In the aftermath of the War for American Independence, General Washington recalled that “[t]he establishment of Civil & Religious Liberty, was the motive which induced me to the Field [of Battle].” Written in November 1783 to a “reformed German Congregation” that had extended a hearty welcome and cordial congratulations to “Your Excellency on your triumphant Entry into the City of New York,” Washington’s recollection revealed a deep commitment to the cause of liberty.
The pursuit of religious liberty is rarely mentioned among the causes that inspired the Patriots to take up arms against the British Crown and Parliament. Yet, Washington’s recollection is not surprising. Throughout his years of public service, religion and religious liberty were persistent themes in his private ruminations and public pronouncements.
Indeed, religious themes featured prominently in his most famous addresses, including the Circular Letter to the States, the First Inaugural Address, and the Farewell Address. He reflected often on the intervention of divine Providence in human affairs and the necessity of religion and morality for social order and political prosperity.
Washington’s remarks on these topics reveal a man who thought deeply about the “public interest of religion,” to use a familiar phrase of his day, and he embraced some of the most innovative and enlightened thinking of the age.
Celebrating the American Experiment
In the days following his inauguration in April 1789, President Washington received a flood of congratulatory messages from representative assemblies, civic and fraternal organizations, and religious societies. In the words of the Virginia Baptists, these were “shouts of congratulation” and encomiums for Washington’s sacrificial, public service to the nation and for his elevation to the chief magistracy of the United States. He replied warmly, Washington recounted, to the numerous “assurances of support” and “friendly congratulations which I have received from respectable characters in every part of the Union.”
Among the exchanges were some two dozen with religious societies and congregations. Washington responded to these constituents with humility, expressing gratitude for their loyalty to both him and the new national government. These friendly communications open a window into Washington’s views on religious liberty and the role of religion and religious citizens in public life. He defined a vital, visible role for religion in civic life and simultaneously affirmed a robust policy of religious liberty.
“It shall still be my endeavor,” the president promised Methodist bishops in mid-1789, “to contribute whatever may be in my power towards the preservation of the civil and religious liberties of the American People.”
A letter to the Protestant Episcopal Church a few months later celebrated flourishing religious pluralism in the new nation: “It affords edifying prospects indeed,” Washington wrote, “to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with a more christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation.”
The plight of Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and other religious minorities clearly excited Washington’s sympathy, as he recognized the bigotry and persecution they had endured, and he used correspondence with these communities to calm deep-rooted fears that religious minorities would be excluded from civic life and the project of nation-building.
In a missive to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, he reaffirmed that “every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Writing a few months before Congress drafted the First Amendment, the new president reassured the Baptists that, if the Constitution “might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society” or if the national “Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure,” he would labor zealously “to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” The imagery of “effectual barriers” prefigured Thomas Jefferson’s more famous “wall of separation between church and state,” erected in an 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut.
The president favored the Quakers with the endorsement that “there is no Denomination among us who are more exemplary and useful Citizens.” Although he candidly took exception to Quaker pacifism, which had frustrated the military commander in the war against Great Britain, he averred that “[t]he liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights.”
Roman Catholics, who had borne the brunt of bitter discrimination in the colonies, had reason to hope for a promising future when Washington reassured them that all citizens are “equally entitled to the protection of civil Government.”
An American Innovation
Washington’s commitment to religious liberty was not limited to Christians. In Washington, American Jews found a sincere friend. In a 1790 missive to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, perhaps his most eloquent and certainly his most famous pronouncement on religious liberty, he assured his correspondents that Jews in America enjoyed all the rights and privileges of citizenship, including “liberty of conscience.”
Demonstrating an ability to speak the religious vernacular of his audience, Washington celebrated the American spirit of liberty in which every citizen shall, in the words of an ancient Hebrew blessing (Micah 4:4), “sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
More important, his letter described a distinctively American principle of religious liberty. “The Citizens of the United States of America,” he began, “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.” He then continued with the letter’s most famous line, echoing words the Jews had conveyed to him: “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.”
The letter is notable for its clear articulation of America’s great contribution to, and innovation of, political society—the abandonment of a government policy of religious toleration in favor of religious liberty. This principle was first expressed more than a decade before in Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776). George Mason, the Declaration’s chief draftsman, initially framed Article 16 in the language of religious toleration, reflecting the most enlightened, liberal policy of the age. It did not go far enough, however, to satisfy a young James Madison, who successfully moved in the Virginia Convention to replace Mason’s tentative statement, “all Men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience,” with the phrase, “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of [religion] accordg to the dictates of Conscience.” Toleration, to be sure, is a commendable private virtue. Madison, however, objected to a government policy of toleration, because it dangerously implied that religious exercise was a mere privilege that could be granted or revoked at the pleasure of the civil state, and was not assumed to be a natural, inalienable right possessed equally by all citizens, placed beyond the reach of civil magistrates, and subject only to the dictates of a free conscience.
Vital to the Republic
In his Farewell Address to the nation in September 1796, Washington reflected, once again, on the public interests of religion. His views on the topic accorded with the prevailing republican thought of the day.
Few Americans in the late 18th century, even among those who opposed a state church, doubted that religion made an important contribution to their political experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law. There was a consensus that religion fosters the civic virtues and social discipline that give citizens the capacity to govern themselves. Authoritarian rulers use a whip and rod to compel social order, but this approach is unacceptable for a free people. Self-governing citizens, in short, have to be a virtuous people—controlled from within by a moral compass, which replaces external control by the whip and rod. A moral people respect social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like, and such civic virtue, many 18th-century Americans believed, was nurtured by religion.
Expressions of religion’s vital role in a republic filled the political literature of the founding era. Citizens from diverse religious, intellectual, and political traditions embraced the idea.
No one expressed this view more famously or succinctly than Washington in his Farewell Address to the nation in September 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Emphasizing the point, he continued in the next sentence: “In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens.” (Wags wondered whether the phrase “that man” was a generic reference or whether Washington had someone specific in mind. Some thought it a veiled reference to Thomas Jefferson.) As if anticipating the debates of a later secular age, Washington then proceeded to cast doubt on the supposition that morality could be maintained in the absence of religion
Washington’s argument was familiar to his audience: Religion is necessary to nurture the civic virtue essential for republican self-government to succeed; thus, religion is necessary for republican government. The nation’s political experiment in popular government required that religion extend its beneficent influence in society. Washington’s argument did not call for a legally established church, but it did require an environment in which religion could flourish. Indeed, many of Washington’s compatriots argued that religious liberty was a desirable precondition for effective republican government insofar as it unleashed robust religious expression in society, thereby cultivating the civic virtues essential for self-government.
The salience of these lines from the Farewell Address was apparent to the American people. The passage on religion was immediately singled out in public discourse, and it quickly entered the canon of American political literature. One New England newspaper—Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s United States Oracle—even wove into its masthead Washington’s now familiar statement that religion and morality are indispensable supports for political prosperity.
Champion of Liberty
Over the course of his public career, Washington articulated a distinctively American view of the sacred rights of conscience and religion’s role in civil society. He celebrated religious pluralism and opined on the place of citizens and communities of faith in civil society, the prudential relationships between religious communities and civil government, and religion’s vital contributions to social order. By word and deed, he championed religious liberty (as opposed to mere toleration) and reassured citizens of all faiths—including religious outsiders—that they had a valued place in the new nation.
Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., studying the intersection of religion, politics, and law in the American founding. His most recent book is Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford).