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George Washington

The man, the myth, the legend.

12:00 AM, Feb 22, 2010 • By JOSEPH C. SMITH JR. and TARA ROSS
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All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. 

Many historians have been inexplicably reluctant to credit Washington for the content of this letter, wondering whether he was really the author.  They instead speculate that Tobias Lear (Washington’s personal secretary), Col. David Humphreys, or even Jefferson should be recognized as the intellect behind the words. 

Washington’s busy schedule doubtless caused him to rely upon several aides for help when drafting his public correspondence. But it is equally certain that Washington personally “dominated his correspondence,” as described by John C. Fitzpatrick, editor of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission collection of Washington’s writings. Washington gave great thought to the issues of his time, and it is impossible to imagine him endorsing any statement that did not truly and accurately express his own views. 

Washington was thus more than the “doer” that history sometimes makes him out to be. He was also a “thinker” who spent a great deal of time considering the issues of his day and carefully setting precedents. Indeed, as even Adams and Jefferson ultimately acknowledged, Washington’s Farewell Address was one of the “best guides” for understanding the “distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States.” 

Washington’s birthday is a good time to recall that his wisdom and his example deserve more attention. 

Tara Ross & Joseph C. Smith Jr. are the authors of Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State.

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