In an effort to try and read more widely, I recently decided to work through one biography on each American President. So, first up, George Washington.
Going off the rave reviews I’ve seen, I chose Ron Chernow’s, “Washington: A Life” and I was not disappointed. Thorough, but never tedious, Chernow did a masterful job shedding light on the incredible man who was later made unreal myth.
The following are my favorite quotes without any comment.
“Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Abigail Adams speaking of George Washing after his death.
“He had sound judgment and was a model youth with no tincture of rowdiness in his nature. In certain ways, he was a very old young man.”
“Thomas Jefferson once remarked cynically that Washington ‘has divines (ministers) constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances but it an unbeliever.’ Jefferson contended that when Washington stepped down as president, a group of clergy-men presented him with a list of requests to bolster public faith in Christianity; they noted he had refrained from public endorsements of the tenants of Christianity and beseeched him to declare openly his beliefs…Bishop William White of Pennsylvania, Washington’s pastor during his presidency in Philadelphia, also stated; ‘I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.’”
“A stalwart member of two congregations, Washington attended church throughout his life and devoted substantial time to church activities. His major rites of passage – baptism, marriage, burial, – all took place within the fold of the church. What has mystified posterity and puzzled some of his contemporaries was that Washington’s church attendance was irregular; that he recited prayers standing instead of kneeling; that, unlike Martha, he never took communion; and that he almost never referred to Jesus Christ, preferring such vague locutions as ‘Providence,’ ‘Destiny,’ the ‘Author of our Being,’ or simply ‘Heaven.’ Outwardly at least, his Christianity seemed rational, shorn of mysteries and miracle, and nowhere did he directly affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
“He seemed to know that he operated under the overarching guidance of a benign providence. Many of Washington’s eminent contemporaries, ranging from Marshall to Madison, regarded him as a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man, as Marshal attested. Some of Washington’s religious style probably reflected an enlightenment discomfort with religious dogma, but it also reflected his low key personal style. He was sober and temperate in all things, distrusted zealotry, and would never have talked of hellfire or damnation. He would have shunned anything, such as communion, that might flaunt his religiosity. He never wanted to make a spectacle of his faith or trade on it as a politician. Simply as a matter of personal style, he would have refrained from the emotional language associated with evangelical Christianity. This cooler more austere religious manner was common place among well-heeled Anglicans in 18th century Virginia. Washington’s pastor at Pohick Church before the war confirmed that he never knew so constant an attendant at church as Washington. His early biographer, Jared Sparks, recorded this comment from Washington’s nephew, George W. Lewis. Mr. Lewis said he accidently witnessed Washington’s private devotions in his library both morning and evening, That on those occasions he had seen him in a kneeling position with a Bible open before him and that he believed such to be his daily practice. General Robert Porterfield recalled that when he delivered an urgent message to Washington during the Revolutionary War, he found him on his knees engaged in his morning’s devotions. When he mentioned this to Washington’s aid, Alexander Hamilton, the latter replied that such was his constant habit. Washington’s adopted granddaughter saw his self-effacing religiosity as consistent with a hatred of pretension. “He was not one of those who act or pray that they may be seen of men.”
“Numerous people left vignettes testifying to Washington’s simple faith. On the other hand, he lacked a speculative bent and was never one to ponder the fine points of theology. One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuttered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, an other congregations – he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups – he issued eloquent statements on religious tolerance.“
“No man’s sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint on religious principles than mine are.”
“The happiness of America is intimately connected to the happiness of all Mankind.” LaFeyette
“Instead of glorying his might, (Washington) feared its terrible weight and potential misuse.”
“His military triumphs had been neither frequent nor epic in scale. He had lost more battles than he had won. Had botched several through strategic blunders and had won at Yorktown only with the indispensable aide of the French army and fleet. But he was a different kind of general fighting a different kind of war. And his military prowess cannot be judged by the usual scorecard of battles won and lost. His fortitude in keeping the impoverished Continental Army intact was a major historical accomplishment. It always stood on the brink of dissolution and Washington was the one figure that kept it together. He was that Great general that was great between battles and not just during them.
“Seldom in history has a General been handicapped by such constantly crippling conditions. There was scarcely a time during the war when Washington didn’t grapple with a crisis that threatened to disband the army and abort the Revolution. The extraordinary, wearisome, nerve-wracking frustration he put up with for nearly nine years is hard to express. He repeated had to exhort congress and the thirteen states to remedy desperate shortages of men, shoes, shirts, blankets, and gunpowder. This meant dealing with selfish apathetic states and bureaucratic incompetence in congress. He labored under a terrible strain that would have destroyed a lesser man. Ennobled by adversity and leading by example, he had been dismayed and depressed, but never defeated…Few people with any choice in the matter would not have persisted in this impossible self-sacrificing situation for so long.”
“When Polly (the wife of Washington’s secretary) died at age 23, Washington honored her with a sort of full dressed funeral that might have bid farewell to a cabinet officer. Deviating from his strict policy of never attending funerals, he led a procession that included Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, and three Supreme Court Justices as pallbearers. It was the one time that Washington attended a funeral as a President.
“The enterprising Anderson (Washington’s master of estate) devised the concept of taking grain grown at Mt. Vernon and converting it into corn and rye whiskey at a commercial distillery on the estate. For Washington, always rabid on the subject of alcoholism, it was an ironic turn of events to put it mildly. Although the distillery started modestly, by 1799 it had five gleaming copper stills and produced eleven-thousand gallons yearly so it may have ranked as the largest whiskey producer in America.”
“As the Father of his country evolved into a divinity some clergymen wanted to insert his farewell address into the Bible as an epilogue.”