Founding Fathers and Deism: George Washington 1

Recently my history teacher told us to think long and hard about whether or not the founding fathers were deists. Hamilton, my history professor, was convinced that all of the founding fathers were essentially deists. His argument circulated around the fact that the Constitution spoke of the “creator” rather than “God.” I’m not going to get into the Constitution just yet. Neither will I indulge my beliefs regarding the document. I first wish to examine the founding fathers one by one and find out for myself whether or not they were truly deists. While some certainly were deists, others, however, held deeply kept religious convictions.

“Eighteenth-century deists,” according to renowned historian Ron Chernow, “thought of God as a “prime mover” who had created the universe, then left it to its own devices, much as a watchmaker wound up a clock and walked away. God had established immutable laws of nature that could be fathomed by human reason instead of revelation.” [1] By Ron’s definition, we will first examine Washington’s outlook on God and his interactions or lack of interactions with Him.

When John Trumbull painted this dashing portrait of Washington in 1780, he inserted at right William Lee, the slave who served the general devotedly throughout the Revolutionary War. Lee, a skillful horseman, was a powerful symbol of the limitations of this fight for liberty.
When John Trumbull painted this dashing portrait of Washington in 1780, he inserted at right William Lee, the slave who served the general devotedly throughout the Revolutionary War. Lee, a skillful horseman, was a powerful symbol of the limitations of this fight for liberty.

Historical evidence does not confirm that Washington has ever conformed to such a definition. Instead, Washington’s view of God has played, as Washington believes, significant roles in Washington’s life. After surviving battles that seemed like any man ought not to have survived, he describes God moving his feet, “which has directed my steps and shielded me in the various changes and chances through which I have passed from my youth to the present moment.” [2]

Even if Washington’s view of God was impersonal, He seems very interested in the political course of the United States. Washington was convinced that his life had been spared multiple times in what seemed like emanate death for some great purpose for America. Throughout his life he described signs of heavenly approbation and seemed to know that he operated under the overarching guidance of a benign Providence. Is this the sort of God that would fit a deist view?

Evidence does not conclude Washington’s affirmation in the deity of Jesus Christ. He also hardly ever referred to Jesus Christ. Instead he often used vague terms such as “Providence,” “Destiny,” the “Author of Our Being,” or simply “Heaven.” Some of his contemporaries, however, regarded him as “a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.” [3] Washington may have felt a discomfort in religious dogma. This reflected his low-key lifestyle and his attitude towards being disinterested.

Much more can be said about Washington’s religious beliefs.  But his Christianity or belief in God does not reflect nineteenth century deism.

Notes

  1. Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life (New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2010), 131.
  2. W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, 4 vols. Charlottesville, Va, 1998-99. 1:407. Letter to William Gordon, October 15, 1797.
  3. Marshall, Life of George Washington, 446.
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