J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

George Washington’s “Gods”

I’m going to keep Hezekiah Wyman waiting in the wings one more morning in order to note the scads of material on Peter Lillback’s self-published book George Washington’s Sacred Fire that Jonathan Rowe and his colleagues have been throwing up over at American Creation.

In particular, Brad Hart posted an analysis of Lillback’s appendix titled “George Washington’s Written Prayers.” At the outset Hart notes, “this collection of documents are not actual prayers but instead are an assortment of letters, general orders and presidential declarations, which Lillback passes off as Washington’s ‘written prayers.’” Then Hart shows that Washington most often used the term “Providence” and never the name “Jesus Christ.”

That in turn put me in mind of a line from Jeffry H. Morrison’s The Political Philosophy of George Washington, published last year by Johns Hopkins University Press, citing an earlier biographer:

Douglas Southall Freeman dryly noted that over the course of his life, Washington referred to Providence alternately as “he, she, and it,”—he being God, she being lady Fortune, and it some mysterious force that science might someday explain.
Washington also referred to that force as plural. On 15 Mar 1779, the commander-in-chief wrote this to Gov. Thomas Nelson of Virginia:
Unanimity in our Councils, disinterestedness in our pursuits, and steady perseverence in our national duty, are the only means to avoid misfortunes; if they come upon us after these we shall have the consolation of knowing that we have done our best, the rest is with the Gods.
That Washington was comfortable alluding to multiple deities like a common pagan discomfited Jared Sparks, compiler of the first edition of the President’s papers. He edited the end of that passage to read: “If they come upon us after these, we shall have the consolation of knowing that we have done our best. The rest is with God.”

Google Books shows me only one study of Washington that quotes this passage. That’s the book where I first saw it myself, Peter Henriques’s Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2006. As its title suggests, Henriques’s goal was create an accurate picture of Washington, not just to examine the man’s religious views and discover that—what a surprise!—they match his own.

Quite a number of books have been published in the last few years focused on Washington’s religious thinking in that way. Yet oddly enough none appears to quote his remark about “the Gods.” For example, in Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country, Michael and Jana Novak quote other letters from Washington to Thomas Nelson multiple times, but not this one. I guess that quotation would appeal most to believers in plural gods.


Lydia said...

I wonder how much of the use of 'the gods' in that passage is being actively Roman; it really reads like Cicero there, and I wonder if it might even be a paraphrase.

J. L. Bell said...

I tried to find other examples of the phrase, and parts of it. Aside from quotations of Washington, some of it appears in a couple of nineteenth-century novels. But the phrase doesn’t appear to be a standard 1700s translation of a Stoic maxim.

I think Washington was clearly playing off of that Roman tradition, and Gov. Nelson’s familiarity with it. Similarly, any allusions to Fortune as a female deity have classical roots.

I get the sense that the general varied his use of “Providence,” “fortune,” “fate,” “God,” and even “Gods” to reflect his belief that the workings of that force are inscrutable. At the same time, he seems to have been naturally optimistic.