The "Vine and Fig Tree" in George Washington's Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era

Article excerpt

[I] wish you may possess health and spirits to enjoy, after we shall have seated ourselves under our own Vines and Figtrees, if it is the gracious will of Providence to permit it, the return of many happy years.

-George Washington to John Armstrong, 10 January 1783(1)

George Washington, like most gentlemen of his time and social standing, was well acquainted with the eloquent prose of the English Bible and often alluded to it in his writings. No biblical passage is referenced more frequently in his voluminous papers than the ancient Hebrew blessing and prophetic vision of the New Jerusalem in which every man sits safely "under his vine and under his fig tree" (Micah 4:4).2 This was the great Virginian's favorite scriptural phrase.3 The image of reposing under one's own vine and fig tree vividly captures the agrarian ideals of simplicity, contentment, domestic tranquility, and self-sufficiency.

A preliminary survey of Washington's papers reveals that he quoted this phrase on nearly four dozen occasions during the last half of his life. Most, but not all, references were made in private missives, anticipating a retirement to Mount Vernon, his beloved home on the south bank of the Potomac River. Washington, it should be noted, was not alone among his contemporaries in his attraction to this Hebrew blessing.4 Even Martha Washington borrowed the phrase in her correspondence.5

The image of a man dwelling under a vine and fig tree appears three times in the Old Testament (Micah 4:4; I Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10) and once in the Apocrypha (I Maccabees 14:12). Although Washington was almost certainly familiar with all these verses, the phraseology he used referencing the motif accords most closely with Micah 4:4. Given that he provided no biblical citation for his many uses of the motif, can one be sure that Washington had Micah 4:4 in mind and not one of the other texts? Washington occasionally followed mention of the vine and fig tree with language to the effect that "none shall make them afraid." This phrase follows immediately the vine and fig tree motif in the book of Micah but not in the other Old Testament passages, leading one to conclude that Washington was referencing Micah 4:4 (although language similar to Micah 4 is found in I Maccabees 14:12).6 He also made occasional reference in his writings to the familiar language of converting "swords into plow-shares" and "spears into pruninghooks" found in Micah 4:3 but not in the other passages containing the vine and fig tree motif, indicating an affinity for this particular biblical passage.7 The prophet Micah thus seems the most likely source of Washington's favorite biblical phrase.

More important, what was it about this biblical passage that appealed to George Washington, and what does his frequent recurrence to this Hebrew blessing reveal about his character and values?

GEORGE WASHINGTON'S VINE AND FIG TREE

George Washington is remembered today as a soldier and a statesman; however, his life as a farmer, a career of his own choosing, truly captured his imagination and gave him greater fulfillment than either the military or politics.8 His plantation at Mount Vernon inspired his affection for the land and agricultural pursuits. Mount Vernon was Washington's vine and fig tree.

Although his public duties often necessitated long absences from Mount Vernon, it was never far from his mind. "Even when he was away, visions of it proliferated constantly in his thoughts. All too often the reality belied his imaginings, but thinking about the house and the land, planning improvements in them, and putting his thoughts and plans on paper were clearly things he enjoyed doing, at times needed to do."9 Washington's many references to Micah 4:4 are laced with nostalgia for Mount Vernon and for a return to a happier, more tranquil time filled with the agricultural pursuits that brought him so much pleasure and satisfaction. This is evident in an April 1797 missive: "I am once more seated under my own Vine and fig tree," wrote Washington, "and hope to spend the remainder of my days . …