Monday, February 20, 2006

In Honor of the Father of Our Country - His Excellency, George Washington

The calendar says "President's Day". But seriously, do we need a day to honor Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? No, the origins of this "holiday" lie in honoring the birthday of this Nation's greatest President and "indispensable man": the man without whom there would be no United States of America, George Washington.

Of course, George Washington's birthday isn't for another couple of days, 22 February, to be exact, but we celebrate the occasion on a Monday so that government workers can have a 3-day weekend.

Nevertheless and albeit 2 days early, in honor of the anniversary of this great man's birth, I offer the text of President Washington's "Letter to the Roman Catholics":
[March 15], 1790


While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.

I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.

The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

G. Washington
There is some speculation that George Washington converted to Roman Catholicism while on his deathbed:
From the Denver Register, May 11, 1952:

A picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of St. John were among the effects found in an inventory of the articles at Mount Vernon at the death of George Washington, first president of the U.S.A. The Rev. W.C. Repetti, S.J., archivist at Georgetown University, reports he has discovered this information in an appendix to a biography of Washington. The book is a Life of George Washington by Edward Everett, published by Sheldon & Co. in New York in 1860. "The fact that he had a picture of the Blessed Virgin is rather unexpected, and, to the best of my knowledge, has not been brought out," says Fr. Repetti.

The long report among slaves of Mount Vernon as to Washington's deathbed conversion would be odd unless based on truth. These were not Catholic Negroes; it is part of the tradition that weeping and wailing occurred in the quarters that Massa Washington had been snared by the Scarlet Woman of Rome, whom they had been taught to fear and hate. Supposedly, Father Neale was rowed across the Piscatawney by Negro oarsmen; and men often talked freely when slaves were nearby, confidently ignoring their presence.

From the Denver Register, February 24, 1957:

It was a long tradition among both the Maryland Province Jesuit Fathers and the Negro slaves of the Washington plantation and those of the surrounding area that the first President died a Catholic. These and other facts about George Washington are reported in the Paulist Information magazine by Doran Hurley.

The story is that Father Leonard Neale, S.J., was called to Mount Vernon from St. Mary's Mission across the Piscatawney River four hours before Washington's death. Washington's body servant, Juba, is authority for the fact that the General made the Sign of the Cross at meals. He may have learned this from his Catholic lieutenants, Stephen Moylan or John Fitzgerald. At Valley Forge, Washington forbade the burning in effigy of the Pontiff on "Pope's Day." Several times as President he is reported to have slipped into a Catholic church to hear Sunday Mass.


At 2/20/2006 12:24 PM, Blogger Fidei Defensor said...

Neat, I just did a paper and part of it involved the "Pope Day" effigy burnings of colonial times.

Washington was I believe a high church episcopalian (aka the closest in appearance to Catholics among the protestants).

It makes sense that a guy who made his name fighting the armies of the King of England (aka head of the Church of England) reliaze that a religion headed by King George III wasn't the greatest one around.

Washington did live close to Maryland which was the center of Catholic activity in the new nation. Also the American's relied on help from Catholic France and Spain to fight Protestant England and Hesse (where the mercinaries came from.)

This is like, Shakespere, and CS Lewis, no one can ever say for sure but we can say there is a decent chance that they died in the church.

At 2/24/2006 8:38 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

Michael Novak and his daughter just co-wrote a book on Washington's God - it'll be available in March. Here's a description:

Though historians have frequently identified George Washington as a deist rather than a Christian, the Novaks vigorously dispute this characterization. Through careful scrutiny of Washington's religious pronouncements, they establish that the master of Mount Vernon worshipped the God of scripture, not the absentee clockmaker of deism. Like other Christians of his time, Washington recognized the Deity as a living--albeit often inscrutable--influence in his personal life and in the fortunes of his country. Readers even revisit specific events (such as the improbable retreat from New York under cover of a life-saving fog) in which Washington detected the hand of the Almighty. To be sure, the Novaks acknowledge that Washington generally kept his Christian convictions private, but the language and conduct of this Anglican vestryman reflect marks of real devotion, not the mere shell of social conformity. Perhaps more important, we recognize the substance of religious faith informing a military career during which Washington insisted that soldiers attend the sermons of their Christian chaplains and a political career during which he repeatedly summoned the nation to prayers of reverent thanksgiving. Much-needed light on an enigmatic icon. -- Bryce Christensen


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