Beyond Toleration: George Washington’s View of Liberty

Participants in various current controversies would do well to settle into a comfortable chair and ponder these words of George Washington, sent to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., 220 years ago today:

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

I am particularly struck by the third paragraph, which proclaims that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” – thoughts that both reflected and shaped the character of the new nation. Those words actually echo the congregation’s address to President Washington. But the preceding line is even more impressive:

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.

That is, equal freedom under the law is not something extended by some as “toleration” of others. Rather, all people who “demean themselves as good citizens” are allowed the free “exercise of their inherent natural rights.” It took almost two centuries to fulfill that promise to Jews, to women, and especially to African Americans. And even today Muslim and gay Americans may wonder if they are still regarded as objects of toleration “by the indulgence of one class of people” rather than as full citizens entitled to “the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Let us continue to work toward George Washington’s dream of a world in which “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”