George Washington (1732)
It was on this date, February 22, 1732, that George Washington, the first U.S. President, was born into an agrarian Virginia family. He was educated in Virginia and worked as a surveyor before entering the military. He was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in 1754, and at 22 years old he soon saw service in the French and Indian Wars. He left the military in 1759 to tend his Shenandoah Valley lands while serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Already chafing under the British yoke, in 1775, Washington was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress, then assembled in Philadelphia.
If we discount the "life" penned by religious charlatan Mason Weems, which should have been called The Lie of Washington (1800), the first semi-competent biography, by Jared Sparks (one-time president of Harvard), suffers from the hagiographic view presented by a churchman. Sparks took a flawed man and morphed him into a tower of marble.
Nowhere in Washington's extant writings — and many have been lost, either through careless handling or deliberate destruction — does Washington make direct reference to Jesus Christ, as has been discussed elsewhere. The closest he ever came, according to exhaustive research by Sparks (in 12 volumes), are two indirect references. When Washington was 13, he wrote in a copy book,
Assist me, Muse divine, to sing the morn,
On which the Savior of mankind was born.
The only other reference to the Galilean is in a 1783 letter to state governors, pleading with them to pay soldiers in spite of a financial exigency of the time, in which Washington references, "the Divine Author of our blessed religion." The reference is spurious and may be a forgery: Rupert Hughes reproduces the last page of the letter, proving that it is not in the handwriting of Washington. It was added by a secretary who took down Washington's ideas and polished them by his own lights.
Well, then, how did Washington address God as his end neared? He died on 14 December 1799 at age 67. Two days earlier, Washington had caught what modern physicians conjecture was a streptococcal infection of the throat, probably aggravated by the primitive palliative of "bleeding," and died of a combination of shock, blood loss, asphyxia and dehydration. Washington knew the end was near, but sent for no priest. Instead, he reluctantly sent for physicians. It seems certain that his family and friends would have suggested clerical attendance, so Washington must have refused. Otherwise, if his wishes were well known, they would not have suggested it.
As he felt his life slipping away on the evening of the 14th, Washington asked all to leave the room so that he might "spend his last hour with his Maker." Those tempted to make more of this request are reminded that no one disputes that Washington was a Deist.
Thomas Jefferson, who notes in his own diary that Washington rather cagily avoided giving his opinion on Christianity, even when provided the opportunity to do so, quotes a friend's recollection of Washington thus:
I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in the system [Christianity] than he did.
Theodore Parker calls Washington "more moral than pious" and, to be fair, it should be mentioned that Washington was never hostile to religion. Indeed, he was one of the first American politicians to favor religious pluralism. In 1790 he wrote that he envisioned America as a country "which gives bigotry no sanction... persecution no assistance.... May the Children of the Stock of Abraham [i.e., the Jews], who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
 To those who would argue that those writings which clearly identified Washington as a Christian might have been the very ones lost, I ask that you consider this: those wishing to portray Washington as a Christian (as opposed to a believer in God, which no one disputes) must acknowledge that pro-Christian writings would be unlikely to cause Washington political or social trouble in life. Only those writings of the opposite nature are likely to have been suppressed, or "lost."  Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 12 vols.; Boston, 1833-37, p. 519.  Franklin Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, 1936. The copy book was for copying lines from elsewhere, rather than for original composition. The chapter on Washington from Steiner's book can be found at this link.  Rupert Hughes, George Washington: Savior of the States, 1777-1781, 1930, (vol. 3 of a series), p. 290. The complete series is: George Washington: The Human Being and the Hero, 1926 (covering 1732-1762); George Washington: The Rebel and the Patriot, 1927 (covering 1762 to 1777); and George Washington: Savior of the States, 1777-1781, 1930.  Entry of 1 February 1800, a few weeks after Washington's death:
Dr. Rush [a physician] tells me that he had it from Asa Green [a Presbyterian minister and former Congressional chaplain] that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article in their address particularly except that which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory address to the governors of the States when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.
A first-person, eyewitness account of Washington's death (abridged) can be found at the EyeWitness to History website: "The Death of George Washington, 1799."  Ibid., quoted in Steiner.  Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson's grandson), Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 4 vols., 1829, IV, p. 512, quoted in Steiner.
Originally published February 2004 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833) It was on this date, August 11, 1833, that the most eloquent advocate of Freethought, Robert Green Ingersoll, was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a Congregationalist minister. In Peoria, Illinois, he trained in the law before enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War, where he was […]