This month we celebrated the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on the 12th and George Washington on the 22nd. The federal holiday honoring George Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices. It was always celebrated on his birthday — February 22nd. On January 1, 1971 when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect, the celebration rarely fell on Washington’s actual birthday. An early draft of this law would have renamed the holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, but that failed in committee. Advertisers in the mid-1980’s began the push to use the term “Presidents’ Day” and it first appeared in print during this time.
Did you know Washington’s Birthday is the official name of the federal holiday that falls on the third Monday of February, not Presidents’ Day!
Since 1862 there has been a tradition in the United States Senate that George Washington’s Farewell Address be read on his birthday. Citizens had asked that this be done in light of the approaching Civil War. The annual tradition continues with the reading of the address on or near Washington’s Birthday.
George Washington has been described as “the gentlest of Christendom’s captains.” As a military man, he was incredibly brave, facing enemy bullets not once, but many times. But when he put away his sword, he placed a dove of peace atop his Virginia home, Mount Vernon. He was eulogized at his death in 1799 by Gen. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee. The elder Lee called Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington was an inspiration to virtually all the presidents who came after him.
Abraham Lincoln sought to model his own conduct on that of George Washington. Leaving Springfield by train for Washington, D.C., President-elect Lincoln bade farewell to his Illinois neighbors with these touching words:
I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
So impressed with Washington’s conduct was Lincoln that he made a point of kissing the Bible at this own inauguration–just as Washington had done in 1789. Washington’s reliance on the Bible was fully shared by Lincoln, who called it “the best gift God has ever given to man…But for it we could not know right from wrong.”
Ronald Reagan surely admired George Washington. When Ed Meese, Counselor to the President for Policy, was informed that Americans in an online poll had voted Reagan the greatest of all Americans, Mr. Meese was stunned. “He didn’t think so,” the former Attorney General said, “Ronald Reagan thought George Washington was the greatest American.”
Through the centuries, a few Americans have sought to pull themselves up by pulling Washington down. This tendency was most exaggerated in the 1920s, when so-called Progressives thought they could “de-bunk” American history by giving it a Marxist slant. But when a book purporting to show that Washington was a failure was published, President Calvin Coolidge was asked what he thought of it. “Silent Cal” wasted few words on the muckraking book. He looked out the window of the White House toward the Washington Monument and drawled: “He’s still there.”
Too many textbooks teach that our Founding Fathers, including George Washington, were deists — someone who believes God created the world and then took a hands-off approach, like winding up a clock and walking away. From a deists’ website: ” Deism is knowledge of God based on the application of our reason on the designs/laws found throughout Nature. The designs presuppose a Designer. Deism is therefore a natural religion and is not a “revealed” religion. The natural religion/philosophy of Deism frees those who embrace it from the inconsistencies of superstition and the negativity of fear that are so strongly represented in all of the “revealed” religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Is there evidence to contradict the idea that Washington was a deist?
- In 1755 after surviving the battle during the French and Indian War that claimed the life of General Edward Braddock, George Washington wrote to his family a letter dispelling the story of his own death. In it he said, “I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence that protected me beyond all human expectation.”
- By 1778 George Washington had so often witnessed God’s intervention during the War for Independence that on August 20th, he wrote Thomas Nelson: “The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
- While encamped on the banks of a river in 1779, Washington was approached by Delaware Indian chiefs who desired that their youth be trained in American schools. Washington responded, ” You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention.”
- In Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, he said, ” Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
- In the 1820’s Jared Sparks began to compile George Washington’s writings. He delved through eight large boxes of Washington’s personal correspondence, a box of diplomatic correspondence from the Department of State, and the [General Horatio] Gates manuscripts from the New York Historical Society. Not content with these, he searched or caused to be searched public and private archives for material, questioned survivors of the Revolution, visited and mapped historic sites. After delving into Washington’s religious character, Sparks concluded, ” 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.”
- Nelly Custis-Lewis was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and the adopted daughter of George Washington. Nellie’s father John (Martha’s only son) had died leaving his widow with four young children ranging in age from infancy to six years old. John’s widow was unable to raise all four children, so George and Martha adopted the two younger children — Nelly Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. Nellie lived with the Washington’s from the time of her birth in 1779 until 1799, the year she married and of George Washington’s death. In a letter to Jared Sparks, Nelly related, ” I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, ‘that they may be seen of men.’ Is it necessary that any one should certify, ‘General Washington avowed himself to me a believer in Christianity?’ As well may we question his patriotism, his heroic, disinterested devotion to his country. His mottos were, “Deeds, not Words”; and, “For God and my Country.”
You decide: Was George Washington someone who did not think God revealed himself through his interactions with people?