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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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Truth of Washington's Vision

Earlier this week I zipped by Valley Forge National Historical Park, so it seems like a good moment to discuss a most curious text about Gen. George Washington at that camp that appears on a lot of websites.

The text called "Washington's Vision" describes an angelic figure coming to the general in his tent at Valley Forge and giving him a prophecy about the future of the U.S. of A. Here's a sample:

Presently I heard a voice saying, "Son of the Republic, look and learn," while at the same time my visitor extended her arm eastwardly, I now beheld a heavy white vapor at some distance rising fold upon fold. This gradually dissipated, and I looked upon a stranger scene. Before me lay spread out in one vast plain all the countries of the world—Europe, Asia, Africa and America. I saw rolling and tossing between Europe and America the billows of the Atlantic, and between Asia and America lay the Pacific.

"Son of the Republic," said the same mysterious voice as before, "look and learn." At that moment I beheld a dark, shadowy being, like an angel, standing or rather floating in mid-air, between Europe and America. Dipping water out of the ocean in the hollow of each hand, he sprinkled some upon America with his right hand, while with his left hand he cast some on Europe. Immediately a cloud raised from these countries, and joined in mid-ocean. For a while it remained stationary, and then moved slowly westward, until it enveloped America in its murky folds. Sharp flashes of lightning gleamed through it at intervals, and I heard the smothered groans and cries of the American people.

A second time the angel dipped water from the ocean, and sprinkled it out as before. The dark cloud was then drawn back to the ocean, in whose heaving billows in sank from view. A third time I heard the mysterious voice saying, "Son of the Republic, look and learn," I cast my eyes upon America and beheld villages and towns and cities springing up one after another until the whole land from the Atlantic to the Pacific was dotted with them. . . .
I quoted some of this text as throwaway material on my other blog. Since then, I've dug deeper and learned more about its origin.

The earliest publication of "Washington's Vision" that I've found was in the 24 June 1861 Philadelphia Inquirer. That December, it was published in the Pittsfield Gazette, and the following April in the New Hampshire Sentinel. In 1864, "Washington's Vision" was published as a pamphlet, now available for online viewing courtesy of Indiana University. It's possible that the original publication was an even earlier 1861 pamphlet that the Inquirer quoted from.

The author of the article/pamphlet, Wesley Bradshaw, describes hearing of Washington's experience through a veteran of Valley Forge named Anthony Sherman. In Prominent American Ghosts, Susy Smith claimed, "Sherman told the story to several people," and, "A Mormon periodical carried the account in 1856," though she doesn't identify that periodical. However, the 1861 text has Sherman saying something quite different: that on 4 July 1859 he told Bradshaw a tale "which no one alive knows of except myself." (I suppose Smith, also author of Confessions of a Psychic and E.S.P. for the Millions, may have had special sources for her information. But I doubt it.)

The 1864 edition of "Washington's Vision" comes with a cover blurb from Edward Everett, the important and sadly forgotten Massachusetts politician and orator. (I wonder if he ever actually saw the pamphlet.) The same publication contains poetry and a story about 99-year-old Jane Seymour knitting stockings for Washington's army, then much later for the Union army during the Civil War. It's patriotic propaganda through and through, as shown by the cover line "The First Union Story Ever Written."

Are there any reliable facts in "Washington's Vision"? A man named Anthony Sherman did serve in the Continental Army. He applied for and received a pension in the 1830s. However, his pension application said he wasn't at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78; he was with Gen. Benedict Arnold's army instead. Furthermore, Anthony Sherman is not listed among Revolutionary veterans receiving a pension in 1840, meaning he had died by that year—well over a decade before he supposedly spoke to Wesley Bradshaw in Philadelphia.

Wesley Bradshaw didn't exist, either. That was a pseudonym used by Charles W. (for Wesley) Alexander, the publisher of "Washington's Vision". John Adcock at Yesterday's Papers says that Alexander, using his "Wesley Bradshaw" identity, had already contributed to a series of illustrated pamphlets that
purported to be true stories of murderers and female fiends, full of torture, murder and melerdrama, usually beginning on page 19, so a 64 page work was not all it was advertised to be.
(Note that Washington's Vision gets rolling on page 11.) Thus, if we believe the story Alexander tells in "Washington's Vision," he heard of an angelic prophecy crucial to the nation, and chose to publish it under the same pseudonym he used for exploitative potboilers.

In fact, a big part of Alexander's work was responding to recent public events with patriotic thrillers and legends. During and after the Civil War he wrote and published several novels such as Pauline of the Potomac; Or, General McClellan's Spy; its sequel Maud of the Mississippi, General Grant's Daring Spy; and the immortal The Angel of the Battlefield: A Tale of the Rebellion. In 1876, just in time for the Centennial celebration, Alexander came out with The History and Legends of the Old Liberty Bell in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. "Washington's Vision" is part of that fictional output, not a historic link to Valley Forge.

Nonetheless, "Washington's Vision" has been reprinted many times since 1861, including in the Grand Army of the Republic's newspaper, the National Tribune, in 1880, and its successor Stars and Stripes in 1950. And now it's on the internet, so it will never die.

[Thanks to M. T. Anderson and Nicole for the Susy Smith reference, and for getting me interested in this remarkable publication.]


Greg Bevier said...

Thanks for such an interesting and informative blog! I like the exposing of "false history" along with revealing the true.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

zach ichardson said...

I am in awe. Great information.

Anonymous said...

Even if the first publishing was 1861 isn't that before the civil war actually occured and was resolved? the prophecy was still accurate, therefore what is to come, yet?

J. L. Bell said...

”Predicting“ a U.S. civil war in 1861 was about as difficult as predicting a new presidential administration in 2009.

Anonymous said...

According to some people, Charles W. Alexander lived from 1836 to 1927. There was a Charles W. Alexander, a journalist in Philadelphia, but he worked as a journalist from 1821 to the 1850s so... maybe he wasn't the Wesley Bradshaw mentioned? Could that be possible? Thanks for your great explanations and research.
Fabio de Araujo
(prophecy researcher)

J. L. Bell said...

Unfortunately, the name of Charles W. Alexander isn’t unique. There could have been a father and son sharing that name, or unrelated men. The journalist born in 1837 was linked to the “Liberty Bell” and other pseudonymous patriotic publications in this 1888 directory. A man of the same name was secretary of Pennsylvania’s Bicentennial Committee in the Taft administration.

Anonymous said...

The prophesy about the Civil War proved accurate.
I fear that the prophesy about an overwhelming invasion of the USA will prove accurate as well!
Even if you do not believe the Bible, nor the word of any man, deep within your own spirit, you know that destruction is coming to this land.

J. L. Bell said...

The “prophesy” was written in 1861. Predicting a civil war at that time wasn’t difficult, what with states seceding and all.

As for what I know within my own mind, I think I’m a better judge than you are, but I appreciate your interest. Good luck dealing with your fears.

clintbender@rocketmail.com said...


Thank God, Mr. Grizzard has the intellectual honesty to have included in this same book's covers a refutation of his own commentary. Refer to page 61, where the essay by Rev. Burk addresses the same point, where he continues her quotation, "I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove he was a Christian..."

The next paragraph says, "What Eleanor Parke Custis did not see, Robert Lewis, Washington's nephew and private secretary, did see. In 1827 he told Mr. Sparks that "he had accidentally witnessed his private devotions in his library both morning and evening; that on these occasions he had seen him in a kneeling posture with a Bible open before him, and that he believed such to have been his daily practice..." In an earlier paragraph, General Porterfield is quoting the same observation of George Washington, who found him "...on his knees at his morning devotions."

clintbender@rocketmail.com said...

This is a question often asked today, and it arises from the efforts of those who seek to impeach Washington's character by portraying him as irreligious. Interestingly, Washington's own contemporaries did not question his Christianity but were thoroughly convinced of his devout faith--a fact made evident in the first-ever compilation of the The Writings of George Washington, published in the 1830s.

That compilation of Washington's writings was prepared and published by Jared Sparks (1789-1866), a noted writer and historian. Sparks' herculean historical productions included not only the writings of George Washington (12 volumes) but also Benjamin Franklin (10 volumes) and Constitution signer Gouverneur Morris (3 volumes). Additionally, Sparks compiled the Library of American Biography (25 volumes), The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 volumes), and the Correspondence of the American Revolution (4 volumes). In all, Sparks was responsible for some 100 historical volumes. Additionally, Sparks was America's first professor of history--other than ecclesiastical history--to teach at the college level in the United States, and he was later chosen president of Harvard.

Jared Sparks' decision to compile George Washington's works is described by The Dictionary of American Biography. It details that Sparks began . . .

. . . what was destined to be his greatest life work, the publication of the writings of George Washington. [Supreme Court] Justice Bushrod Washington, [the nephew of George Washington, the executor of the Washington estate, and] the owner of the Washington manuscripts, was won over by an offer to share the profits, through the friendly mediation of Chief Justice [of the Supreme Court, John] Marshall [who from 1804-1807 had written a popular five volume biography of George Washington], who also consented to take an equal share, twenty-five per cent, with the owner. In To say that he [George Washington] was not a Christian would be to impeach his sincerity and honesty. Of all men in the world, Washington was certainly the last whom any one would charge with dissimulation or indirectness [hypocrisies and evasiveness]; and if he was so scrupulous in avoiding even a shadow of these faults in every known act of his life, [regardless of] however unimportant, is it likely, is it credible, that in a matter of the highest and most serious importance [his religious faith, that] he should practice through a long series of years a deliberate deception upon his friends and the public? It is neither credible nor possible.
One of the letters Sparks used to arrive at his conclusion was from Nelly Custis-Lewis. While Nelly technically was the granddaughter of the Washingtons, in reality she was much more.

For much more on George Washington and the evidences of his strong faith, examine the following sources:

George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), Vol. XII, pp. 399-411.
George Washington, The Religious Opinions of Washington, E. C. M'Guire, editor (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836).
William Johnson, George Washington The Christian (1917).
William Jackson Johnstone, How Washington Prayed (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1932).
The Messages and Papers of the Presidents, James D. Richardson, editor (Published by the Authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. I, pp. 51-57 (1789), 64 (1789), 213-224 (1796), etc.
George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States, Late Commander in Chief of the American Army, to the People of the United States, Preparatory to his Declination (Baltimore: George & Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), pp. 22-23.
George Washington, The Maxims of Washington (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1855).


J. L. Bell said...

Clintbender, you’re copying passages from other websites into comments here. It’s therefore unclear whether you wrote those passages, have examined them carefully and come to believe them, or are holding them up as myths of religiosity like Washington’s Vision.

Whoever wrote those passages prefers Jared Sparks’s writings on Washington to the many more recent editions and biographies. You should know that Sparks edited Washington’s writings to make them conform to his idea of what the first President should be like. Along many other details, Sparks changed Washington’s occasional religious references to reflect conventional Christianity, as I noted here.

It’s true that Washington’s family and fans in the mid-1800s were eager to portray him as a conventionally devout Christian. That was, however, decades after his death, and American culture had come to value that behavior more than the genteel class did in the late 1700s. That’s why most historians and biographers give more weight to Washington’s own writings and other primary sources.

The copied passages list several books and websites clearly written to proselytize the authors’ own religious beliefs. The authors I’ve sampled from that list make elementary errors, such as accepting the fraud of “Washington’s Prayer Book.” There are many better studies of Washington’s religious thinking, but to appreciate them one must be open to ideas not exactly like one’s own.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of that topic is the apparent difference between what Washington recommended to his soldiers or the public and how he behaved in public settings, and what he did in private at home.

Anonymous said...

The counter challenge to the people of the latter 1800s wanting to paint Mr. Washington in a more devout religious light than he purportedly really was, is not the foible of those people. An equal foible is of the present crop of historians, students of history, authors, enthusiasts and other who today are anti-God, anti-Christian and have equal compulsion to deride, downplay and otherwise present any of our Founders as irreligious or even outright atheistic, agnostic -- anything but devout believers and Christians. One does not judge devotion by church attendance rolls or by a count of daily prayer times. It is the also quite hypocritical to make such suggestions without clearly indicating ones own personal bent and possible motivation for such reporting of a historical mans personal faith or lack thereof.

J. L. Bell said...

I see a contradiction in complaining about people not "clearly indicating ones own personal bent and possible motivation" in an anonymous comment that doesn't indicate the writer's personal bent or motivation. Didn't someone once say something about motes in eyes?

I reject the anonymous claim about "the present crop of historians" and others wanting to present "any of our Founders" as "anything but devout." Good historians note the range of beliefs among the leaders of the American Revolution.

As for saying we can't "judge devotion by church attendance rolls or a count of daily prayer times," I agree. We can't be completely certain whether people are sincere when they follow such rituals or make religious statements. What other evidence do historians have, however?

R.H.Smith said...

Just came across this fascinating essay. I'm an historian and antiquarian book dealer in California and have what appears to be the only existing copy of a Civil War Bradshaw pamphlet which combines "Washington's Vision" with "McClellan's Dream", purportedly advice received by General McClellan early in the War from "the spirit of George Washington". It is undated but notes that the Washington portion was written "at the commencement of our national difficulties" and was first published in the Boston Courier in 1861.

Anonymous said...

If the article was written in June of 1861 The American Civil War was already underway. The battle of Fort Sumter began April 12, 1861 which led to the withdraw of Federal troops. If you research that period and the course of the Civil War it didn't heat up until General Robert E Lee foolishly invaded the North and failed (BTW I'm glad slavery died out in America). Even if you don't believe in the paranormal the language he used conveys the mindset during that period... Example being he used the term "Son of the Republic" which supports the idea we have a Constitutional Republic not a Democracy. I came across Alexander researching ESP occurrences. I would have to read his entire list of works to formulate a better conclusion about him but it is evident he knew much about the subject whatever his motives were. Thanks for keeping it up some 16 years later, lol. ;) Alexander wrote the outcome which was in the balance up until Grant cleaned things up and the Union was restored... That is a fact.

Patrick Meagher said...

It's interesting that there is no mention of washington being a freemason. I'm pretty sure it was an important aspect of his life, but then how could anyone write about a secret society that also included Ben Franklin and many other founding fathers even if they were members themselves? It's an important part of democratic american history, the proverbial "elephant in the room" that no one will or is inclined to talk about.

J. L. Bell said...

Since this book had no genuine connection to George Washington, his feelings about Freemasonry didn't affect it.

The book could have been shaped by how the author and Americans felt about Freemasonry in the early 1860s. By then the movement had fallen from its almost official status in the early republic. It was the target of conspiracy theories and even an Anti-Masonic political party in the 1830s. Those negative feelings faded in the following decades, but this author didn't treat Freemasonry as crucial to Washington’s “vision.”