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

By Dreisbach, Daniel L. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Dreisbach, Daniel L., Anglican and Episcopal History


[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 . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.