The Father of Our Country

The eclectic national Presidents Day, homogenizes our veneration of the man General “Lighthorse Harry” Lee eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  It also neglects Abraham Lincoln, who with the Father of Our Country made a pair unmatched for virtue and genius appropriate to their tasks in the annals of any nation.

Both had cause to treat with Catholics who, in Washington’s time, were an exotic minority and who were only beginning their ascendancy in the years of Lincoln.  In the frigid trials of Valley Forge, Washington had to explain to many of the ignorant among his troops that the Guy Fawkes celebrations were unworthy of the cause of the nascent nation. He banned the distraction on November 5, 1775 by an Order in Quarters:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope – He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of commons sense, so not so see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are soliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause.. The defence of the general Liberty of America. At such a juncture, and in such Circumstance, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

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General Washington was pragmatic, of course, and not inspired by any theology higher than the sort instinctive to a gentleman who knows that he is creature accountable to a Creator.  Relations with British North America, that is, Canada, had their twists and turns.  The following year, John Carroll, who would become  the first Catholic Bishop in the new United States of America, went to Quebec on behalf of the Continental Congress along with his cousin, Charles Carroll, Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a chief financer of the revolution, accompanied by Samuel  “Old Bacon Face” Chase and Benjamin Franklin in an unsuccessful attempt to start a rebellion by French Canadian Catholics.  It was a task entirely out of order for a man in Holy Orders, and the Bishop of Quebec, Jean-Oliveir Briand, promptly excommunicated him.   In 1784, the Propagation of the Faith, working through the the Nuncio to Versailles and Benjamin Franklin as the United State’s minister to Louis XVI, began to design a structure for the Catholic Church in the new nation “For the first time only, and by a special grace,” Pope Pius VI allowed the priests of the United States to elect their bishop, and 24 of the 26 electors chose Carroll in 1789, and he was consecrated the following year in England.  It would be anachronistic to call Carroll an Americanist, in the sense of the term used by Pope Leo XIII, but he had some opinions not  unaligned with that disposition.  Carroll wanted local election of bishops to become a regular custom, and delicately refused to publish Rome’s condemnations of Freemasonry, his own brother Daniel being a Mason as well as a Catholic.  As for the Liturgy,  he wrote in a letter of 1787:

Can there be anything more preposterous than an unknown tongue; and in this country either for want of books or inability to read, the great part of our congregations must be utterly ignorant of the meaning and sense of the publick office of the Church.  It may have been prudent, for aught I know, to impose a compliance in this matter with the insulting and reproachful demands of the first reformers; but to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy in the present state of things must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention in the first pastors of the national Church in not joining to solicit or indeed ordain this necessary alteration.

Bishop Carroll and General Washington were sympathetic in their common notions of deportment.  Carroll had been trained by Jesuits in French Flanders and, at the age of sixteen, Washington wrote his “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” which is often attributed to him, although he copied it out of the book of manners published by the Society of Jesus.  Carroll kept a slave, whom he freed in his will with a substantial monetary bequeathal.  During his episcopate, the Jesuits in Maryland owned some 400 slaves.  As for abolition, Carroll, with an eye to William Wilberforce,   proposed:

Since the great stir raised in England about Slavery, my Brethren being anxious to suppress censure, which some are always glad to affix to the priesthood, have begun some years ago, and are gradually proceeding to emancipate the old population on their estates. To proceed at once to make it a general measure, would not be either humanity toward the Individuals, nor doing justice to the trust, under which the estates have been transmitted and received.

In the next great national crisis,  Lincoln appeared to save what Washington had founded.  In contrast to John Carroll in the Revolution,  Archbishop Hughes of New York during the Civil War was far narrower in his embrace of perspectives not his own.  Born in County Tyrone and innocent of the background that had formed Carroll,  Hughes neglected and even scorned the interests of Catholic immigrants other than those he considered his own people. As for slavery, he toured southern plantations and praised their system. In 1854 he preached a violently pro-slavery sermon in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Hughes rallied his most  purple prose  to publish “The Abolition Views of Brownson Overthrown.”  His role in quelling the Draft Riots has been greatly inflated.  He was dying at the time, and it was only reluctantly, after repeated requests from Governor Horatio Seymour,  that he appealed to the mob from the window of his residence on Madison and 36th Street.  During his speech he  mocked abolitionists such as Horace Greeley as fanatical demagogues.  It was not his unhappy speech, but the arrival of the state militia that finally restored calm. Hughes  did pledge his undying loyalty to the Union in florid terms despite his repudiation of the Emancipation Proclamation.   As Washington had employed the diplomatic services of Carroll, so Lincoln called on Hughes to represent the Union’s interests on a diplomatic mission to Europe, where he met with the French Emperor whose sympathies were more toward the Confederacy, especially since he though the South would be useful to his plans for Mexico.  His raucous views on the “peculiar institution” of slavery were far removed from the gradualism of Carroll.  Lincoln spoke well of him,  but he refused when Hughes requested that the five thousand dollar expense budget allotted by the government for his European trip be raised to ten thousand for an extended time abroad.

For Lincoln, the model and mold of the presidency was Washington himself, though Lincoln’s religious attitudes were  more fungible, attaining a convincing ardor in his last years.  Washington’s Masonry was of the eclectic, if not syncretistic, sort typical of men with natures healthier and sentiments more temperate than the menacing anti-clericalists of Europe. He freely attended Catholic Mass during the Continental Congress and, upon becoming President, penned his famous letter to John and Charles Carroll,  in which he said:

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed. I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in American, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

In 1895, Pope Leo XIII addressed the bishop of the United States in his encyclical, :”Longinqua:”

“Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion. She, by her very nature, guards and defends all the principles on which duties are founded, and setting before us the motives most powerful to influence us, commands us to live virtuously and forbids us to transgress.”

That was about a century after the Father of our Country was buried at Mount Vernon, ten years before Leo was born.  But a contemporary of Washington, when told by the Pennsylvania-born painter Benjamin West that the General intended to lay down the powers of his office and return to his farm, said,  “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” The speaker, popularly known as “Farmer George” himself, was King George III.








  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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