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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