On this day in 1790, George Washington writes his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. He was then visiting the little state, which had finally joined the Union.
That visit was typical Washington. He took his duties as the first President seriously, and he would make it a point to visit every part of the country during his administration.
Many local groups and congregations eagerly welcomed Washington to their state, and they wrote him warm letters of welcome. The Hebrew Congregation in Newport was among these, expressing their hopefulness about religious freedom in the new government.
“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” the Hebrew Congregation wrote, “we now . . . behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship . . . .”
Washington quickly responded. “The Citizens of the United States of America . . . [a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” But Washington also added a new nuance.
Religious liberty would be more than tolerated in America. It is a right.
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of,” Washington wrote, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
In other words, religious freedom is not something that results merely from the charity or goodwill of a democratic majority. It is an inherent right of a free people.
Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island was one of his strongest statements for religious liberty to that date. Interestingly, though, he still didn’t seem to find any contradiction between these statements and his view that government could give general support to religion.
Most famously, of course, he concluded in his Farewell Address to the nation:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. 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.”
What a concept! Perhaps there is a middle ground between “separation of church and state” and an establishment of religion. Perhaps government can be friendly towards religion without endorsing any particular denomination or belief.
Such a position seems to be what Washington was always trying to find.
Indeed, Washington had much more to say on the issue of church-state relations than you might know. Over time, his views became largely overshadowed as historians focused on the writings of Thomas Jefferson. These historians have missed out. Washington dealt with the issue of church-state relations throughout his time in public life—and he wrote extensively about it.
Naturally, at this point, I need to offer a friendly reminder that more information on Washington’s views can be found in the book that I co-authored with Joseph C. Smith, Jr., HERE.