President Washington’s Letter About Religious Freedom

The first 16 words of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof – were written by Alexander Hamilton and are clear. There will be no government-sponsored religion in the new United States of America.

During the deliberations by the members of the Constitutional Convention, many wanted to use the document to establish a religion sponsored/supported by the new central government. Proponents pointed to the benefits of the English model in which the Anglican Church is the “official” religion of Great Britain and France where the official religion was Catholicism.

Opponents of this position, namely Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, were vehemently opposed to a state-sponsored religion. They pointed out that state-sponsored religions often restricted citizens’ freedom to practice another religion or none at all.

Studying history gave them many reasons not to enable a state-sponsored religion to be chosen. Four examples helped make their case. One was the expulsion of Jews from Spain via the Alhambra Decree in March 1492 which was the culmination of 300 years of Spanish policy toward their Jewish population. Another was Edward I’s edicts of expulsion of England’s Jewish population in 1290. They were prohibited from returning until Cromwell took power during the English Civil War.

Protestants were not immune. They only had to look at France’s treatment of the Huguenots who were forced to leave France. Some came to Canada, many dispersed into Prussia and the Netherlands. Fearful that the Catholic Church was losing members to Protestant sects, the Vatican launched a series of Counter-Reformations during the Middle Ages.

My point is that the Founding Fathers, as students of history, were all familiar with what went on in the past and wanted to make a clean break, i.e., there would be no “official” religion in these United States.

However, Washington, who was present during the deliberations of the members of the Constitutional Convention wanted to make his views clear while president. In fact, he put his views as president in a tersely written letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island on August 18th, 1790.

Washington wrote in the third paragraph of the 340-word letter – The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

While the diction and writing style of the 1790s make this cumbersome to read, Washington’s view is clear in the last sentence of the third paragraph. At the time, he was in Rhode Island to generate support for what became the Bill of Rights. However, the importance of his words has grown as an unambiguous signal to the world that in the United States, we will not tolerate religious bigotry of any kind. Once ratified, the Bill of Rights became a beacon of hope to those who were oppressed all over the world.

1772 Painting by Charles Willson Peale of George Washington in his colonel’s uniform of the Virginia Militia.

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