The Bible was the most accessible and influential book in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. George Washington, like most gentlemen of his time and social standing, was acquainted with it, specifically the King James Bible, and he liberally seasoned his discourse with biblical phrases and allusions. Washington’s papers contain hundreds of biblical quotations, figures of speech, idioms, proverbs, and allusions. No literary text is referenced more frequently in his writings.
Washington, by most accounts, was a pious man but not a religious enthusiast who would have been expected to read and invoke the Bible more than other public figures of his day. The frequent references to the Bible in the discourse of Washington and his compatriots reveals little about their religious affinities and affiliations because the Bible was a familiar source in the rhetoric of religious adherents and skeptics alike. Moreover, biblical language so permeated the vernacular of the age that those who used it may not always have been conscious of the fact that a popular phrase or image had biblical origins. Washington rarely used quotation marks or citations when quoting from the Bible, perhaps suggesting that quotation marks and citations were unnecessary to identify the source of words so familiar to a biblically literate population.
Like many republicans of the founding era, Washington thought religion was indispensable to cultivating the civic virtues essential to maintain social and political order in a regime of republican self-government. He expressed a commonplace notion of the era when he famously stated in the Farewell Address (1796): "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports."1
The Washington Family Bible
Washington treated the Bible with respect and reverence in his writings. Writing in hisJune 1783 Circular to the States--in anticipation of resigning as commander in chief of the Continental Army--Washington asserted that the foundation of the American "Empire" was laid at a near-perfect moment in human history, not in some "gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition." It was an "Epocha," he claimed, when "the rights of mankind," "researches of the human mind," knowledge about forms of government, "free cultivation of Letters," "extension of Commerce," and "liberality of sentiment" were more extensive and expansive "than at any former period," "and above all," he continued, "the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society."2 Significantly, he identified the "light of Revelation" – by which he meant the Bible – as the most important factor contributing to the remarkable confluence producing the American nation.
Washington routinely incorporated familiar biblical idioms into his working vocabulary, including: "forbidden fruit" (Genesis 3),3 “fat of the land" (Genesis 45:18),4 "seven times seven years" (Leviticus 25:8),5 "thorn in our side" (Numbers 33:55; Judges 2:3),6 "first fruit" (Deuteronomy 26:2),7 "sleep with my Fathers" (Deuteronomy 31:16; 2 Samuel 7:12; 1 Kings 1:21),8 "neither sleep nor slumber" (Psalm 121:4; Isaiah 5:27),9 "all the days of your life" (Psalm 23:6),10 "like sheep, to the Slaughter" (Psalm 44:22; Acts 8:32; Romans 8:36),11 "engraved on every man's heart" (see Jeremiah 17:1; Romans 2:15),12 "seperating [sic] the Wheat from the Tares" (Matthew 13:25ff),13 "a millstone hung to your neck" (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2);14 "wars and rumors of wars" (Matthew 24:6; Mark 13:7),15 "good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21, 23),16 and "take up my bed and walk." (Mark 2:9; John 5:8-12).17
Other biblical references abounded in Washington's writings, including "widow's mite" (Mark 12:42; Luke 21:2-3),18 "the scales are ready to drop from the eyes" (Acts 9:18),19 and "Throne of Grace" (Hebrews 4:16).20 A sentence in a 1785 letter Washington wrote to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette is replete with biblical expressions: ". . . I wish to see the sons and daughters of the world in Peace and busily employed in the more agreeable amusement of fulfilling the first and great commandment [Matthew 22:38], Increase and Multiply [Genesis 1:22, 28; Leviticus 26:9]: as an encouragement to which we have opened the fertile plains of the Ohio to the poor, the needy [cf. Deuteronomy 15:11; Deuteronomy 24:14; Psalm 35:10] and the oppressed of the Earth; any one therefore who is heavy laden [Matthew 11:28], or who wants land to cultivate, may repair thither and abound, as in the Land of promise [promised land; cf. Exodus 12:25; Deuteronomy 9:28, 19:8], with milk and honey [a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures descriptive of the promised land’s bounty; see, e.g., Exodus 3:8, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13, 14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15, 27:3, 31:20; Joshua 5:6]: the ways are preparing, and the roads will be made easy [cf. Isaiah 40:3], thro' the channels of Potomac and James river."21
No biblical passage is referenced more frequently in Washington's voluminous papers than the ancient Hebrew blessing and prophetic vision of the New Jerusalem in which every man sits safely "under his vine and under his fig tree" (Micah 4:4; see also 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10; and 1 Maccabees 14:12). Washington invoked this image nearly four dozen times during the last half of his life. The image of reposing under one's own vine and fig tree vividly captures the agrarian ideals of simplicity, contentment, domestic tranquility, and self-sufficiency; it is also a metaphor for not only freedom from want and fear but also the right to private property and hospitality.22
Martha Washington's Bible
Washington also made frequent use of biblical proverbs and aphorisms. In a January 1782 Circular Letter, he invoked the Solomonic aphorism, "the race is not always to the swift, or the Battle to the strong" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).23 Again quoting the biblical sage, Washington informed his step grandson that "The wise man, you know, has told us (and a more useful lesson never was taught) that there is a time for all things." (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 17)24 In another missive, Washington not only borrowed the words of Solomon, but also the psalmist: "I have been occupied from the 'rising of the sun to the setting of the same,' [Psalm 113:3, 50:1; Malachi 1:11] and which as the wise man has said 'may be all vanity and vexation of spirit'" (Ecclesiastes 1:14, 2:11, 17, 26, 4:4, 16, 6:9).25
Washington even occasionally employed biblical language to communicate political principles or advice. In the final sentence of his 1783 Circular to the States, he paraphrased Micah 6:8 in expressing his desire that all citizens would do justice, love mercy, and humbly imitate "the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion" for the political purpose that America should become a "happy Nation."26
Biblical phrases, figures of speech, idioms, proverbs, and allusions were a familiar feature of eighteenth-century American rhetoric. Effective communicators, especially politicians and polemicists, adeptly used this language to reach their biblically literate audiences. The Bible figured prominently in Washington’s papers, revealing his intimate knowledge of both this text and the audience with whom he was communicating.
Daniel L. Dreisbach, D.Phil., J.D.
Professor, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology
Daniel L. Dreisbach, "The Bible in the Political Rhetoric of the American Founding," Politics and Religion 4, no. 3 (2011): 401-27.
Daniel L. Dreisbach, "The 'Vine and Fig Tree' in George Washington's Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era," Anglican and Episcopal History 76, no. 3 (September 2007): 299-326.
Jeffry H. Morrison, The Political Philosophy of George Washington (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
1. George Washington, "Farewell Address, 19 September 1796," in The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 37 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-1940), 35:229 [hereinafter WGW].
7. "GW to Brigadier General Thomas Nelson, Junior, 8 February 1778," in WGW, 10:433; "GW to Daniel Bowers, 28 May 1779," in WGW, 15:176; "GW to Barbe Marbois, 9 July 1783," in WGW, 27:56; "GW to Richard Sprigg, 28 June 1786," in WGW, 28:471.
9. For the biblical phrase “neither sleep nor slumber” or some variation thereof, see "GW to John Augustine Washington, 6 June [-6 July] 1799," in WGW, 19:136; "GW to Henry Knox, 26 December 1786," in WGW, 29:124; "GW to John Sullivan, 4 February 1781," in WGW, 21:181; "GW to Benjamin Harrison, 5-7 May 1779," in WGW, 15:6; "GW to John Augustine Washington, 12 May 1779," in WGW, 15:59; "GW to James Warren, 31 March 1779," in WGW 14:313; "GW to Benjamin Harrison, 18[-30] December 1778," in WGW, 13:466.
20. "GW to the German Lutherans of Philadelphia, April 1789," in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W.W. Abbot et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 2:180 [hereinafter PGW].
22. See Daniel L. Dreisbach, "'The ‘Vine and Fig Tree' in George Washington's Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era," Anglican and Episcopal History 76, no. 3 (September 2007): 299-326.
24. "GW to George Washington Parke Custis, 19 March 1798," in WGW, 36:187. See also "GW to George Washington Parke Custis, 13 June 1798," in WGW, 36:288; "GW to Howell Lewis, 3 November 1793," in WGW, 33:148.
26. GW, "Circular to the States, 8 June 1783," in WGW, 26:496. See also Daniel L. Dreisbach, "Micah 6:8 in the Literature of the American Founding Era: A Note on Religion and Rhetoric," Rhetoric and Public Affairs 12 no. 1 (2009): 93-4.