As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States, George Washington played an indispensable role in achieving American independence and safeguarding the infant republic. Risking his reputation, wealth, and life, he commanded an undermanned and poorly supplied army to a victory over the world's leading economic and military power. As president, he kept the new nation from crashing on the shoals of anarchy, monarchy, or revolution.

But he longed to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. In September 1796 he published his "Farewell Address" in a Philadelphia newspaper to make clear he would not consider a third term and to offer his prescription for how best to preserve the fragile republic. To prevent their nation from unraveling or being conquered by England, France, or Spain (which still laid claim to land in North America), he warned, Americans must avoid political factions and entangling alliances.

Moreover, the nascent republic could flourish only if it were grounded on religion and morality. These were the "indispensable supports" of "political prosperity" and human happiness. "Virtue or morality," he maintained, "is a necessary spring of popular government."

Under the Constitution framed in Philadelphia in 1787, Americans had embarked on what Thomas Jefferson labeled "the fair experiment": Was freedom of religion "compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws"? The First Amendment mandated that the United States could not establish a national church. Could such a nation endure? If the government did not provide financial and political support for Christianity, as had been done in the West since ...

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