "Cleanse not your teeth with the table cloth." But many more gave moral counsel, like "Rule 17: Be no flatterer" and "Rule 56: Associate yourself with men of good quality." All were exhortations the youth took to heart, and became more important than any official creed.
There was nothing ascetic about his make-up. Washington enjoyed a boisterous party and going to the theater, along with gambling and drinking in moderation. Yet there was a streak of Stoicism in his nature, and among classical philosophers, he was especially fond of Seneca. "It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness," wrote this first century pagan, words that Washington must have pondered more than once as he built highways through the wilderness inch by rugged inch over the Cumberland Gap during the French and Indian War, fighting mud and mosquitoes as much as dodging bullets.
The bullets never seemed to hit, anyway. He wrote his brother Jack that he found "something charming in the sound" of musket balls whistling through the air, and though they often pierced his clothing, the projectiles never scratched him. Washington ascribed his good fortune to Providence (a term he used frequently) and to "the uncertainty of human things." Washington knew how chance and fortune could disrupt the best-laid strategies; he did not believe in an entirely tidy universe. And while his "Providence" sounded like the kind of higher power that might answer prayers, he also spoke of the governing power behind events as a stern necessity, impervious to supplication. "There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Action," he wrote to Sally Fairfax, "not to be resisted through the strongest efforts of Human Nature." Bullets might hit or miss, but the mishaps of battle, like other tragedies, were beyond prevention. Was this faith or fatalism at work?
Whatever it was, it made him a bit reckless of danger, giving him "resolution to Face what any Man durst." Though he subsequently claimed to want nothing more than the life of a country squire, his path took him away from Mount Vernon for years together and frequently into harm’s way. From an early age, Washington chose a military careerone that promised honor but also risk and hardship.
Washington nearly joined the navyand history might have taken a different turn had he been accepted as a midshipman in His Majesty’s fleet rather than becoming the commander of a colonial regimentbut his mother vetoed the move. Mary Ball Washington seems to have been a controlling and possessive parent, and while her son was always proper, there was little affection in their relationship. His letters typically began with the salutation, "Honored Madam." He signed off, "Your Dutiful Son."
When the old woman died, George told his sister that he had taken his final leave of her in Fredricksburg, "never expecting to see her more." There was no mention of meeting in the hereafter, and indeed Washington’s letters, including many notes of condolence written over the course his lifetime, evince little expectation of loved ones being rejoined in heaven. Spending eternity with his mother probably wasn’t wanted in any case. And it may have been partly to escape Mary Ball’s unwanted dominance that George applied himself to studies that would take him far from home.
At age sixteen, he received his first job as a surveyor, mapping out the hinterlands of the Shenendoah Valley, where few Europeans had ever ventured. His very first lesson in bush survival, it was also a technical achievement that demonstrated an unusual aptitude for science and math. Though he never really learned to spell, by the age of thirteen or fourteen he had attained about the same level of proficiency in applied mathematics as a modern college graduate.
Church attendance, however, was irregular. In 1768, according to his diaries, he went to church on fifteen days and hunted foxes on forty-nine, as well as attending a horse race, three balls, two plays, and receiving at least one reprimand from a Scotch Presbyterian friend for spending too much time playing cards. In all his diary entries where Washington noted attending services, he never alluded to the topic of the sermon or any spiritual reflections that occurred to him. That wasn’t how his mind worked.
One Sunday shortly after he had been elected President, Washington was actually arrested for skipping church. Delayed in New England and anxious to reach his destination in New York, he set out early on the sabbath morn. As he passed through the village of Ashford, he was intercepted by the tithing man, responsible for enforcing blue laws that prohibited travel on the Lord’s Day. The President’s diary indicates he used the interlude to rest his horses, but wasn’t happy about being detained. He found the tavern where he was forced to cool his heels "not a good one" and the sermon of Mr. Pond, the parson of a nearby church, "very lame discourses."
Where did his reputation for piety come from? Visitors to Valley Forge are probably familiar with a depiction of "Washington in prayer," kneeling in the snow and calling on divine assistance for the beleaguered American cause. Why the General would have been kneeling on the cold, soggy ground is a puzzle, since Washington preferred to stand at prayereven when warm and dry inside an Anglican church, where bending the knee is customary. The concocted incident has no basis in history and is entirely the work of the Episcopal minister Parson Weems, who published the first
biography of George Washington in 1800 and invented
the cherry tree episode as well as other "curious anecdotes" (as he called them) intended to clothe the Virginian’s memory with an aura of saintliness. If Washington never told a lie, the same could not be said of Parson Weems, who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The truth is that Washington never took communion in the Anglican Church. James Abercrombie, the rector of the church Washington attended during his residence in Philadelphia, actually rebuked the President in a sermon for what he called "the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who uniformly turned their backs upon the Lord’s Supper." After being scolded from the pulpit, Washington simply stopped attending on Sundays when he knew the eucharist would be served, causing the pastor to question the President’s piety. "That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church," the rector complained, "but sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine author of our holy religion."
Whether Washington qualified as a "real Christian" is an open question. He seldom mentioned Jesus. In the twenty volumes of Washington’s collected correspondence, there is not one reference to Christ.
Outwardly, he was careful to maintain the appearance of even-handedness, according all denominations the same measure of respect. At Mount Vernon, he was an equal opportunity employer, willing to hire "Mohometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists," so long as they were able workers. And when he did attend religious services, he was careful to make official visits to every sort of congregation, Quaker, Jewish, Methodist, and even (in his own words) "the Presbyterian Meeting in the forenoon and Romish Church in the afternoon," recalling that during one visit to Pennsylvania he had attended worship at a Dutch Reformed church, "which, being in that language not a word of which I understood I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the Preacher."
As a religious pluralist, he deplored sectarian bickering: "Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by differences of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated." In his public pronouncements he continually emphasized that America was founded on the precept of freedom of religion, which he called an "enlarged and liberal policy" the world would do well to emulate. To the Jewish congregation of Newport, he offered assurances that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," requiring only that the adherents of differing faiths conduct themselves as good citizens. Significantly, Washington added that "it is now no more that toleration is spoken of," as if religious minorities were merely vexations to be endured by members of a more predominant faith. His vision for the nation went beyond tolerance to an active embrace of spiritual variety.
Washington was able for most of his career to bring cohesion to that variety, rallying Americans of varied backgrounds and beliefs around common aspirations. First as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, then as presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention, and finally as the nation’s first President, he inspired trust based on unshakeable integrity of character. He never took a salary for his eight years in uniform during the revolution. To the amazement of monarchs in Europe, he relinquished power after defeating the mightiest empire on earth and retired to his farm as a private citizen. He did not campaign for the presidency, and in the Electoral College received a unanimous voteascending to the highest office in the land by the country’s nearly universal acclamation.
As President, however, even the irreproachable Washington came under fire from an electorate increasingly polarized by the French Revolution. At first, most Americans welcomed the birth of a new republic that seemed a sister to their own. Washington himself received the key to the Bastille, passed along from Tom Paine, describing it as "the token of victory gained by liberty over despotism." But with the guillotining of the king and the outbreak of war between France and England, opinion shifted.
Anything seemed possible in those tumultuous times, from the advent of a utopian society to the complete breakdown of civilization, and the mood was near hysterical. Jefferson and other friends of the French were labeled radicals, determined to undermine religion and uproot all authority, while the Federalists, including Washington and Adams, were attacked as supercilious and arrogant, lording it over the people. In simplest terms, the division was between those who believed that an excess of democracy could lead to anarchy and mob rule, versus those who believed there could never be such a thing as too much freedom. As with the "culture wars" of these partisan time, the atmosphere grew venomous.
In his Farewell Address, Washington warned against the factious spirit and urged his fellow citizens to reconcile their differences. Religious institutions had an important role to play in the healing, he believed. Churches and synagogues could help elevate men and women above narrow interests and polarizing agendas. They could be sources of unity, overcoming animosity and pettiness. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports," Washington said in his Farewell. But for him every belief system had valuenot just oneand theology was secondary to ethics.
Washington had been vilified in the newspapers. One New York editorial fulminated that "he holds levees like King, receives congratulations on his birthday like a King, employs his old enemies like a King, shuts himself up like King," conducting himself like a grandee. So it was fitting for the Farewell to be published as an article in the American Daily Advertiser, addressed directly from the President to the citizens who had elected him. By announcing his retirement in the popular press, Washington refuted the charge of royalism with the most powerful statement possible, establishing a precedent for limiting the presidency to two terms that would last until Franklin Roosevelt. Accused of aristocratic pretensions, his nobility was finally revealed, not in amassing power, but in his willingness to give it up.
Washington’s own farewell came suddenly. On Thursday, the twelfth of December, 1799, he spent several hours making the rounds of Mount Vernon despite the fact that "the weather was very disagreeable, a constant fall of rain, snow and hail with a high wind." That evening he complained of a sore throat. Depending as usual on his stout constitution to carry him through, he braved the weather again the next morning, marking several trees to be felled. Friday evening, he was scarcely able to breathe and by Saturday he was dying. His condition was probably epiglottitus, an acute inflammation of the airways. According to his personal friend and long time secretary Tobias Lear, who was with him through the ordeal as he struggled for oxygen, "He suffered extremely."
Knowing the end was near, Washington uttered no prayers and asked for no priest to attend his bedside. There were no expressions of repentance, no requests for favorite psalms or other spiritual comforts. With some difficulty, he spoke. "I am going. I die hard," he told his doctors, "but am not afraid to go." His attendant Mr. Lear, who left a detailed account of that day, expressed the hope that he might meet his comrade once mo
re in heavenbut he was too good a reporter t
o suggest that George Washington reciprocated the sentiment. Like his much admired Seneca, who said that the brave man "can look death in the face without any trouble or surprise," the old soldier died with quiet fortitude.
According to the instructions he had left, he was buried four days later. Measured for his mahogany coffin, Washington was laid out at 6′ 3-1/2". A back injury in old age had probably taken something off his height.
But in death, his stature would only grow. For a young republic learning how people of divergent faiths might form a single body politic, he modeled courtesy and spiritual restraint. He emphasized what people had in common, rather than what divided them. "With slight shades of difference," he told his countrymen and women in his Farewell, "you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles." All his life, he tried to build bridges among people of goodwill. Against those who played what is now called "identity politics," he emphasized our shared identity as Americans and members within a larger family of nations. "Cultivate peace and harmony with all," he admonished. "Religion and morality enjoin this conduct." Those who seek to use his memory for more narrow purposesor to employ theology as a wedgedo violence to his spirit. For he was as large in his sympathies as he was magnanimous in his sense of dutytruly a giant of our history.