American Oracles: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt

In 2014 there was an incident in Colorado that would jolt the sensibilities of many older Americans. At one school district, students organized to protest a proposal to increase in the curriculum a patriotic awareness of American history (a recent survey indicates 40% of the public could not name one of the five civil rights listed in the First Amendment). That incident was only one example of many that demonstrate a growing distrust of the American heritage among the young, and is just one of the many indicators that the Left has effectively worked in the public schools to dismiss not only the place of religion, but also the influence of religion on the founding of our civilization. A group called Young Atheists currently brags, “We can help strengthen atheism and weaken the religious establishments.” That can certainly be done by removing from the public memory the fact that freedom of religion is Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. Young citizens who are not proud of our American heritage, nor see the American way connected with its religious history, cannot be much counted upon in adulthood to defend or even die for their freedoms, most fundamental of which is the freedom to worship and not be persecuted for one’s beliefs.

Outside the classroom nowadays it has become fashionable for certain pundits on the Left, whenever the opportunity arises, to discredit the integrity of the American Founders and their illustrious successors. Washington and Jefferson are indicted as slave owners. Lincoln is falsely claimed by atheists as one of their own. Teddy “Big Stick” Roosevelt is libeled a war-monger. It is time to set the record straight for a generation of youth blindly led by so-called progressive educators who are set on defaming “dead white men” and erasing the religious heritage that under-girds a free republic. The main argument of revisionist historians and teachers is that the Founders and their successors really were not religious men guided by religious principles, and that the true inspiration for the American experiment originated in the minds of men who had little or no use for religion. Let us now look at the words of the Founders to see if this is true or false.

George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) was an Episcopalian. His presence at church services was not frequent, though he visited the various denominations, including Catholic churches. Jews and Catholics who fled persecution in foreign lands found in Washington a friendly protector. It was at least partly by Washington’s influence that the popular Yankee celebration of Pope’s Day (which allowed burning the effigy of the Pope) was banned forever as, in Washington’s words, a “ridiculous and childish” insult to American Catholics.

In public, Washington often referred to God as ‘Providence’, which led many to believe that he was a Deist, that is, one who believes in the existence of a Deity but denies that the Deity has personal traits, gleaned from phrases of his, such as: “A reasoning being would lose his reason, in attempting to account for the great phenomena of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to; and well it has been said, that if there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.” It is hotly debated whether Washington should be called a Deist, a Christian, or an amalgam of both. There are sufficient quotations from Washington’s pen to argue either way. Here are some that suggest Washington sounded, at least on some occasions, as much Christian as Deist:

“Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.” “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable.” “I now make it my earnest prayer that God would… most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion.” “While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.” “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

According to some sources, on his deathbed Washington converted to the Catholic Church. A Jesuit, Father Leonard Neale, was said to be in attendance alone with Washington on the day of his death, and one of his Baptist slaves reported that “Master George had been seduced by the scarlet woman of Rome.” Hard evidence for the conversion of Washington is not available, but if the rumors of conversion are true, it stands to reason that those surrounding Washington at the end, especially his fellow members of the Masonic Order, would have done whatever was necessary to conceal any such evidence from ever being made public.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) shared with Washington a dichotomy of views toward religion. At times he was distinctly Deist (he never belonged to any established church); at other times he strongly favored the Christian religion. When disposed to be a Deist he could say, as Thomas Aquinas more or less said in his fifth proof for the existence of God: “When we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and infinite power in every atom of its composition.” When inclined to think more like a Christian he could also say, while at the same time denying the divinity of Jesus: “To the corruption of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself; I am a Christian in the only sense he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others…. My opinion is that if nothing had been added to what flowed from his lips, the whole world would all this day be Christian.”

On the subject of war Jefferson thought much as a Christian ought to think. Those nations who react to injury by seeking to punish their neighbors may well end up by punishing themselves more. He recommended less painful devices for settling international grievances, like embargoes, or even bribery, which had proven successful with certain Indian tribes. One of Jefferson’s most insightful meditations on war shows that he was able to think well into the future: “Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of nations tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.” Was Jefferson unwittingly hinting at what came to pass: nuclear weapons?

When the articles of the proposed United States Constitution were being debated, it was Jefferson who urged the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. Jefferson was always concerned about the right of religious freedom which, along with the freedom of speech, was especially protected in the 1st Amendment. Little could he see into our own time how vital that protection would be as more and more the liberal secular institutions of the world have worked to undermine religious freedom. The secularists have often referred to Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between Church and State, as though he meant that religious principles were to have no influence on political institutions; in fact, the phrase he coined related only to the need to prohibit any one religious body being recognized as the official state religion, such as prevailed with the Church of England and other Church states of Europe.

A shrewd observer of human nature, Jefferson knew that tyrants “use a part of the people to keep the rest in order.” It would therefore be predictable that when governments ceased to be frugal and citizens were heavily taxed, the great wealth produced by taxation would be used to create “more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labors of the industrious … a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, … increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of its being a public blessing.” With Orwellian prescience, Jefferson noted the power of bureaucracy could become so great that the people would “have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet the chains on the necks of our fellow sufferers.” Our present bloated federal bureaucracy and national debt of well more than twenty trillion dollars makes Jefferson’s words ring truer than ever.

Approaching his final days Jefferson with typically prophetic insight foretold the coming of the civil strife between North and South and heaved a sigh of relief that he would not live to see the fiery ordeal which would test once again the resolve of Americans to live in freedom and dignity. Then, midway between the presidencies of Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, the great tempest raged and the lightning rod standing at its center was Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

The religion of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) is difficult to describe in great detail as he left only a few documented remarks on religious topics. Though he grew up in a Baptist family and seems to have read and taken to heart many passages from the Bible, apparently he was not a regular churchgoer in his youth. Something of a Deist in his earlier years, Lincoln did repudiate atheism. Like Jefferson, he seemed to think that the universal attraction of humans to the worship of God was proof that some Power was at work beyond our mere imagination. “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” Also, like Jefferson, Lincoln believed in the immortality of the soul. “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.”

As to the subject of morality and liberty, Lincoln was outspoken. “With some the word ‘liberty’ may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his liberty; while with others it may mean for some to do what they please with the product of other men’s labor…. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as the liberator, while the wolf denounces him, for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty.”

Though a great advocate of freedom philosophy, Lincoln at times was a staunch fatalist. He once told his friend William Herndon, “There are no accidents in my philosophy. Every effect must have its cause.” Eventually he recanted this opinion, only to see it resurface in a peculiar way through dreams that foretold actual events, including military triumphs at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg; not to mention, shortly before his assassination, the prophetic nightmare of people grieving near his coffin in the White House.

At one point early in his career, when he was running for congressional office, a rumour was spread that Lincoln was not at all religious and that he had been known to mock religion. His reply was scathing in its sincerity: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular… I do not think I could, myself, be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live…”

In his first inaugural address as President, Lincoln remarked: “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.” By the end of the Civil War, in his second inaugural speech with its heavily biblical overtones, Lincoln seems to have deepened his thoughts and feelings about why the war was even fought and what we might learn from the fighting. “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln must have sensed that the judgments would fall upon all, including himself. Theodore Roosevelt said of the presidency that it was a powerful office demanding a strong man willing to exercise awesome power. It may be said of Lincoln that no president before him or since has exercised such awesome power as the suspension of habeus corpus, the arrest of citizens critical of the military, the suppression of assemblies and the closing down of newspapers hostile to the conduct of the war. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was an act of dictatorship since, by Lincoln’s own admission, he had usurped the authority of the legislature to enact laws concerning property. He had much to account for, and it was symptomatic of his need to be accountable that he confided to his wife, shortly before his assassination, that upon retiring from the presidency he wanted to visit Jerusalem. That is, of course, the very place where one man long ago had accounted for the sins of all.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), a lifelong regular churchgoer, belonged in his youth to the Dutch Reformed Church and later to the Episcopalian Church. Because he was a practiced scholar like Jefferson, we have an abundant record of his views on a great many matters. Roosevelt liked to emphasize the collective power of religion in society as we can see from these remarks: “In the actual world a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid downgrade…Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he strays away from church, he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper.” Roosevelt’s beliefs were based on his view that if you were not God-fearing, you might consider yourself above the laws of man. After all, without God to decide the matter why should not one man’s vice be another man’s virtue?

Roosevelt’s literary style was mainly and memorably aphoristic, as these quotes demonstrate: “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to Society”. While Roosevelt wrote with great gusto as a rule, he could sometimes descend to angry insults, as when he referred to founding father Thomas Paine as “that filthy little atheist.” Actually, Paine was a Deist who followed Voltaire’s example by writing a pamphlet against atheism.

But Roosevelt could also be the soul of tolerance. When Howard Taft ran to succeed him as president, a constituent of Roosevelt wrote to inform him that Taft was unworthy of the office because of the number of his Catholic connections, to which Roosevelt replied: “To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to some particular Church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not avowed his allegiance to any Church, is an outrage against the liberty of conscience which is one of the foundations of American life.” Likewise, Roosevelt in his State of the Union address in 1904 castigated the Russian government for the persecution of Jews.

Applying the golden rule of Jesus to international relations, Roosevelt asserted, “Outside of our own borders we must treat other nations as we would wish to be treated in return, judging each in any given crisis as we ourselves ought to be judged.” From this it follows that Roosevelt, if true to his own principles, would not have ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan in fact had been well treated by Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Yet he was not so much the internationalist that he could not see America’s interests as first and foremost. “The man who loves other nations as much as his own is on a par with the man who loves other women as much as he does his own wife.”

The most famous line by Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” is used by his detractors to make Roosevelt out to be a flaming militarist. But Roosevelt’s advice, abandoned by the American government, made possible Hitler’s rise to power in Europe and caused Pearl Harbor to be a sitting-duck target for destruction. Since then, America has reversed direction and fully adopted Roosevelt’s wisdom, which is that readiness for war is the best test of a nation’s coming of age. For him the absolute pacifist is dangerous because he lives in a bubble of innocence. “If we ever grow to regard peace as a permanent condition; if we ever grow to feel that we can afford to let the keen, fearless, virile qualities of heart and mind and body be lost, then we will prepare the way for inevitable and shameful disaster in the future.”

We should note that whether he realized it or not, Roosevelt’s own views on war were consistent with the “just war” formulations of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps either of whom could have written the following words by Roosevelt: “When the Savior saw the money-changers in the temple he broke the peace by driving them out. At that moment peace could have been obtained readily enough by the simple process of keeping quiet in the presence of wrong. But instead of preserving peace at the expense of righteousness, the Savior armed himself with a scourge of cords and drove the money-changers from the temple. Righteousness is the end, and peace a means to the end, and sometimes it is not peace, but war, which is the proper means to achieve the end.”

Finally, in traditional Catholic theology we find listed the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The fourth gift is fortitude … or courage, backbone. This evidently was Roosevelt’s favorite virtue, judging by how often he praised it. “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that the highest form of success comes, not to the man who desires easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph…. Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Summing Up

It has been said often enough that we live in an era of “fake news”; not only fake news in the press, but as much in the classroom. We also live in an era in which it is considered fashionable by some to despise our national history. So it serves our interest and the interest of our children to be reminded that North America is still the last best hope on earth; it is still the land that people would flee to, rather than from. That greatness was built up by flawed (sometimes deeply flawed) men and women who knew that all things are possible, but not without the benevolent guidance and gift of a merciful God, without whom the center will not hold and all things, sooner or later, are bound to fall apart.



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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics