George Washington's Faith in God and the American People
The Many Contributions of George Washington
As we celebrate President's Day, the third Monday in February, and George Washington's actual birthday, February 22nd, it is good to take a moment to reflect on George Washington the man and his legacy.
George Washington was obviously a great man who played a major role in the creation of the United States. It was Washington who led the Continental Army to victory over the British and this resulted in the United States becoming an independent nation.
George Washington was also instrumental in bringing together the Constitutional Convention which wrote our present Constitution.
And it was George Washington who was unanimously chosen to be the first President of the United States under the Constitution he helped create.
However, in many ways, George Washington's true greatness and real gift to this nation was his humility and sense of duty.
By humility, I don't mean that he was some shrinking violet who was afraid to boast or accept praise. No, he was a proud and ambitious man.
However, George Washington was not only honest with himself and knew and accepted his limits, he also had a solid religious faith which enabled him to keep his pride and ambition from destroying him and the nation.
Religious Faith and Constraints on Ambition of Leaders
Religious faith acts as a restraint on a person's ego. By having such faith a person is forced to acknowledge the fact that they have been created by some higher being. This causes a person of faith to accept the fact that they can never be more than a number two person in a hierarchy as there is always a God above them in the number one position.
In addition to acknowledging the existence of a God above humans, the Judeo-Christian religion, like some other religions, also believes in a final judgment after one dies. This means that each individual will ultimately have to account to God for their actions on earth.
Faith can thus be a powerful restraint on a person and their actions as, once they accept the fact that there is a power higher than them and that they will eventually be held to account for their actions they also have to accept the fact that any power they acquire is limited.
This does not mean that religious people are perfect. Instead, it means that they realize there are limits to what they can do and that someday they will have to accept the consequences for their actions.
Location of Maryland State House in Annapolis, MD
A Historic Event in Annapolis Maryland
One of the greatest events in American history took place in the old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783.
The American Revolution had been won and the Continental Congress was meeting in Annapolis in the later part of the year 1783.
This Congress was the national government of the newly independent colonies.
The government was small and weak. It also didn't have a permanent home and happened to be using the State House in Annapolis as a meeting place at the time of this historic event.
But on that December day the Maryland State House in Annapolis was the scene of an event rarely seen before or since in the history of any nation.
Washington Recognized Civilian Control of the Military and Voluntarily Resigned his Command to Congress
George Washington at this moment was not only a national hero because of his success in defeating the British, he was also, along with Benjamin Franklin, one of the few men who were recognized as national leaders. Most of the other leaders of the nation were little known outside of their home colony.
Not only did the people love and admire him, the Army he had led to victory also loved him. Had he wanted to, Washington could have simply taken power and run the country. His officers and men were loyal to him and more than likely would have willingly followed him.
Instead, once the peace treaty was signed and the British troops departed, George Washington asked Congress to demobilize the Army and discharge all but a few of its officers and men.
He then made his way to Annapolis where Congress was meeting.
He had arranged to meet with Congress on December 23rd and the Congress was assembled and waiting when Washington entered the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.
Congress had requested that Washington come before them and give a resignation speech rather than simply submitting a letter of resignation.
George Washington Could Have Used His Position to Take Power and Rule the New Nation
George Washington had believed that he was the best man suited to command the Continental Army during the Revolution and had lobbied for the job.
Once he had been given the command of the army as Commander in Chief by the Continental Congress he found himself having to fight the British with guns by day while spending many nights corresponding with his supporters in Congress who were fighting to keep other members of Congress from replacing Washington with favorites of their own who wanted the job of Commander-in-Chief.
On October 19, 1781 George Washington and his troops with the help of the French Navy, defeated the main British army in North America. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army effectively ended the American Revolution.
However, British troops still remained in control of key locations within the United States and it wasn't until September 3, 1783 that the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Like Julius Caesar before him and others like Simon Bolivar, Napoleon Bonaparte and other successful leaders of revolutions after him, George Washington at the end of the Revolution not only had the power to take control of the nation, but also more than likely would have had the support of the American people in such an action.
The current American government was weak and had very little real power while our new nation faced hostile neighbors on all four sides.
Great Britain still had control of Canada on our northern border and, despite the terms of the treaty ending the war, continued to maintain control of the forts on our side of the border which we needed to defend against an invasion from Canada by the British.
At End of Revolutionary War British Refused to Give up Forts on American Territory
Great Britain also still had the world's most powerful Navy which left our eastern seaboard exposed.
To the south, Spain controlled the area from Florida to New Orleans as well as lands west of the Mississippi. While Spain had secretly supported our cause with money and weapons during the Revolutionary War, her motives in this were to damage her enemy Britain rather than belief in the American cause.
Washington Discharges His Troops
Rather than instructing most of his officers and men to take their discharges and go home as ordered by Congress and then proceed himself to Annapolis to resign his own command, Washington could have simply led the army to Annapolis and dismissed Congress.
This would have been the logical thing to do. The situation in the country did not look good. Washington and the army had fought and made great sacrifices to gain our independence and it appeared that the new nation was adrift.
Also, Congress regularly lacked funds to pay the officers and men in the army which added to the discontent within the army.
Washington, however, elected to discharge his troops and proceed alone to Annapolis to tender his resignation. This was the most powerful man in North America at that time willingly giving up his power to mold the new nation into whatever form he wanted.
Washington's Resignation Speech is a Model of Humility and Faith
His speech to Congress, short though it was, is a masterpiece of grace and humility.
He begins with, I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress & of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.
He then goes on to say: I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence—A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.
Despite the fact that he lobbied and fought hard to keep the job of Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States, he now tells Congress that he accepted the job while doubting his abilities to succeed at it.
However, he goes on and states that he proceeded, despite his reservations about his ability, because of the confidence he felt from the combination of the righteousness of America’s cause, the support of the American people and the support of God.
George Washington obviously felt he was the best man for the job of Commander-in-Chief of the Army during the Revolution. Taking the job required courage as it should be remembered that not only was there a high risk of failure rather than glory, but failure meant being tried and executed for treason against the King.
The other thing this statement shows is Washington’s faith in God and the American people. He had successfully completed the job he had volunteered to perform, namely lead the Continental Army to victory and gain America’s independence.
Rather than believing himself to be the only one to ensure that independence by forcefully taking charge and creating a government led by him, he trusted that the people, with God’s help, would do that themselves.
He explicitly states this faith in God and the American people a couple of paragraphs later saying: I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commanding the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those Who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
George Washington Chose to Put His Faith in God and the American People and Not in a Powerful Government
George Washington’s actions and speech at this point did much to set the new nation on a course of civilian rule with the military reporting to civilian authorities.
His act of resigning and his resignation speech to Congress illustrate his deep belief in both God and the principles of democratic government. He had faith in the American people and in their ability to manage their lives and govern themselves.
Washington and his men had made huge sacrifices and the future did not look bright as the year 1783 drew to a close.
He and his army had the option of trying to ensure that America’s hard won independence would last by taking over and installing George Washington as a benevolent dictator.
George Washington, however, had faith in the American people and their ability, with God’s help, to succeed in their democratic experiment.
© 2012 Chuck Nugent