Thomas Jefferson did not help draft or ratify the First Amendment, but one argument for favoring his views over those of a Roger Sherman or an Oliver Ellsworth when investigating the “generating history” of the Constitution’s religion clauses is that Jefferson was more important than most Founders. By that measure, investigators of that history ought not to ignore George Washington. Nor shall this series on participants in the Founding-era debates over religious liberty and church-state relations.
For many Republicans, the presidency of Barack Obama felt like a Babylonian exile. America was in ruins, and Donald Trump surveyed them—seeing, as he said in his inaugural address, “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” as evidence of a broader “American carnage.”
Two Hundred Forty years ago, Christmas Eve, was a desperate time for America. General Washington had lost the Battle of New York, and had been chased, humiliatingly, all the way across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania.
Those were, as Thomas Paine‘s first “American Crisis” essay, dated December 23, 1776, declared “the times that try men’s souls”:
In my “Age of Washington” class the other day, I stumbled over the start of his Last Will and Testament. I regard the will as a partly public and partly private document—the last of his great “farewells,” including his farewell to the Virginia Regiment in 1759, his last Circular to the States in 1783, and, of course, his Presidential Farewell Address of 1796.
A great deal of ink has been spilled of late on the question what, exactly, it means for someone to be a natural born citizen under the U.S. Constitution. As Senator Cruz was born in Canada, to a mother who was a citizen and father who was not a citizen, the question is on point. The Constitution states in Article II that “no Persons except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President.”
What, exactly, does that mean?
On the day before the Pearl Harbor anniversary (which he did not reference), President Obama admitted that “Our nation has been at war with terrorists since Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” including horrors that his Administration previously dismissed as workplace violence. While much of what he said seemed to deny the reality of war, the last fourth of the speech raises the key question of what Muslims owe the rest of the world in this time of war.
The Rosenkranz Debate concerned the truth of John Adams’ quotation: The Constitution is designed for a moral and religious people and it’s wholly unfitted for the government any other. My friend, Professor Robert George, relied primarily on George Washington’s Farewell Address for historical evidence. There Washington, like Adams, claimed religion was important, if not essential, to sustaining the Republic. For instance, Washington famously said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
But Washington’s Farewell Address provides an uncertain guide as to whether the Framers of the Constitution thought widespread religious belief necessary to sustain it. As I noted in my opening remarks at the debate, the text of the Constitution does not support this view. It does not establish any particular religion or even require belief in a religion of one’s choice. It instead expressly prohibits all religious tests for offices under the United State Constitution.
Moreover, it is dangerous to rely too much on the words of politicians in political strife to establish much about the Constitution. And as great as George Washington was he was still a politician, and as powerfully stated is his Farewell address, it is in large measure a document reflecting the principles of the Federalist party. His remarks on religion parallel one of key attacks of the Federalists on the Democratic Republicans–that they were deists, like the dreaded French Revolutionaries, or at least no friends of traditional religion.
By the end of March, 2015, it is conceivable that the members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called 5+1 group, will reach an agreement with Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons development program and ease the economic sanctions that have isolated Iran from much of the world’s trading system. Even before the ink is dry on the possible agreement, however, it has become the subject of partisan controversy in the United States, Israel, and Iran. Before evaluating the merits of the agreement, it may therefore be worthwhile for readers of a journal devoted to Law…
George Washington provided explicit direction for biographers and analysts seeking to capture the substance of his public service. In his September 1796 “Farewell Address,” he wrote:
Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my Country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that after forty five years of my life dedicated to its Service, with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the Mansions of rest.
As we can see, Washington identified as the term of his service to the United States, a continuous period dating from 1751 to 1796. Every Washington biographer inherits an obligation to tell the story at least with reference to that “body of work,” if not comprehensively reproducing it. To date, no one has presented that coherent account (including the present author). But Edward J. Larson has taken large strides toward compensating for the lack with The Return of George Washington. The book focuses on what is arguably the most under-appreciated period in that 45 years, the time between Washington’s resignation of his command of the Army of the Revolution and his inauguration as the first President of the United States.