"Under their vine and fig tree" is a phrase quoted in the Hebrew Scriptures in three different places: Micah 4:4, 1 Kings 4:25, and Zechariah 3:10.1 George Washington used this phrase multiple times in correspondence throughout his life, and one can find Washington reference it almost fifty times.2 Of the three passages, it is most likely that he was citing Micah 4:4 in his writings.3 The section states: "but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…."4
The phrase refers to the independence of the peasant farmer who is freed from military oppression.5 In the biblical passage there is a juxtaposition of the simple life with that of royalty or the state.6 Thus, it would seem that Washington's use of "vine and fig tree" in its full context would be an appropriate message in the setting of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States.
In addition, Washington's references to "vine and fig tree" are often connected to his fondness for Mount Vernon, his own, personal vine and fig tree. For example, the phrase is utilized in reference to Mount Vernon in Washington's letter to Doctor James Anderson in 1797.7 The phrase was, however, utilized in differing contexts during the time period. For example, the phrase "vine and fig tree" was even connected to tolerance of immigration to America. A reference to this effect can be found in a 1787 issue of the New-York Journal, alluding to the idea of the oppressed of other nations having a place to go for refuge.8
Washington and Family at Mount Vernon
The phrase is also notably found in a well-known letter that Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. In the letter, Washington proclaimed, "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."9 The usage enforces the notion that it was Micah 4:4 that Washington referenced, as he added "none to make him afraid" at the end of the sentence.10 This particular usage of "vine and fig tree" was important due to the fact that Washington was quoting the Hebrew Scriptures to a Hebrew congregation, re-enforcing his ecumenical leanings.
George Tsakiridis, Ph.D.
Instructor in Philosophy and Religion
South Dakota State University
1. 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, 301.
Boller, Paul F. "George Washington and Religious Liberty." The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 17, no. 4 (October 1960): 486-506.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.