Every Fourth of July, we celebrate Independence Day, because on that fateful day in 1776 the Continental Congress agreed to — and signed — the Declaration of Independence. But the father of our country didn’t read it that day. He had to wait until July 9, when he read the document in front of City Hall in the Big Apple.
General George Washington is remembered for many things. His story has become a legend, and some of the legends are historically dubious. The well-known incident with the cherry tree, for instance, likely never happened. The crossing of the Delaware, however, very much did. A national hero par excellence, his shadow looms large over our country, and still inspires great deeds of national service.
Despite a great familiarity with Washington’s life, most of us still need reminding about some important aspects of it. One of our first president’s defining moments is often forgotten, though it is arguably the centerpiece of his tapestry of civic virtue. But before we get to that, there are two other major facts about Washington that are often overlooked.
1. He owned a whiskey distillery.
— Visit Alexandria VA (@AlexandriaVA) March 31, 2016
This may not seem like a big deal, but stern and stately George Washington enjoyed a good strong drink. He enjoyed it so much, he owned his own whiskey distillery, and you can still try some at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.
Washington looms large as the father of our country, and he took virtue very seriously. But he also knew the virtues of alcohol, and the high demand for it, in the early days of our republic.
Our first president only began producing rye whiskey and brandy for sale in 1798, the year before his death. Mount Vernon produced more alcohol than any other distillery on the East Coast at the time — 11,000 gallons of alcohol a year in 1798 and 1799, with only eight men (two paid, and six enslaved)! The distillery fell into disrepair after Washington’s death, but was reopened in 2007 and sells whiskey today.
Next Page: Contrary to popular belief, Washington was not a deist — he was a leader in a Christian church!
2. Washington was a deeply religious man, not a deist, and even a leader in his church.
There is debate about the sincerity of George Washington’s Christian beliefs, but he was in no true sense a deist, as is widely claimed. Deism is a belief that a God created the universe but does not himself actively engage in the affairs of men and women. The first president appealed to “God” and “Providence” in ways that suggested a divine hand in history and propelling America forward.
George Washington is said to never have taken communion, and this is one reason many doubt he was a true Christian believer. Nevertheless, he served as a vestryman and a church warden, two positions that required he swear he would not speak or act in any way that did not conform to the tenets of the Church.
As an Anglican who attends the Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia, a church at which Washington himself served as vestryman in 1762, I know the liturgy of that church tradition, and every Sunday we say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. These creeds openly declare that Jesus Christ is God, that He died and rose again, and that His death and resurrection save all believers.
If Washington indeed recited these creeds — and it is extremely likely he would have been required to do so, to serve as vestryman — he could not be considered anything less than a Christian believer.
In any case, the first president commended himself and his nation to Providence (showing a belief in a God who intervenes in human affairs, and hence that Washington was no deist), and was an leader in his church. His personal faith is a matter between himself and God, but it is certain he was a deeply religious man.
Next Page: Washington’s greatest moment — how he could have become a military dictator, but didn’t.
3. George Washington could have become America’s dictator, but he turned it down.
History can be remarkably symbolic at times. On March 15, 1783, in Newburg, Pennsylvania, General George Washington was asked by the army to lead a military coup, overthrow Congress, and become ruler of the United States by force. This same date — the Ides of March — is historically famous because it was the date that Julius Caesar was to be crowned Dictator for Life (the Roman Senate ended up stabbing him to death instead).
On Washington’s Ides of March, the American general not only declined to lead an army to overthrow Congress, he rebuked the leaders who suggested such a thing and reportedly moved the Continental Army to tears.
The troops had a legitimate complaint. After years of fighting the British — and having already won the war — they had not been paid by Congress for their efforts. Nevertheless, Washington asked his troops whether they were willing to “sully the glory” they had won on the battlefield and surrender the liberty they had won in the war.
He urged the army to trust in him and urged them to uphold the elected representatives of the republic, allowing them time to solve the problem, rather than opening the “floodgates of civil discontent.”
In a moving moment at the end, he reportedly pulled out a letter to read the troops, but needed his eyeglasses to read the text. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind,” the imposing commander declared.
This so moved the audience that many officers wept, remembering Washington’s struggles alongside them. The next day, they passed a unanimous resolution commending General Washington for his devotion. The mutiny was over, and Washington wrote letters to Congress, eventually winning his officers five years of full pay for their service.
Washington is known as the “American Cincinnatus,” because he gave up the power he could have possessed. This is commemorated in the U.S. Capitol with a painting of Washington surrendering his military commission to Congress, but no event in his life so emphasizes the power this great leader could have had, and his voluntary surrender of it, than that at Newburg on the Ides of March.
Washington passed the test that Caesar failed, and we owe our freedom to this great act of sacrifice.