Washington: Hero or Villain?

Ours is an historically illiterate age—despite our technological advances.

Just in time for Presidents’ Day 2020 (which honors George Washington) comes a new book and a three-part TV mini-series on the History Channel, which apparently questions many aspects of the moral character of Washington.

The Daily Mail in the UK (2/15/20) writes: “George Washington was a ‘liar’ who the other Founding Fathers couldn’t wait to see the back of, claims a new biography on The Father of his Country.”

The article continues, “Buying teeth from his slaves at a third of the market price, refusing to free them, and causing conflict that eventually led to the start of ‘humanity’s first world war’ are among the many ethical and moral missteps the country’s first president made, claims new book You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by historian Alexis Coe.”

Coe serve as a “consulting producer” on the new series.

This slant does seem to fit the pattern of some of the recent deconstructive volumes and movies that attack American history and Christian biography. George Washington was a hero in American history for the first two centuries. But now the history books are being rewritten. And his flaws, true and alleged, are blown out of proportion—without the wider backdrop of Washington’s many sacrifices for his country.

Fourteen years ago, I had the privilege to co-author with Dr. Peter Lillback a 1200-page biography of George Washington that focused on his religion. Lillback is the president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and the book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire. The book documents the copious evidence that Washington was a devout 18th century Anglican and all that that entails.

It is certainly true that a mythology has arisen over Washington, who has been called “The Marble Man.” This mythology has cast him as a virtually sinless man. But there’s no one without sin—no, not one—except Jesus.

Despite the myths about Washington, the overall service he rendered to his country, and the overall character that he displayed through many difficult circumstances, caused many of his contemporaries to highly venerate him.

During his funeral at Christ Episcopal Church (Washington’s adopted church for the last decade of his life), Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee III spoke: “To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”

There is no doubt the young Washington made some mistakes when he began his career in the wilderness in western Pennsylvania at the outset of the French and Indian War. But through it all, he was spared in miraculous ways to fight for another day. And he thanked God for sparing him.

Later, when he was serving as our fledgling nation’s first commander-in-chief, Washington even declined to take a salary. He sacrificed a great deal in service of the new nation.

In his day and in succeeding generations, George Washington was praised by critics and friends alike. In 1782, during a time of chaos, some of his soldiers wanted George Washington to become king of America, and they were willing to back him. But on Christian principle, he declined.

Despite the falseness of some of the “hagiography” that arose over George Washington, the fact is that he was universally viewed as a hero, including by those who knew him.

Patrick Henry, the first governor of Virginia (as a state), said, “[I]f you speak of solid information and sound judgment, Washington is unquestionably the greatest man of them all.”

Thomas Jefferson remarked on Washington, “His integrity was the most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known . . . no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision.”

George Bancroft, former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, was America’s first great historian and the author of a multi-volume series on our nation’s story, which he revised through the years. His final version (1888) was in six volumes and is difficult to read today, but well worth the time.

Bancroft said of Washington, “[H]is qualities were so faultlessly proportioned that the whole people rather claimed him as its choicest representative, the most complete expression of all its attainments and aspirations…. he used power solely for the public good; that he was the life and moderator and stay of the most momentous revolution in human affairs.”

Call me skeptical, but the new book and series sound suspicious because they apparently highlight the first president’s foibles and negatives without highlighting the positives.

Ted Baehr, publisher of MOVIEGUIDE, comments about this: “This is blatant revisionism, and selective impeachment of a great man. The best refutation is that George always deferred to Congress, and retired after two terms when he could have become a tyrant.”

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