Clayton Cramer weighs in to the perennial debate whether the Founders–in this case, George Washington–were really believers. He brings together some interesting Washington quotes. Some of them are fascinating glimpse into the personality of the man. From a general order against cardplaying–At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do in the service of their God, and their Country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality. From a general order passing on a Congressional proclamation of a day of fasting–The General commands all officers, and soldiers, to pay strict obedience to the Orders of the Continental Congress, and by their unfeigned, and pious observance of their religious duties, incline the Lord, and Giver of Victory, to prosper our arms. These make the spine tingle.
In a sense, Mormons needn’t care what Washington thought, unless they are constitutional scholars wrapped in the intricacies of original understanding and original intent. After all, the primary purpose of these arguments is to capture the cultural high ground in the war between religion and the secular, something like “I’m sure your position is a reasonable one, though you disagree with me AND WASHINGTON!” But we Mormons have already captured this ground to our own satisfaction. Every Mormon school child knows that Washington and other Founders came to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple and had their work done, so yes, Washington is on our side and boy is he ever, thank you very much.
On the other hand, this literal episode of baptism exemplifies the way that Mormonism baptizes the American Revolution, the Founding, and the Constitution. Washington’s beliefs are of interest to us not just as an exercise in competitive self-satisfaction but because Washington is a saint, a saint in the ordinary sense which means that he is a brother with us and of interest as family, but also a Saint in the more Catholic sense, as someone to be looked up to and admired. It would not be unthinkable for a Mormon to find the Imitation of Washington as a profound step to the Imitation of Christ.
Lately George Washington has become something of an avenue to Christ for me. I had previously been unable to draw any inspiration from the man. Like Christ is, sometimes, he was surrounded by so much respect and so much argument that it was hard to find the flesh and blood underneath. Heroic episodes like his speech before the Society of Cincinnatti–’Gentlemen, I have grown grey in your service, and now I find myself growing blind’–hadn’t much power to move when I couldn’t feel that is was a man who did them. But that’s changed lately. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing had something to do with it–Fischer treats Washington with warm respect and treats his critics with silence and indifference. More, I would say, was the reading of Madison’s Notes on the Convention. By the end of it, men like Madison, Wilson, Morris, Franklin, Patterson, Ellsworth, Martin, and Gerry have emerged as real friends to the reader. They’re bright, earnest, kind, talkative, angry at times, conciliatory at others, and always hoping against their better judgment that the Convention will succeed. Washington hardly says a thing. The reader is hardly aware of him. But these men you’ve come to admire are very much aware of him. At the end of every session, Washington rises to walk out and they all stand and wait in silence until he has left. When they wrangle on the Presidency they can only agree on one thing, that Washington will be the first and that he will do his duty. When, after the final draft has been printed Washington asks to propose his first change (that the floor for representation be 30,000 people instead of 40,000) they accept in unanimously and without debate. Madison writes that one day, a secret interim draft of the Constitution having been distributed prior, Washington stopped on his way out and picked up a copy lying on the floor. I hope, he said, that gentlemen are not so careless as this. He then left. Madison writes that the delegates were mortified. Each one hurried back to his own lodging to hunt for his copy, fearful that he had been the one to disturb the Great Washington. I’ve felt at times, reading the Notes, that sense of spiritual communication that D&C 50 talks about. I’ve felt what a weasel I am compared to a man like Washington, and how much I have to aspire to. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.