Tag Archives: George Washington


As a historian, I thought the defining moment in last night’s third and final presidential debate came when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Donald Trump if he was prepared to accept the outcome of next month’s election should he be defeated.  “I will look at it at the time,” Trump equivocated.  “I will keep you in suspense.”  In that one brief exchange the Republican nominee turned his back on centuries of American history and proved beyond doubt his utter unfitness for the nation’s highest office.

The thirty-nine men who signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not foresee the development of permanent political parties and would have been distressed by the prospect.  In Federalist #10, James Madison famously descried the tendency to divide into factions as a “dangerous vice” that threatened free government.  Factionalism produced “instability, injustice, and confusion,” i.e., “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

George Washington similarly deplored political parties and warned the nation against them before stepping down as the country’s first president.  Washington condemned “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and described them at length for his fellow countrymen.  He warned that partisan spirit “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Yet political parties developed, nonetheless, and when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the presidential election of 1796, the country understood that they represented two distinct political factions that had morphed into formal political parties–Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  (Due to a Constitutional quirk, the victorious Adams and his defeated rival would serve as president and vice-president, respectively.)  The election of 1796 did not involve a “campaign” as we would recognize it today, however.  It mostly consisted of elite statesmen writing letters to other elite statesmen on behalf of their chosen nominee, and neither candidate openly sought support for his election, as that was then considered unseemly.

All this changed in the election of 1800.  By this time the country was badly roiled by external dangers and internal dissension.  Britain and France had been at war since 1793, and the parties differed sharply as to how the infant United States might preserve both its neutrality and its dignity in a world at war.  The pro-British Federalists had signed a humiliating treaty with the British just before Washington left office, and then the Federalist majority in Congress had begun to mobilize for a possible war with France.  Convinced that the Federalists were bent on war, the pro-French Democratic-Republicans cried foul.  Viewing their opposition on the brink of war as a threat to national security, Congressional Federalists responded by passing the Sedition Act of 1798, which effectively made criticism of the government a crime.  Refusing to back down, Democratic-Republican leaders Jefferson and James Madison declared the law illegal and urged state legislatures to “nullify” it.  At no time other than the Civil War have Americans been so bitterly and so deeply divided.


In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opponents in one of the most bitter presidential elections in U. S. history.

The genteel, decorous, largely behind the scenes campaign of 1796 devolved into an acrimonious, ugly, public war in 1800 when Adams and Jefferson squared off a second time.  This time both parties mobilized a print campaign, enlisting partisan authors to abuse the other party in newspapers, pamphlets, circulars, and broadsides.  Democratic-Republican writers castigated the Federalists as closet monarchists and Tories in league with Britain to subvert American liberties.  They were the puppets of international financiers whose goal was to reduce the people of the United States to “rags, hunger, and wretchedness.”  At best, their economic policies were products of “imbecility and impudence.”

Federalists gave as good as they got.  Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist (false), of fathering “mulatto” children (probable), and of being an unabashed supporter of the French Revolution (undeniable).  If Jefferson was elected, they prophesied that America would suffer the “just vengeance of Heaven.”  The worst excesses of French radicalism would come to America: “dwellings in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated . . . children on the pike and halberd.”  (Translation: if the other side wins, cities will burn to the ground, the aged will be murdered, women will be raped, and children will be speared.  This was hardly a golden age of civil discourse.)

In the end, the Democratic-Republicans won the election by a hair, with Jefferson claiming the victory in the electoral college by a vote of 71-68.  (Technically, Jefferson tied with running mate, Aaron Burr, but that’s another story.)  John Adams had every reason to view the outcome as illegitimate.  Schemers in his own party, most notably Alexander Hamilton, had failed to support him.  What was worse, Thomas Jefferson owed his slender electoral margin to the fact that his support came disproportionately from states with large slave populations; thanks to the Constitution’s “three-fifths” clause, those states were entitled to extra electoral votes.  Had the Founders not made this compromise with the owners of human property, Adams, not Jefferson, would have gained the victory.

Yet Adams did not contest the election formally, nor openly condemn the outcome.  And Jefferson, for his part, used his inaugural address not to castigate his opponents but to seek common ground with them.   “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind,” he exhorted.  “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

So transpired the first transfer of power from one political party to the other in U. S. history.  It was, despite the acrimony on both sides, remarkably peaceful.  Both parties submitted to it.  Both sides respected the outcome, despite the depth of their differences and the magnitude of what was at stake.  This was not something the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 could  have predicted.  It is not something Americans in 2016 should take for granted.  It is, in fact, one of the most precious legacies we have inherited from our forebears.

Either Donald Trump doesn’t know this, or he doesn’t care.


Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently.  We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged.  Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News.  Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself.  This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”

So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat?  My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape.  I know that that is the case with me.  When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).  I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is.  Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation?  Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart?  I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.

As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context.  (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.)  It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.

As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation.  I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history.  Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.

paineThomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure.  The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets.  Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop.  By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles.  With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.

If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause.  Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence.  Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776.  To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.

Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write.  News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.”  News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily.  Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners.  Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each.  Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger.  A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy.  For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!


Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument.  He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous.  The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent.  He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.  He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy.  (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)

No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation.  Two other factors were paramount.  The first was the work’s accessibility.  Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations.  Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.

The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans.  For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking.  Here are some examples:

* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”

* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”

* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.

But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him.  His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid.  In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons.  They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.”   Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”  (Look up that last adjective.  It’s not a compliment.)

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass."

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”

Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer.  Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy.  His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners.  When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody.  The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”

Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason.  Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.”  “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”


Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”

And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities.  Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.”  “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all.  He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York.  There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809.  Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him.  The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.


“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”

So what would George Washington think about the 2016 presidential campaign?  There can be no doubt: he would be horrified and fearful for the future of his country.

I’ve promised to share words from the past from time to time that might be relevant as we make sense of this year’s contentious presidential campaign.  The point is not to ask “What would the Founders do?” (WWFD) and then do likewise.  This kind of appeal to the past is what Harvard historian Jill Lepore calls “historical fundamentalism,” and although I find her condescending tone grating, I agree with her basic point.  The Founders have no automatic moral authority, and it is actually a form of idolatry to treat them as if they do.

And yet, at its best the study of the past can be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Apart from sheer arrogance, indifference, or self-satisfaction, why wouldn’t we want to enter into that kind of dialogue?

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

The passage below comes from George Washington’s so-called “Farewell Address,” an announcement that he released in September 1796 to announce that he would not accept a third term as president of the new nation.  As you read, keep in mind that the members of the Constitutional Convention who had gathered in Philadelphia nine years earlier had not anticipated that formal political parties would come to be permanent fixtures of the American political landscape.  Nor would they have welcomed that prospect.  Though they had accepted the inevitability of informal, shifting coalitions in their colonial legislatures, they were suspicious of leaders who sought to solidify factional boundaries and make them permanent.

To Washington’s chagrin, by the end of his first term as president, divisions within his own cabinet had spread to Congress, and the alliances that would morph into the future Federalist and Democrat-Republican parties were already beginning to crystallize.  And so, as one of his last public acts, Washington warned the nation about the potential dangers of such a development:

. . . Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

. . . The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.

. . . There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Some prominent members of the founding generation–James Madison, most prominently–would come to see that permanent political parties could in fact serve a positive role in restraining the government from tyranny, and certainly today’s parties would claim to do so (at least when they’re out of power).  And yet there are aspects of Washington’s description that still sound timely.  I’d say that today’s parties do their fair share of agitating jealousy and kindling animosity, wouldn’t you?  The question for us is whether we should be following Washington’s advice to do all within our power to “mitigate and assuage” such poisonous partisanship.


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

"Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis)," J. A. Arthur, 1865

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J. A. Arthur, 1865

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”