George Washington, the general who won the American War of Independence and became the first President of the United States, is probably the most revered politician in American history. People generally consider him the wisest of the founding fathers. Not a heavy duty intellectual like Jefferson or Madison, and not a vote-counter like Hamilton, but a practical thinker capable of balancing ideals with reality. Americans have ascribed almost every political philosophy to him whenever they need an appeal to authority to bolster their arguments.
What does that mean? It means that, like Gandhi and Churchill, quotes and ideas are mis-attributed to him all the time. But rather than simply play Washington “Quote or No Quote?”, let’s look at what the man actually believed and said.
Unlike Madison, Monroe, and other Founding Fathers, Washington did not often ruminate about political philosophy, at least not on paper. But he wasn’t entirely silent, and he didn’t avoid his homework either. If we take Washington’s education, military life, political life, and most important writings into account, it’s clear that Father George was grounded in three essential philosophical principles: classical republicanism, British liberalism, and Protestant Christianity.
What were these ideals, where did they come from, and what did Washington do with them?
The first, classical republicanism, is perhaps the easiest to describe. It means representative government, and it’s at least as old as ancient Rome. Borrowing some political ideas from various Greek philosophers, and some political practices from Sparta and Athens, Roman republicans overthrew the Kingdom of Rome in 509 BC. They set up a Republican government run by two elected consuls and a senate comprised of appointed magistrates.
Washington was especially influenced by the famous Roman statesmen Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (after whom the city of Cincinnati was named) and Marcus Tullius Cicero. Both Cincinnatus and Cicero were somewhat obsessed with civic virtue and duty to the public, far and above their own private desires. Ironically, Cincinnatus served as a temporary dictator at least twice in his career, but it was the story that he left his private life without even thinking about it when Rome called for help. The first time, he left his plow in mid-furrow and put on his consul’s toga when Roman magistrates came out to ask him for help.
Washington looked to Cincinnatus as a model of duty, although not necessarily a model for political thinking (because Cincinnatus agreed to be a dictator). Cicero was a slightly different story. In addition to being a politician, he was an important philosopher and one of the most prolific and influential political writers in world history. Like Cincinnatus, he believed in the defense and improvement of the Roman state and the highest goal of statesmen and citizens.
In fact, he thought that the difficulties and turmoil that the Roman state had gone through in its history were because of lapses in virtue, both at the individual and the communal level. But the improvement in virtue should begin with Roman elites improving their characters, deepening their commitment to social stability, and subordinating private desires to both of those things. The populace would follow suit, and Roman virtue would solidify from top to bottom.
Washington imbibed these practical and philosophical ideals as a child. He was tutored privately, and given a heavy reading load typical of privately educated landed children.
The second major influence on Washington’s political thinking was British liberalism, a rising political philosophy in the 18th century that stressed constitutionalism — the belief that government officials, especially leaders and monarchs were bound to an agreed-upon set of rules and principles. He read the works of John Locke and other early liberals while Britain itself was struggling with the overreach of regal power by George II and George III. In fact, Washington was becoming a young politician in the Virginia House of Burgesses while this was happening in the 1760s.
Washington’s early political education was followed quickly by political crises that challenged, and also deepened, young George’s liberal constitutionalism. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that Washington rejected the idea of a monarchy for the new American nation. He worried about “entangling alliances” with foreign powers that would limit the ability of the United States to act in concert with these principles.
Finally, Washington’s religious beliefs were held very strongly, as was his belief that private faith was to remain private. His belief in the political virtue of religious pluralism, however, came from the biblical Protestant Christianity that he practiced. Washington’s Christianity allowed for the inclusion of other religions in the liberal constitutional government he’d grown up to believe could create the best possible society.
What makes Washington’s beliefs about religion and society so interesting is that they don’t fit into either of the attitudes toward religion and politics that Americans argue about nowadays. The first of these ideas is accommodationism, the belief that people of different faiths should be given or allowed special concerns or privileges related to their religion. The second idea is complete separatism, the belief that government should stay completely out of religious affairs.
Washington’s beliefs about the relations between politics and religion were more subtle than that. All Americans would be allowed the fullest measure of liberty that the constitution would allow. If necessary, government would use its powers to protect that liberty or enforce its extension to previously excluded groups.