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Did George Washington Believe in God?

January 27, 2020 in History

By Natasha Frost

Religion was a topic America’s first president remained extremely cagey about.

George Washington’s writings have long served as a guide to America’s first president—what he thought, how he made his decisions, even how he felt about his wife.

But when it comes to his personal religious beliefs, Washington seems to have been a closed book—or, at least, unwilling to commit many of his own views to the page. Unlike many of his peers, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Washington never explicitly laid out his own beliefs—even as he alluded to them in passing on many occasions.

With so few actual accounts to draw from, historians are mostly limited to analyzing what Washington did, to try to understand what he may have believed. The trouble is, even his most straightforward actions can be hard to read and, at times, appear contradictory. The first president encouraged his fellow Americans to show up for worship, for instance, but sometimes struggled to make it to church himself for weeks at a time. For many years, he served as a dedicated vestryman and church warden, but left services instead of taking communion. And while he peppered his writings with references to Providence, there’s comparatively little mention of God or of Jesus Christ.

READ MORE: 5 Myths About George Washington, Debunked

The prayer at Valley Forge.

Did he believe in God?

Scholars and biographers have long puzzled over how to reconcile these inconsistencies. Some argue that he appears to have followed Deism, an 18th-century movement that placed human experience and rationality over religious dogma. Others have suggested he may even have been an atheist, drawing on accounts from Jefferson, who described him as not believing “of that system” of Christianity. Stories of Washington’s prayers, even as they exist, are often unreliable. Original sources for the famous tale of the first president “kneeling” in prayer at Valley Forge have been called into question; several historians have noted that Washington, when he prayed, always remained standing.

What is known is that Washington grew up in the Church of England, then Virginia’s state religion. The great-great grandson of an Anglican pastor, he was baptized as an infant and remained somewhat active in the Anglican church for the rest of his life. But it’s not clear whether he did so out of belief or out of necessity, since religious affiliation was a virtual requirement across many …read more


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How the Gilded Age's Top 1 Percent Thrived on Corruption

January 27, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Vast corporate wealth and a fee-based governance structure fueled widespread corruption during America’s Gilded Age.

As the United States grew into the world’s leading industrial power during the late 19th century, those atop the economic ladder in America’s Gilded Age accumulated spectacular fortunes. By 1890, the country’s 4,000 millionaires held 20 percent of the country’s wealth, and with that enormous affluence came colossal political corruption.

Corporate titans could buy anything they wanted—including politicians. Richard White, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, says the Gilded Age was among the most corrupt eras in American history primarily because of “the rise of corporations and the growth of modern means of communication that intensified the way corruption can work.”

“This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer,” former president Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary in 1886. “It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations and for the corporations.” Politicians took spectacularly handsome bribes from corporations and demanded kickbacks as the helping hand they extended often came with an open palm.

Editorial cartoon on railroad influence depicting a man with a steam train head making business deals in Congress, by Thomas Nast, 1880s.

Railroads Were at the Forefront of Political Corruption

Railroads propelled the expansion of the American economy as tracks expanded nearly fourfold between 1871 and 1900. The federal government helped finance these huge infrastructure projects by granting more than 150 million acres of land to railroad companies, which sold them to raise revenue. “Railroads need monopoly franchises and subsidies, and to get them, they are more than willing to bribe public officials,” White says. The Central Pacific Railroad, for example, spent $500,000 annually in thinly disguised bribes between 1875 and 1885.

In the most notorious instance of corruption connected to the railroads, Union Pacific Railroad executives formed a sham construction company, Crédit Mobilier, that submitted bills for nearly double the construction cost of the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad and pocketed the overcharges. To avert any investigation and ensure votes to benefit the company, railroad officials bribed approximately one dozen influential congressmen with Crédit Mobilier shares at below-market prices. Swept up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal was not just Ulysses S. Grant’s …read more


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George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "axis of evil"

January 27, 2020 in History

By Editors

On January 29, 2002, in his first State of the Union address since the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

Just over a year into his presidency and several months into a war which would eventually become the longest in American history, Bush identified the three countries as the major nodes of a wide-ranging and highly dangerous network of terrorists and other bad actors threatening the United States. The speech outlined the logic behind Bush’s “War on Terror,” a series of military engagements which would define U.S. foreign policy for the next two decades.

Bush speechwriter David Frum is credited with coining the term “axis of evil,” which was meant to evoke the Axis powers against which the United States and its allies fought in World War II. The Bush administration wanted to emphasize the outstanding threat posed by these three “terror states,” arguing that each was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, had invaded Iraq in 1990 after repelling the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait, but left Saddam Hussein in power.

After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration waited less than a month before invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban regime there. It was not long before Bush turned his attention to “regime change” in Iraq. Although there were no direct links between Iraq, Iran and North Korea—Iraq and Iran, in fact, were commonly understood to be geopolitical enemies—the concept of an “axis of evil” united in its desire to harm Americans proved useful to those making the case for a second invasion of Iraq.

READ MORE: A Timeline of the U.S.-Led War on Terror

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