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Washington's Religion and Moral Beliefs

Picture of General Washington praying for his men at Valley Forge

       General Washington prays for his men at Valley Forge

George Washington is often commended as a man of character. He had a sterling reputation for his integrity, honor, and dedication to his country. After he died, many stories were told to demonstrate his character, even as a child. The famous story about George and the cherry tree, for example, was most likely invented by the biographer, Mason Locke Weems. Although the story is fictitious and we do not know whether or not George was always honest as a child, the story demonstrates the honesty and character that people who encountered Washington later in life observed. George's mother had much to do with his sense of morality and his religious beliefs. Mary Bell Washington spent the evenings reading the Bible to her children and spent time teaching George and his siblings the difference between right and wrong. Washington credited his success in life to his mothers teaching: "My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her." Many others who wrote about Washington after his death, whether in eulogies or biographies, praised his wisdom, courage, dignity, and good judgement.

Throughout his life, George Washington considered morality, honesty, and good character to be of the utmost importance. He refused to give into temptation and kept both the standards of his time and his own standards very diligently. He said, "I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man." In all areas of his life, Washington aimed to keep his morals and please God. However, in one area, he seemed to ignore his conscience and moral beliefs. George Washington’s ownership of slaves has been a highly controversial issue. Washington considered slavery to be wrong, but he was not willing to free the hundreds of slaves that he owned during his life time. One reason may have been because it would be very expensive to replace all of the slaves who worked on his plantation with paid servants. Despite this, he articulated, "I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery." Washington did eventually free his slaves. In his will, he wrote that his slaves should be freed upon his wife’s death.

a quote by George Washington

Washington’s sense of morality was grounded in the Bible and his belief in God. While leading the American army during the Revolutionary War, Washington demanded that his men act with integrity, morality, and honesty. He wanted his men to be more than good soldiers and stated, "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." During the course of the war, Washington’s character helped sustain his troops. General Washington also hoped and trusted "that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country."

After the American colonies gained their independence from England, Washington realized that it was God who had granted our freedom and did not want anyone to forget or deny that the hand of God had guided their steps. George Washington declared, "I am sure that never was a people, who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them." Contrary to other victorious generals before him, Washington did not ask for or expect any kind of political or financial reward for his service. Instead he led the army out of a sense of duty.

Washington’s moral character was most likely a contributing factor in his election as his first president of the new country. Washington believed that the government should depend on God and seek His will and realized that, "Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government." Perhaps the greatest evidence of Washington’s character was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American Army and later, his refusal to serve a third term as president. In both these cases he relinquished all his power, something that was unprecedented. Washington realized that if any one man took too much power, the Americans could easily lose the freedom they had just won.