JohGeor 05-8-150


The Founding Father



Paul Johnson

Atlas Books (HarperCollins), 2005, 125 pp., ISBN 0-06-075365-X


Paul Johnson, the celebrated historian, has written at least nine other significant historical books.  According to the author, George Washington is the best-documented figure in the entire eighteenth century.  I simply wanted to document Paul Johnson’s understanding of George Washington’s position on the First Amendment.


[Regarding the bill of rights] (The full text below is a direct quote.)


Its most important element concerns religion.  As Washington wished, religion figures only briefly in the Constitution itself.  But the First Amendment, again with his sanction, specifically rejects a national church and forbids Congress to make ‘any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’  This prohibition has been widely misunderstood in our own times and interpreted as a constitutional veto over anything religious taking place with federal approval or on federal property.  In fact it was nothing of the sort.  Such an interpretation would have angered Washington, who saw the provision as aimed at any attempt to erect a national church of any denomination.  He detested the feeble and ambiguous from of Protestantism represented by the Church of England, and the bigoted versions of New England.  He was by instinct a Deist rather than a Christian.  But he would have been incensed to have been called a non-Christian, let alone an anti-Christian.  All his codes of morals, order, and propriety were rooted in Christianity, which he saw as the greatest civilizing force the world had ever known.  He was a man of exceptional tolerance, and wrote of immigrants, whom he did not much esteem as a rule: ‘If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa or Europe.  They may be Mohamedans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.’  Buts uch new arrivals had to recognize that they were joining a community under God—or Providence or ‘the Great Ruler of Events,’ to use favorite expressions of his—and the paramount mode of worship of this God was Christian.  The notion that the First amendment would be twisted into an instrument to prohibit the traditional practices of Christianity would have horrified him.  He served for many years as a vestryman of his local Anglican-style church because he believed this to be a pointed guesture of solidarity with an institution he regarded as underpinning a civilized society.  An America without religion as the strongest voluntary source of morality was to him an impossibility.


It is significant that the day after the House of Representatives passed the First Amendment, on September 25, 1789, it also passed, by a two-to-one majority, a resolution calling for a day of national prayer and thanksgiving, and asked Washington to appoint the day.  The Resolution reads: ‘We acknowledge with grateful hearts the many signal favours of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peacefully to establish a constitutional government for their safety and happiness.’  Appointing the national holiday of Thanksgiving, Washington replied, in words equally significant: ‘It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His Will, to be grateful for His mercy, to implore His protection and favour... That great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that ever will be, that we may then unite in rendering unto Him an sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people.’  (pp. 102-104)