George Washington said something that many modern Americans would find nonsensical—and he did so not in some private document, but in perhaps the most public statement of his career, his Farewell Address published just prior to the end of his presidency.
He said the following:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. ... A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”
According to Washington, it was impossible for an American to claim they were a patriot if they “should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness,” namely religion and morality.
He provided two reasons for his claim. First: “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
Washington was referring to oaths taken by citizens took in courts of law, or when they assumed various public offices. Such oaths invoked God as a witness to the truthfulness of the claim being made, whether with respect to evidence and testimony, or the rectitude of one’s intentions in assuming public office. No testimony of any kind could be accepted in court without an oath, for if the witness or expert were lying, they were also calling God a liar, and thus ensuring they would be cursed in the afterlife—something unimaginable for the genuinely religious person.
An anecdote from “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville—a Frenchman who visited America in the 1830s—sheds some light:
“While I was in America, a witness attended a court in the county of Chester (state of New York) and declared his disbelief in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to accept his oath given that the witness had destroyed in advance any confidence in his testimony. Newspapers reported the fact without comment.”
Why would an American judge consider belief in God essential to an oath? For the same reasons cited by William Blackstone, the English jurist most often cited by the Founders:
“The belief of a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the moral attributes of the supreme being, and a firm persuasion that he superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life (all which are clearly revealed in the doctrines, and forcibly inculcated by the precepts, of our savior Christ) these are the grand foundation of all judicial oaths; which call God to witness the truth of those facts, which perhaps may be only known to him and the party attesting: all moral evidence therefore, all confidence in human veracity, must be weakened by irreligion, and overthrown by total infidelity.”
This was closely connected with the second reason Washington offered in his Farewell Address to support his position: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
As I have frequently observed, the Founders were among the best-read generations in history. Among the topics they were most familiar with was history, especially Greek and Roman history.
Greek historians like Polybius ascribed the rise of the Roman state to (among other reasons) the gravity with which they treated oaths (judicial and otherwise) as divine obligations. Roman statesmen like Cicero made the same observation centuries later. Such beliefs held the Roman state together, and reinforced the mutual confidence Romans had in one another.
Likewise, various ancient historians and statesmen ascribed the downfall of the Roman Republic to the decline in religious belief, and the concomitant unraveling of morality. Even in pre-Christian days, they considered religion and morality as indissolubly connected because of the reality of an afterlife of rewards and punishments for the actions in this life. You may elude man’s justice, but you could never elude God’s justice, and this serves as a powerful bridle on the worst of human passions.
Belief in God, and what the Founders often referred to as a “future state” in which he would dispense “rewards and punishments” for one’s conduct in life was the cornerstone of their beliefs on the necessity of religion to a free society—whether they were very religious (like Benjamin Rush) or less religious (like Thomas Jefferson). All of them were agreed on this point.
They would all say, with John Adams, some form of the following:
“Religion I hold to be essential to morals. I never read of an irreligious character in Greek or Roman history, nor in any other history, nor have I known one in life, who was not a rascal. Name one if you can, living or dead.”
Therefore, as Washington so bluntly asserted, subverting these great truths of religion and morality could never be compatible with patriotism.