Sunday, January 31, 2010

George Washington's Enlightenment Rationalism

George Washington's letter To REVEREND JOHN LATHROP, June 22, 1788, illustrates his self proclaimed Enlightenment rationalism. Rev. Lathrop, a purported unitarian, gave a discourse to the Humane Society of Massachusetts. Washington thanked Lathrop for sending him some kind of publication that related thereto. In what follows, I emphasized terms relevant to the thesis of this post:

Reverend and respected Sir: Your very acceptable favour of the 16th. of May, covering a recent publication of the proceedings of the Humane Society, 6 have, within a few days past, been put into my hands. I observe, with singular satisfaction, the cases in which your benevolent Institution has been instrumental in recalling some of our Fellow creatures (as it were) from beyond the gates of Eternity, and has given occasion for the hearts of parents and friends to leap for joy. The provision made for the preservation of ship-wrecked Mariners is also highly estimable in the view of every philanthropic mind and greatly consolatory to that suffering part of the Community. These things will draw upon you the blessings of those, who were nigh to perish. These works of charity and good-will towards men reflect, in my estimation, great lustre upon the authors and presage an �ra of still father improvements. How pitiful, in the eye of reason and religion, is that false ambition which desolates the world with fire and sword for the purposes of conquest and fame; when compared to the milder virtues of making our neighbours and our fellow men as happy as their frail conditions and perishable natures will permit them to be !

I am happy to find that the proposed general government meets with your approbation as indeed it does with that of the most disinterested and discerning men. The Convention of this State is now in session, and I cannot but hope from all the accounts I receive that the Constitution will be adopted by it; though not without considerable opposition. I trust, however, that the commendable example exhibited by the minority in your State will not be without its salutary influence in this. In truth it appears to me that (should the proposed government be generally and harmoniously adopted) it will be a new phenomenon in the political and moral world; and an astonishing victory gained by enlightened reason over brutal force. I have the honor &c. 7

The enlightened rationalistic creed of George Washington was theistic-Providential; it could present itself as "Christianity" or merely "religion"; but it was seemingly more "man centered" or humanistic than orthodox Christianity, especially Calvinism.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Just because Washington used the word "enlightened" and spoke approvingly of reason over brute force is no reason to create him as a creature of the Enlightenment, and any attempt to present him as such is as unsupportable a reach as making him an orthodox Christian.

There were very few "national" figures at that time, but like all of them, Washington wisely kept himself at arm's length from allying himself with any doctrine. His personal sensibilities seem to be more Greco-Roman than anything, with a particular affection for the Stoics; as president, the public Washington went to church often, and if you consult his diary from that time, even twice in one day!

Jonathan Rowe said...


What is it about "Enlightenment" that is such a bad word to you? I tried to explain in the brief commentary the context for this understanding of "Enlightenment," and I think GW's letter explains the context of the type of Enlightenment under which he falls.

Further in a past post I explained that concepts of "Enlightenment" and "Christianity" both broadly understood, are not mutually exclusive.

I'm working on a follow up, btw. I just found something really cool on the Humane Society that he addressed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

and I think GW's letter explains the context of the type of Enlightenment under which he falls.

And I think you're trying to slide this "theistic rationalist" business under the radar again. There's no evidence Washington did much "rationalizing" on doctrine one way or the other.

Washington seems closer to Cato and Cicero than he does to Locke, Hume and Voltaire, and again, the public Washington could easily be perceived as Christian by a largely Christian nation, just the perception he wanted to create.

Brian Tubbs said...

There's an implied association here between Calvinism and "orthodox Christianity." There are quite a few Christians (who are 100% in agreement with the Nicene Creed) that disagree with the doctrine of election as articulated by Calvin and his followers.

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This has been one way that makes me feel that i am a person and i am thinking rationally.