The Founders of America were men who saw God working in human affairs to bless or to punish, depending upon whether people behaved righteously or otherwise. Many times they spoke and wrote of Divine Providence intervening on behalf of the Colonies in their struggle for independence. Their view was derived from the Bible — the experiences of the Hebrews coming out of Egypt, the prophets of the Old Testament trying to correct erring Israel, and, of course, the teaching of Jesus Christ. All sources pointed toward the presence of God in our lives, and his favor for those whose thoughts and actions honored him by aligning with his will.
That is why the signers of the Declaration of Independence appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world” in declaring their political stance.
That is why the Great Seal of the United States, designed by the Continental Congress, shows the Eye of Providence watching over the unfinished 13-tier pyramid symbolizing America.
That is why the Great Seal proclaims Annuit Coeptis, “He [God] favors our undertaking.”
That is why Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, described the Eye of Providence as alluding to “the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.”
That is why Patrick Henry, in his speech declaring “give me liberty or give me death,” said, “There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations.”
That is why Samuel Adams, in his August 1776 oration on American Independence, said, “The hand of Heaven seems to have led us on to be, perhaps, humble instruments and means in the great Providential dispensation which is completing.”
That is why Benjamin Franklin declared at the Constitutional Convention, “I have lived, sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
That is why the father of the Constitution, James Madison, said of its creation in The Federalist, No. 37, “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”
The hand of God was notably evident in the life of the father of our country. George Washington was indispensable to the American Revolution and to the first years of our fledgling Republic. Instance after instance was attested to by him and others of what they recognized as divine intervention to protect him for a purpose: the creation of a new nation and a godly society. For example, in a letter to his wife, Martha, written after the Continental Congress selected him to lead the Continental Army, he said, “I shall rely, therefore, confidently on that Providence which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you.” Throughout his extensive military career, Washington was never wounded in battle.
Thomas Jefferson, who knew Washington intimately, described him with these words:
He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.
George Washington should be much better known to Americans today than just the fanciful, apocryphal stories about him chopping down a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. His portrait no longer hangs in American schoolrooms; schoolchildren no longer celebrate his birthday with classroom ceremonies. They don’t learn of him as a role model for the conduct of their lives. Yet his character and courage demonstrate human goodness and greatness at their finest.
Photo credit: Library of Congress
This article appears in the June 17, 2019, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.
Like all people, he had flaws, notably a hot temper. Yet even his enemy, King George III, called him “the greatest man in the world” when he learned that Washington had voluntarily given up power after the American War for Independence. (King George realized Washington could have been crowned king of our new nation by popular acclaim.) After the war, Washington’s officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati to honor their fellowship with him. They named their organization after the Roman general who was recalled from civilian life to lead the defense of Rome and who, after achieving victory, could have been proclaimed permanent dictator of Rome but instead chose to return to his farm and the life of an ordinary citizen of the republic. Washington is a hero for the ages and a figure whose life should be studied, especially by young people, for that very reason. America, if it is to survive, needs citizens who understand and respect that.
However, according to James C. Rees, former executive director of Mount Vernon, a recent survey of college seniors showed that only 34 percent could identify George Washington as the commanding general of the American forces at Yorktown — the battle that assured America’s independence. He writes:
How sad for these young Americans that they don’t know about the Father of Our Country’s inspirational leadership or appreciate the heroic sacrifices made for their freedom by his soldiers shivering in the winter cold at Valley Forge.
What kind of citizens do you think they will make?
Here are some vivid instances of Divine Providence at work in the life of George Washington, a man, if ever there was one, chosen by God and raised up to lead his country as an example to all the world.
In 1755, at the age of 23, George Washington, acting as a volunteer aide-de-camp, left Williamsburg with an expedition of 1,000 British regulars and 300 Virginia militiamen commanded by General Edward Braddock. Their mission: to expel the French encroaching on the western lands claimed by England. Their target: Fort Duquesne, at the fork of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, near present-day Pittsburgh.
Washington’s mother, concerned for his safety, tried to dissuade him. Washington replied, “The God to whom you commended me, madam, when I set out upon a more perilous errand, defended me from all harm, and I trust He will do so now.” (The “perilous errand” was a military venture against the French on the western frontier the previous year in which he and his men were defeated but allowed to return home.)
The army set out in late spring with its artillery; 150 wagons of provisions and equipment, pulled by four horses each; about 260 pack and saddle horses; cattle for slaughtering as food along the way, and three companies of Virginia militiamen. An advance party of several hundred soldiers and axmen cut a 12-foot-wide path through the wilderness for the army to follow. The army itself stretched out in a thin column nearly four miles long.
Braddock was unfamiliar with the style of warfare used by the Indian allies of the French. Washington warned him of Indian ambushes, but the haughty British general ignored the warning, feeling certain his experienced troops would be more than a match for a bunch of savages.
By July, Braddock was within a few miles of Fort Duquesne. The French, aware of his presence via reports from Indian allies, set a trap. The number of French and Indian warriors was less than half that of the British, but the ambush would give them victory. They chose a ravine in which to attack the British from cover of trees and rocks. As Braddock’s troops entered the narrow opening, their concealed enemy commenced firing. Gun smoke came from the trees, but not a man was seen by the British, who were totally surprised by the guerrilla warfare.
Unable to do more than return feeble fire at the invisible enemy, the advance party retreated in utter confusion. Braddock, farther back, hurried toward the sound of battle. He busied himself in forming his men into ranks and, unable to think past European battle tactics where men advanced upon other men across open fields in precise formations, ordered his men not to hide behind trees. Their bright red coats made perfect targets. French and Indian musket balls dropped the British by the hundreds.
The pandemonium lasted two hours. Braddock had five horses shot from under him and finally was shot in the right side and sank to the ground. He had been a special target, along with all his other mounted officers. The army was practically annihilated. More than 700 British soldiers were killed or wounded. The Colonials accounted for another 300 dead. The French and Indians had only 30 wounded, none killed. Braddock was taken from the field and died three days later.
What was Washington doing in all this slaughter? At first, being the only unwounded aide of Braddock, he rode over every part of the battlefield, carrying the general’s orders to subordinates. According to religious historian David Barton in his 1990 book The Bulletproof George Washington, one survivor who saw Washington undaunted in the midst of battle later reported, “I expected every moment to see him fall. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him.”
Upon Braddock’s fall, everything was abandoned to the enemy. The regular troops fled in confusion; the battle became a rout. Braddock had placed the Virginia militia in the rear because of his contempt for them as soldiers. Scarcely 30 were left alive. Washington organized them to defend the fleeing British. But the abandoned booty on the battlefield was more appealing to the Indians than taking still more scalps. They did not pursue the survivors, who returned to Williamsburg.
Washington later wrote of the battle and matter-of-factly said about himself: “By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence I have been protected beyond all human probability of expectations, for I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!”
Fifteen years later, Washington learned who had fired at him. While traveling with a friend in the western territories, a band of Indians approached them, led by an old, respected Indian chief. The chief had heard of Washington’s presence in the area. A council fire was kindled and, through an interpreter, he addressed Washington about the battle at Fort Duquesne, where he had fought. Barton quotes an old account of the chief’s speech:
It was on the day when the white man’s blood mixed with the streams of our forest that I first beheld this chief [Washington]. I called to my young men and said, mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red-coat tribe — he hath an Indian’s wisdom, and his warriors fight as we do — himself is alone exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he dies. Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, knew not how to miss — ’twas all in vain; a power mightier far than we shielded you. Seeing you were under the special guardianship of the Great Spirit, we immediately ceased to fire at you.... Listen! The Great Spirit protects that man [pointing at Washington], and guides his destinies — he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire. I am come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven and who can never die in battle.
Barton notes that this incident was well known in the early days of our Republic and was confirmed by dozens of historical texts. Indians testified afterward that they had specifically singled out Washington and repeatedly shot at him, but without effect. Mary Draper Ingels, who was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians in 1755, escaped and wrote an account of her experience. Included was an incident in which French and Indians met in council after the battle of Fort Duquesne and talked animatedly about Washington, whom Ingels knew. She listened carefully and later asked questions. The Frenchmen told of a chief named Red Hawk, who had shot at Washington 11 times without killing him. At that point, because he had never missed before, Red Hawk stopped firing at him, being convinced that the Great Spirit protected Washington. Reverend Samuel Davies, who later became president of Princeton University, praised Washington in a sermon and noted his remarkable escape from numerous perils.
In September 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine, outside Philadelphia, Washington again escaped certain death because of circumstances that defy conventional thinking. A few days before he engaged the British, Washington and an aide rode out of camp to scout the terrain. During this reconnoitering in the vicinity of Chadd’s Ford on the Brandywine River, Washington encountered an English soldier named Patrick Ferguson — a man who might have single-handedly won the war for Britain.
British Army infantry officer Captain Patrick Ferguson was the designer and patent holder of the Ferguson rifle. His breech-loading flintlock rifle was far superior to the Brown Bess, the standard-issue weapon for British infantry. The Brown Bess was a muzzleloader; its most rapid rate of fire, in the hands of an experienced shooter, was four rounds per minute. Its accuracy was good to about 80 yards. By contrast, the Ferguson rifle could fire six rounds per minute and was accurate up to 300 yards. It weighed about half as much as a Brown Bess.
In the summer of 1776, Ferguson demonstrated his rifle’s capabilities to the British senior generals and King George III. He proved that his gun could fire rapidly in rain or high wind or during an advance. A sharpshooter, he shot bull’s-eyes at 300 yards while standing and at 100 yards while lying on his back. The shooting exhibition so impressed the king that Ferguson’s rifle was adopted as the British army’s first breech-loading firearm. Ferguson was sent to North America with orders for Sir William Howe, commander-in-chief of the British forces, to establish a Sharp Shooters Corps — snipers — headed by Ferguson.
The corps had 100 men, all with Ferguson rifles. Ferguson, with the most advanced rifle on Earth and the most experience and skill with it, was therefore the best and most dangerous marksman in the entire British army.
On September 7, 1777, Ferguson and three of his Sharp Shooters went out to scout the American lines. Washington was likewise scouting. When Ferguson got a glimpse of two horsemen approaching in the distance, he instructed his men to hide in the bushes. Ferguson later wrote, “We had not lain long when a rebel officer passed within a hundred yards of my right flank.” The officer was riding a huge bay horse, wearing the traditional blue and buff uniform of an American general officer and had on “a remarkably large cocked hat.” Ferguson noted that the officer was of “exceptional distinction.”
Washington was roughly six feet three inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds. The typical Continental Army soldier was almost eight inches shorter. So size alone was an indication that the officer was Washington; his uniform and hat added to the identification of the man whom Ferguson knew was in the area. Furthermore, printed likenesses of Washington were publicly posted by admirers. But by Ferguson’s own admission, he did not recognize Washington! Only days later, when he was in a field hospital for a wound in his right arm, did he learn who the man was.
At the time of the encounter, Ferguson’s first thought was to shoot down the two riders, so he ordered his men to “steal near to them and fire at them.” Then he changed his mind and rescinded the order because his first impulse was, he later wrote, “disgusting.” He was a man of honor; shooting down enemy officers in cold blood was regarded as dishonorable. He stepped out from concealment and ordered the first rider, Washington’s aide, to get down. The aide shouted an alarm. Ferguson decided to take Washington prisoner.
I advanced from the woods towards him. He stopped, but after looking at me, proceeded. I again drew his attention and made signs for him to stop, but he proceeded on his way.
Washington turned his horse, and the two officers rode off, apparently without a sense of great danger because they were, after all, at what they knew to be the limits of a Brown Bess and were on horseback, while Ferguson and his men were on foot. Their retreat was deliberate, not frantic. Had they only known.
Ferguson recounted what happened next:
As I was with the distance, at which in the quickest firing, I could have lodged a half dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, and so I let him alone.
Would Ferguson have fired if he knew his easy target was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, whose death would quickly lead the American forces to ruin? It is a matter for debate. A 19th-century historian, Lyman Draper, observed:
Had Washington fallen, it is difficult to calculate its probable effect upon the result of the struggle of the American people. How slight, oftentimes, are the incidents which, in the course of human events, seem to give direction to the most momentous concerns of the human race. This singular impulse of Ferguson illustrates, in a forcible manner, the over-ruling hand of Providence in directing the operation of a man’s mind when he himself is least aware of it.
The Battle of Brandywine was the only battle in which Ferguson rifles were used in America. While Ferguson recuperated from his arm wound, his unit was disbanded and his rifles replaced with Brown Bess muskets. Over the ensuing years Ferguson was promoted to major, then lieutenant colonel. In the Battle of Kings Mountain, 1780, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ferguson was killed while fighting gallantly.
The Battle of Brooklyn demonstrates “providential intervention” to an extraordinary degree. In late August 1776, Washington’s 9,000 soldiers on Long Island had been outfought and hemmed in at Brooklyn, with their backs to the East River, by General William Howe’s 34,000 troops. Defeat and capture of Washington’s soldiers seemed imminent. If that happened, the war would be lost.
Washington had to retreat. There was no choice, so he gave the order. But to cross the river, he had to get hundreds of boats, which he didn’t have, and favorable weather conditions. Moreover, the British, with dozens of ships, could sail up the river to block escape. The American army was trapped and a disaster was in the making.
On August 29, bad weather — and bad judgment — kept General Howe from advancing his troops across the mile and a half of open terrain separating the two lines. A violent storm broke out. Howe decided to put off the attack until morning. The storm brought a northeast wind so strong that the British ships could not sail upriver. That was a mixed blessing for the Americans because, while it deterred the British ships, it also made the river so rough that small boats, heavily laden with soldiers, could not cross the mile-wide river.
One of Washington’s generals in Manhattan commandeered sufficient small boats for the retreat, but the weather prevented their use. About 11 o’clock, according to David McCullough in 1776, “as if by design, the northeast wind died down. Then the wind shifted to the southwest and a small armada of boats ... started over the river from New York.”
All night long the army retreated across the East River, boatload by boatload, aided by darkness and the deception that Washington ordered: leave campfires burning to give the appearance of our troops remaining in place. But with daylight, the deception would be exposed! And the river was open to British ships. McCullough tells us:
Incredibly, yet again, circumstance — fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often — intervened.
Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night.
The fog was so thick that one man could scarcely see another six yards away. Yet even with the sun up, McCullough notes, the fog remained as dense as ever, while on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all. The “heavens” assisted the American cause. The entire army escaped without a single loss of life. When the British attacked that morning, the first redcoats to reach the river saw only the fog and heard only the oars of boats taking the last soldiers across. By 7 a.m., Washington and his army were safe in New York with their horses, field artillery, baggage, and equipment. It was a miracle on the order of the Hebrews, pursued by Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea.
Miraculous weather played a role in the end of the war, as well as the beginning. At Yorktown in 1781, the tables were turned. The British were encircled with their backs to the York River. Washington’s American troops and Rochambeau’s French troops were tightening the noose around Lord Charles Cornwallis and his redcoats.
Like Washington at Brooklyn, Cornwallis sought to escape by boat to the farther shore rather than surrender. At 10 p.m. on October 16, he began sending his troops by boat across the river. However, he later reported to commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton:
With the utmost secrecy the light infantry, greater part of the guards, and part of the Twenty-third regiment landed at Gloucester; but at this critical moment, the weather, from being moderate and calm, changed to a most violent storm of wind and rain, and drove all of the boats ... down the river.
Cornwallis was nearly out of gunpowder and “could not fire a single gun,” he told Clinton. “I therefore proposed to capitulate.” On October 17, he sent a message to Washington proposing that terms of surrender be agreed upon. Washington accepted, and they were written up the next day. On October 19, 1781, the Articles of Surrender were signed. Cornwallis’ men, numbering nearly 8,000, marched onto the field of surrender between two rows of soldiers, Americans on one side, French on the other, and laid down their arms under Washington’s gaze. Cornwallis himself was not present. He was, his second-in-command reported, too ill to attend.
After the surrender, Washington sent the prisoners of war to prison camps in Virginia and Maryland, beyond the reach of the British forces remaining in America. He also issued the following order:
Divine service is to be performed to-morrow in the several brigades and divisions. The Commander-in-chief earnestly recommends that the troops, not on duty, should universally attend, with that seriousness of deportment and gratitude of heart which the recognition of such reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence demand of us.
When Lord North, the British prime minister, heard the news of Yorktown, he cried, “Oh God! It is all over.” There were continued hostilities for a short time — but nothing significant — until the news of Cornwallis’ surrender reached the rest of the British forces. Although the British army remained armed and ready for more fighting, the British government forbade further offensive movements and began peace negotiations. However, it would be another two years before the Treaty of Paris formalized the cessation of hostilities and restored peaceful relations between Great Britain and its newly independent American offspring.
Washington commented later, “It will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this country could be baffled in the plan of subjugating it, by numbers infinitely less, composed of men oftentimes half starved, always in rags, without pay, and experiencing every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.”
Washington’s Prayer for the United States of America
In September 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, marking the official termination of America’s War for Independence. In June of that year, when it was clear that the treaty was near completion, Washington wrote a letter at his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, to mark his upcoming resignation as head of the Continental Army and sent it to the governors of all the states. (It became known as his “circular letter” because it was intended to circulate.) Before commenting on a number of issues facing the nation, he mentioned “the glorious events which Heaven has been pleased to produce in our favor.” He ended his letter with a statement that clearly summarized his attitude toward God, Jesus Christ, and the role of religion in American society. He wrote:
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field; and, finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion and, without a humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.
The Death of Washington
When Washington died, the country mourned. His friend General Henry Lee eulogized him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” John Adams likewise praised him: “Washington’s example is complete; and it will teach wisdom and virtue to Magistrates, Citizens, and Men, not only in the present age, but in future generations.” Even Napoleon, deep in exile years later, commented in tribute that the citizens of France “expected me to be another Washington ” — i.e., to willingly give up power. Decades later, Abraham Lincoln added his praise: “Washington is the mightiest name on earth.... To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.”
Washington is deservedly a national icon. It is appropriate that the rotunda of our nation’s Capitol has a fresco entitled The Apotheosis of Washington. It shows Washington ascending to heaven in glory, surrounded by figures symbolizing ideals such as liberty and victory. (Apotheosis means, literally, raising a person to the rank of a god, or the glorification of a person as an ideal.) It is likewise appropriate that in 1976, America’s bicentennial year, Congress awarded George Washington the five-star rank of General of the Armies of the United States. Previously there had been a handful of officers who had attained five-star rank (as General of the Army, General of the Air Force, and Fleet Admiral), but Washington was elevated to the highest rank possible and given unique status for his role in the founding of America. In America’s military, no one can ever outrank George Washington. His name is enshrined as the name of our nation’s capital city and in hundreds of other places such as towns, streets, schools, colleges, monuments, mountains, and a state. May it also be enshrined in our hearts.
Photo credit: Library of Congress