George Washington was a revolutionary founding father. He served as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army through eight years of war, turned down the opportunity of becoming sovereign of the newly-formed United States, established the precedent for future presidents, and voluntarily stepped down from office after two terms. Though it took many men to conceive and found the United States of America, Washington is the poster child of the revolution and the spirit of 1776. Washington embodies the basic American spirit, so it is no wonder why both the North and South staked a claim on the “Father of our Country” as civil war loomed.
In times of devastating war, people often turn to something that gives them hope and strength to justify their cause to fight. During the American Civil War people looked to the heroes of the American Revolution because it was the “apex of heroism” that bestowed liberty onto the American people. Soldiers of the Civil War were sons and grandsons of the Revolutionaries who shared admiration in their beloved leader, George Washington, with their descendants. As a result, Washington’s lasting legacy forced him to campaign long after he took his dying breath.
Abraham Lincoln used Washington as a guide and mentor. Lincoln, above all, wanted to preserve the Union, and he made this his number one priority throughout the war. Lincoln’s objective is the one that aligns the most with what Washington would have wanted if he were alive during the 1860s. Northerners, Glenn W. LaFantasie wrote, saw themselves as “saviors of the future.” They wanted to preserve the government that was “baptized in the blood of the Revolution,” as Representative John Sherman of Ohio put it in 1860. However, the South had interpreted an entirely different image of Washington during the “War of Northern Aggression.”
On February 22, 1862, Washington’s 130th birthday, Jefferson Davis’ second inauguration as President of the Confederate States went underway. In his address, Davis announced that the Confederacy would “perpetuate the principles of our Revolutionary fathers,” and that they were to “renew such sacrifices as our fathers made to the holy cause of constitutional liberty.” The Southern people saw themselves as “saviors of the past” because they considered themselves virtuous like the revolutionaries (Washington in particular). LaFantasie states, “They feared corruption, political parties, disharmony, a strong national government (especially in the executive branch), and democracy.” Southerners loved Washington. He was a Virginian, first and foremost in their eyes, and a slave owner, and he lead an army that defeated a “tyrannical power.” The Confederacy was fighting a “second American Revolution,” as William F.B. Vodrey phrased it in an article for the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, and they were convinced Washington would have backed them up.
It’s all fine and dandy that the Southerners put Washington on the official seal of the Confederacy with the words “Deo Vindice” or “God Vindicates,” even though God did not really vindicate it because a human being made the seal. They also declared Davis and General Robert E. Lee as “second Washingtons,” but Washington did not share the same views as these Confederate leaders. Washington would have especially disagreed with the Southern argument of states’ rights. In fact, it might have even infuriated him. Washington was, above all, a citizen of the United States, not a citizen of Virginia. In his last will and testament he described himself as “a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same.” Not a Virginian, not a Southerner, but an American. He was a staunch believer in the idea that loyalty to one’s country should trump one’s devotion to his or her state.
Another issue in which Washington’s views differed from the South’s is the topic of slavery. Yes, he owned slaves, more than 250! It’s a bit of an oxymoron to call someone a “benign slaveholder,” claims Vodrey. However, in a letter to a friend in September of 1786 Washington admitted, “I never mean . . . to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” To dig an even deeper grave for the Southerners’ stance on Washington’s view on slavery, Washington “soberly” confided in his English friend Edmund Randolph after the revolution that “if the South were ever to try to divide the nation over the issue of slavery, he would ‘move and be of the Northern’ part” of the country.
All that the Confederacy lived and breathed for was the exact opposite of everything that Washington represented. He fought eight long years to establish the United States of America and would not stand for anything that could ruin that unity. He was “firmly, indeed unshakably, for the Union,” according to Vodrey. Washington as a defender of the Confederacy is yet another tale created by the Lost Cause that is undeniably a myth. However, though the Southerners’ justifications as to why Washington would have supported them are wrong, it is easy to recognize why they held him with such reverence. For both the North and South, the “Father of our Country” symbolized “all that was virtuous and heroic” of the American spirit.
Kaminski, John P. “The Master and His Slaves.” In The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of their Contemporaries. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
Kennedy, Roger G. “The Presence of Washington.” In Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
LaFantasie, Glenn W. “Conceived in Liberty.” American History, December, 2014.
Vodrey, William F.B. “George Washington: Hero of the Confederacy?” The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. Last modified 2007. Accessed October 29, 2015.
Washington, George. “Washington, George (1732-1799) to John Francis Mercer.” Letter, September 9, 1786. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed November 10, 2015.