George Washington, Secular Saint?

I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action — and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

Hamilton and Washington

As Commander of the Army, General Washington was key. The finance guys wanted him leading the coup [UPDATE: for accuracy:] threat of coup. He declined, of course, and ended up elegantly dispersing the officer rebellion at the army cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y., more or less as described in the AC post.

But then he wrote to Congress, telling them to do everything the officers wanted, which Congress hurriedly did, making the entire officer class one with the financier class, creditors of the United States. (Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary officer-class watchdog group, one of whose agendas was to insure that the potential investment bonanza was federally supported.) That set the table for everything the Morrises and Hamilton wanted for America. Later, in the early 1790’s, Hamilton began putting it all into effect as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Washington admonished Hamilton, in their odd and compelling post-Newburgh-crisis correspondence, that while the General firmly supported the nationalists’ aims, trying to manipulate the army to achieve them had been a dangerously bonehead move. In a letter nobody quotes, although it is very easy to find, he even followed up with Hamilton, just in case he might be misinterpreted, to say that the only problem with using the army that way is that, in such cases, things might just as well go the other way, backfire, and the anti-nationalists might have won. Without sullying himself with the sedition in which the nationalists had indulged, Washington made sure that the nationalists got all the things they wanted. And without allowing a coup to occur, he used the coup to get what he wanted. It was a very, very impressive set of moves, with a major impact on the American future. There’s a way in which the Newburgh conspiracy, despite unintended consequences, should be rated a success, in part because of Washington.

And Washington’s strange relationship with Hamilton, which came to fruition in the 1790’s, with the executive-branch suppression of western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion — as hymned by John Yoo — had now been established.

AC just doesn’t look into any of this. One of the comments on the Newburgh post mentions the scholar Richard Kohn to the effect that there wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all. That is not what Kohn’s work says — quite the reverse! Somehow the cult of the Republican Saint Washington, indispensible man, is good enough for these normally skeptical thinkers. (He was the indispensible man. The realities of that indispensability are rather fraught.) How can these guys, who so fluently consider the likes of Sidney and Aristotle in other posts, resort to the History Channel and Google when kvelling about Washington? The effect on reason of the modern secular religion of founder-worship is an intriguing one to consider in the context of AC’s examination of religion at the founding.

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9 thoughts on “George Washington, Secular Saint?

  1. This was a thought provoking post, indeed. Have you read Meacham’s book American Gospel? After having completed it a couple months ago, I’m still contemplating what he had to say and am inclined to agree with his premise of public/private religion and the inseparability of them from the American experiment.

    It’s easy to twist the Founders to fit our current political needs and they weren’t saints (although Washington was a damn fine man.) I may even have been guilty of it! However, it seems to me that if there is a concerted effort on the right to adopt the Founders and make them something they may not have been, there is an even stronger movement on the left to marginalize, demonize, minimize and exclude them from our culture.

    I can tell you, as a college educated middle aged professional, I was taught almost nothing about the Founders and American History. 8 months ago I decided to engage in program of self-directed study. Along the way, I started WhatWouldTheFoundersThink?, admittedly out of a desire to see why the Left has been so hell-bent on making us forget them. “A bunch of racist old white men”.

    Books like Meacham’s and Gordon Wood’s have broadened my horizons a bit. I am going to peruse your blog here and perhaps add your books to my long reading list!

    BTW. Your writing is excellent (whether I end up agreeing with you, or not.) Good stuff.

    • Thanks for the comment and the compliment. Intriguing that you see the founders as marginalized — they seem to be everywhere I look! Yet I do agree (as another middle-aged college-educated male) that they didn’t form part of the most exciting core of my education. And I do know people who can scan the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, say, yet don’t know the first thing about the American Revolution, and that bothers me. Meacham: Sure. (And he wrote a vaguely positive review of my book The Whiskey Rebellion in the L.A. Times, so I’m all for him.) But the more probing left writers that I like are doing something a whole lot more interesting than branding the founders “a bunch of racist old white men,” and whenever I try to write about the founders with due skepticism, I get accused of branding them that way too, by some. For example, you seem pretty sure that Washington was a damned fine man. That’s not the kind of statement I’d be so confident about making — or so interested in making, really. Seems to me to throw a big wet blanket over everything that might have made Washington interesting! So I like to start from scratch. Every time.

      • It’s been a while since I made this comment, and I’ve done more reading since. I still contend that Washington was “a damn fine man”!

        I am currently in the midst of Chernow’s new biography of Washington. Penguin was nice enough to send me a review copy. It is excellent, and while Chernow does knock some of the varnish off of Washington – especially in his youth – he shows how our first president really did deserve the reputation he acquired.

        I am a bit confused by your suggestion that being “a damn fine man” somehow throws a “wet blanket over everything that might have made Washington interesting”?

        Since when is real heroism uninteresting?

  2. Many thanks for this.

    On balance our voice may lean right; but we go out of our way to be diverse and pluralistic (in the classically liberal sense of the term). We have lefties and righties who right for us. Me, I’m libertarian.

    We also have Mormons, evangelicals, Unitarian-Universalists, agnostics and atheists as our posters and readers.

    I’d like to claim the American Founding for libertarianism. I won’t go that far. But one thing that unites us is our commitment to studying honestly, classical liberalism, which is the genus that spawned most of today’s lefty liberalism, righty conservatism and libertarianism.

  3. Pingback: William Hogeland on American Creation | The One Best Way

  4. Thx for the HT toward American Creation, Mr. Hogeland.

    We’ve been indulging some of our readers’ curiosity on Leo Strauss on our mainpage lately, but usually, he’s in the background.

    We are Straussians in the way you are a Marxist.

    Which is to say, in approach. It’s true we parse the Founding texts “to death.” We are more interested in ideas [ideals?] than power, race and class; more interested in the ideas that led up to the Founding era than its aftermath on the ground, say Britain’s Glorious Revolution more than the Whiskey Rebellion; more interested in Rev. Richard Hooker than Rev. Herman Husband.

    This isn’t to say one approach is superior to the other. I especially enjoyed your recent post on Sam Adams pulling a Saul Alinsky on the streets of Philadelphia. One telescope may see on the visible light part of the spectrum; another may see the x-rays. Both are seeing reality.

    I must add that if “high conservative” is accurate, it’s only because, as you note in your 2-part list of the left-Marx scholarship which dominates the academic “mainstream,” anything else is pretty conservative by definition. On a personal level, our politics and religions are all over the map, from atheist to Mormon to evangelical to Catholic. The politics, however, do seem to stop at center-left. Hard-core left don’t seem to be able to hang. Whether that’s aesthetic repulsion or a retreat from the battlefield of ideas, I do not know. Still, I’d say that the majority of our little karass didn’t vote for John McCain.

    Cheers, and thx for your kind time and attention. I shall return to read your future posts and poke through your back catalog. For the record, we don’t do Allan Bloom, heh heh. More Thomas G. West’s polite and gentle evisceration of him. Even high conservatives gotta have some standards.

  5. Can’t reply one tier deeper on Martin’s second comment above, so pasting it here and responding:

    Martin says:

    It’s been a while since I made this comment, and I’ve done more reading since. I still contend that Washington was “a damn fine man”!

    I am currently in the midst of Chernow’s new biography of Washington. Penguin was nice enough to send me a review copy. It is excellent, and while Chernow does knock some of the varnish off of Washington – especially in his youth – he shows how our first president really did deserve the reputation he acquired.

    I am a bit confused by your suggestion that being “a damn fine man” somehow throws a “wet blanket over everything that might have made Washington interesting”?

    Since when is real heroism uninteresting?

    I respond:

    Sounds like a tendentious rhetorical question to me, begging the actual question. No problem — while I don’t believe you’re confused, my point is simply that I wouldn”t know, and sort of decline to think about, what people mean by terms like “real heroism” and “damn fine man” when applied to iconic historical figures (and while I haven’t yet read it, I’m not surprised to hear that Chernow’s book tends to confirm preconceptions). I’m interested in a qualitatively different approach to history and character, and it’s not for everybody (a source of regret for me, since I do admire Chernow’s sales and status!).

    I have a suggestion: I’ll post something about “What Would the Founders Think” and some of our differences, because I think they’re enlightening; maybe you’ll do the same, about my blog; that will promote both of our blogs, and it might build audience for these history debates. That, ultimately, is what I want most to do. And thanks again for the comments …

  6. Pingback: What Would The Founders Think (And Why Should We Even Care) | What Would The Founders Think?

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