George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia and he died in his home of Mount Vernon, Virginia at the age of 67 from an unknown throat malady.
Officially, Washington was an Anglican/Episcopalian. He was born before the U.S. was free from British rule, so he was born a member of the Church of England. Once independence was achieved, the Church of England became known as Episcopalian in the U.S.
However, Washington’s true religious beliefs are a matter of high dispute. Many historians claim he never took Communion, an Anglican/Episcopalian ritual indicating a member’s devotion to the church, despite the fact that his wife did, causing Washington to leave services early and send a coach back to the church later to pick her up.
But there are several first-hand accounts of Washington contemporaries describing both the first U.S. president’s piousness and the act of his taking Communion. In one account, General Robert Porterfield wrote,
[Washington] was a pious man, and a member of your Church. I saw him myself on his knees receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Washington’s own words seem to contradict as well. Even if only a brief reference, Washington began his last will and testament with the phrase, “In the name of God, Amen.”
At the same time, various Washington quotes show someone suspicious of mankind’s ability to practice religion in a civilized manner, such as:
Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.
What does not appear to be in question, however, is Washington’s tolerance of many different religious worldviews, even including atheism. Through this tolerance of difference, Washington could be seen as laying the groundwork for the diverse and multicultural country America was and was to become.
As a framer of the U.S. Constitution, the first U.S. president, the conquering leader who severed U.S. ties with her imperial leader, and who is literally referred to as the “father” of what could arguably be considered the most powerful and influential nation in world history, Washington has become an iconic, mythical hero of epic proportions.
That being said, his politics could be either considered very simple or exceedingly complex.
To put it simply, Washington’s politics are the ideals of America. However, this can be (and has been) twisted to include any partisan, biased, or ideological line of thinking. What, in fact, are the ideals of America? Freedom? Liberty? Tolerance? These ultimate values have been often used to justify their opposites in America’s 200+ year existence. How about Japanese internment camps as but one example of a perversion of all three of these ideals.
In more complicated terms, Washington was an Enlightenment politician. He drew inspiration from the political and social philosophies of Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the like and was on par with other American Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
They believed in individual, equal rights, democracy, a proper, non-political place for religion and superstition. They espoused reason and logic and encouraged the courageous engagement of all citizens with their governments and governors. If you really want to get it, read the U.S. Constitution, or Washington’s Farewell Address.
This article written by Tom Kershaw with help from Brian Cunningham.