In presidential election years, many Americans find themselves reflecting upon the lives and thoughts of previous presidents as they consider the type of person they want in the Oval Office. Some presidents inevitably loom larger than others—perhaps none more so than the position’s first occupant.
Among George Washington’s many contributions to America was his consciousness that everything he did as president would establish precedents that, to varying degrees, would bind his successors. Even more significant were the principles Washington brought to the office. Given Washington’s unique prestige, he was well positioned to invest the Republic’s political life in a particular constitutional morality: that is, the moral and philosophical dispositions that, for better or worse, shape a society’s political culture.
For those who believe that America has wandered far from the core beliefs shaping the Founding, exploration of Washington’s views on these matters confirms their fears. Yet the same inquiry also reminds us of the resources to which Americans can look if they ever choose to begin a process of renewal.
A Letter to All Americans
Discussions of Washington’s constitutional morality usually focus on his 1796 Farewell Address. This offered broad advice concerning America’s approach to generic matters, such as trade and credit, as well as defenses of specific administration policies. More generally, however, the Farewell Address is regarded as a statement of American republicanism. It reflects the influence of classical writers, the emphases of commercial society, and what Washington called “religion” and “religious principle.”
But to grasp more clearly what Washington had in mind, it’s worth examining a lesser-read text. Though written to state governors, the intended audience of Washington’s June 1783 Circular Letter to the States was clearly all Americans. Like the Farewell Address, it contains recommendations such as the need for a strong union of states. Yet the letter’s third paragraph also succinctly outlines the constitutional morality that Washington thought should inform what he didn’t hesitate to call “the Nation” of the United States:
The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.
Washington never claimed to be a philosopher; he was not as well-educated as founders like John Witherspoon or Charles Carroll. Yet in these 167 words, Washington identified a distinct set of ideas that he thought should shape what he and others called an “Empire of Liberty”—classical republicanism, eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and “above all” Revelation.
Greeks, Romans, and Americans
It’s difficult to underestimate just how much Washington and other Founders looked to the “Philosophers, Sages, and Legislatures” for guidance. Many modeled themselves on Greco-Roman figures, used classical rhetoric, and studied Roman law closely. They were also inspired by Greco-Roman sources when stating the Republic’s philosophical foundations. In an 1825 letter to Henry Lee, for instance, Thomas Jefferson didn’t hesitate to denote Aristotle and Cicero as two sources for the Declaration of Independence’s accent on the pursuit of human happiness.
In his own reflections, Washington often appealed to antiquity. Like many Greek and Roman philosophers, he insisted that political leaders prioritize the public interest, or what Aristotle called the good of the polis, over private concerns. In the eighteenth century, the blurring of public and private interest encouraged by mercantilism and colonialism meant that the need for such distinctions wasn’t obvious to everyone in high office. During the Revolutionary War, Washington disapprovingly observed just how many people put private gain before “the essential rights and liberties of the present generation, and of Millions yet unborn.” By contrast, as that sharp-eyed observer, Abigail Adams, wrote after Washington’s death, “Possesst of power, possesst of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benefit of his country.”
Washington’s thoughts on these matters were also influenced by Greco-Roman concepts of morality, especially the virtuous man portrayed in his copy of Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract. Seneca emphasized the importance of subordinating our passions to reason. “In all Causes of Passion,” Washington wrote in his Rules of Civility, “admit Reason to Govern.” Drawing on Seneca almost verbatim in his First Inaugural Address, Washington insisted: “There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage.”
The prevalence of civic virtue among politicians and citizens doesn’t of course guarantee society’s liberty. Nonetheless, Washington clearly doubted whether a republic awash in vice could endure.
A Type of Enlightenment
Enlightenment thought was part of the air breathed by the Revolutionary generation. Whether it is the Circular Letter’s references to the “rights of mankind,” “the free cultivation of Letters,” “the unbounded extension of Commerce,” “the progressive refinement of Manners,” or the “growing liberality of sentiment,” this is the language of the eighteenth century.
There was, however, more than one Enlightenment. Washington’s phraseology points toward that of eighteenth-century Britain rather than the world of Rousseau and Voltaire. Rousseau’s negative views of commerce are a matter of record, while Voltaire’s satirical polemics were the polar opposite of good manners. Conversely, Washington’s Circular Letter is reminiscent of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. In fact, Smith’s Wealth of Nations was one of the few books in Washington’s library in which he penned a note in his own hand.
Washington’s emphasis on liberty under law is a motif that permeates the eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenments and distinguished them from continental Enlightenment admirers of enlightened absolutism. This concept of freedom manifests itself in themes such as consent as the only legitimate foundation for political authority, happiness as the purpose of government, and the state’s responsibility to protect natural rights.
In this regard, John Locke’s thought clearly influenced Washington. In a 1788 letter to Jefferson, for example, Washington stressed that “by giving security to property, and liberty to its holders,” America would attract “the wealth, and wealthy men of other Nations.” That’s a classic Lockean approach to political economy, one later restated by Burke and Smith. At the same time, the language of the “rights of mankind,” “natural rights,” “natural justice,” and “law of nations” employed by Washington reflects the natural law tradition that preceded Locke, especially, in the case of eighteenth-century American colonists, modern Protestant natural law scholars such as Hugo Grotius.
A Revealed God
It’s not, however, Enlightenment thought to which Washington's Circular Letter attributes the highest place in America’s political culture. This is accorded to “above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation.”
Much ink has been spilled on Washington’s precise religious beliefs. Some regard Washington’s religious habits and language as typical of Virginia Anglicans of his time. Others see him as somewhat deistic. Yet the word “Revelation”—especially when capitalized—in Washington’s Circular Letter took its readers beyond a Supreme Watchmaker.
“Revelation” is an act or a series of acts that makes known truths that humans would otherwise have difficulty fully knowing. Given the context, Washington is surely referring to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The language of Revelation also indicates that Washington didn’t regard religion as a mere tool for domesticating simple people. Revelation, after all, brings light to our minds, causing us to look beyond utility when making free choices, including political decisions.
This doesn’t mean that Washington believed America was or should be a “Christian nation.” In Washington’s God, Michael Novak and Jana Novak observe that the God who most comes to mind when reading Washington’s statements about religion is the God of the Hebrew Prophets. This is a being whose ways are often inscrutable and mysterious, but who is working through human history to bring about great things and who “alone,” as Washington reminded Benedict Arnold in a 1775 letter, “is the Judge of men’s hearts.” Such words weren’t used by deists—they characteristically described God as one who simply sets the world in motion and sustains its existence.
Washington’s way of underscoring Revelation’s significance allowed him to stress religion’s importance for American public life in a manner that not only transcended the divisions among Protestants in an overwhelmingly Protestant nation but also included two small groups then distrusted by many Protestant Americans. Among the remarkable features of the two letters written by Washington in 1790 to Jews and Catholics is how phraseology such as “father of all mercies,” “Divine Providence,” “natural rights,” “liberal policy,” “liberality,” “the cultivation of manners, morals and piety,” “free government,” and “good government” echoes the sources referenced by the Circular Letter.
Still Washington’s Republic?
Tensions certainly existed among the three influences identified by Washington as undergirding the republic. Classical republicanism traditionally highlighted virtues associated with rural life and tended to disdain the commercial order extolled by most English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Even during Washington’s first administration, Jefferson’s agrarian ideals clashed with Alexander Hamilton’s stress on industry and finance.
For all these differences, it’s sobering to compare the influences recognized in Washington’s Circular Letter with the philosophical convictions of prominent public figures today. In President Obama’s case, we surely have an acolyte of John Rawls in the White House. The gap between Rawlsian liberalism on the one hand, and classical republicanism, English and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and Revelation’s “benign light” on the other, is vast. Concerns central to one or more of these sources—civic virtue, transcendental truths, natural rights grounded in natural law, commerce, etc.—don’t feature prominently in the Rawlsian lexicon. The passion of Rawlsians is for justice understood as a leveling egalitarianism. As for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, identifying any set of principles they would bring to the presidency is challenging.
Washington’s constitutional morality reminds us that alternatives to the current state of affairs exist. Indeed, in the last line from the Circular Letter extract cited above, Washington warned that a citizenry that abandoned the specific confluence of ideas in which America was born would only have itself to blame for the subsequent loss of freedom and happiness. Considering American politics today and the choices facing Americans in November, it’s hard to dispute the wisdom of Washington’s insight.
That, however, only strengthens the argument that returning to the sources identified by the father of his country isn’t anachronistic. It’s indispensable for the republic’s future.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. His most recent book is For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance can serve the Common Good (Crossroad, 2016).