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Rediscovering George Washington
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Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport

The Founders understood that freedom requires limited government, and that limited government requires virtue. If citizens are not virtuous-if they intend to injure one another, or act irresponsibly-then a large, perhaps unlimited government is required to maintain order. Citizenship, then, begins with the formation of good character.

For his part, George Washington sought to cultivate public character by his own example, as well as public speeches and private correspondence. For instance, his responses to a series of letters from religious sects expressing their congratulations and esteem offer insightful instruction on the conditions of religious freedom, and church-state relations, in a constitutional republic. One of the most eloquent of these responses, dated August 1790, was addressed to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.

"It is now no more," Washington wrote, "that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights...." The doctrine of religious toleration that was practiced at the time in England fell far short of the American doctrine of religious liberty. Under the former, freedom of worship was a government grant, and worshipping in a church other than the established or state-supported church entailed the loss of other rights. In England, for instance, non-members of the Church of England were barred from holding public office. Under religious freedom, on the other hand, the right to worship is a natural right, a right that men are born with and that government is bound to protect. And it is inseparable from other natural rights.

Washington continued: "happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." Religious liberty must not be mistaken for a license to act upon any belief. There is a duty corresponding to the right to worship: Religious citizens must support the Constitution and abjure the use of government to coerce religious practices as was common in the Old World.

Washington concluded with a presidential blessing: "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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." This letter marked the first-ever official welcome to Jews as citizens outside of Israel. Nor was Washington any less gracious in his correspondence with Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, or Roman Catholic congregations.

The official support for religion reflected in these letters stands in marked contrast to the animosity toward religion in the regimes spawned by the French and Russian revolutions of the late 18th and early 20th centuries. In his Farewell Address, Washington explained such support in terms of religion's usefulness in promoting the morality necessary to free government. But there is a non-utilitarian rationale as well: By its own internal logic, the doctrine of religious freedom suggests the propriety of worshipping God. After all, that freedom-indeed all men's natural rights, as explained in the Declaration of Independence -are allotted equally by Him.