Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

From Toleration to Liberty: George Washington and the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island

Clock Two 50-minute class periods

In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of religious liberty from the colonial period to the Founding era. They will assess legal and historical documents of toleration and/or liberty, analyze George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and gain an appreciation of Washington’s letter as an example of the shift from religious toleration to religious liberty.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Overview

From 1607 through the Founding Era, the policy followed by colonial and state governments was one of religious toleration. Such toleration implied that the civil authority could grant or revoke the privilege of free religious exercise by religious minorities. A meaningful shift from toleration to an experiment in religious liberty, where freedom of conscience was recognized as a natural right of all individuals, would not substantially begin until America’s Founding Era of the 1770s-90s. This shift was given force in America’s various state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights; it was given voice, weight, and credibility in George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.

Quotes

“We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.” - Thomas Jefferson, Reply to Virginia Baptists (1808)

“[M]aintaining respect for the religious observances of others is a fundamental civic virtue that government … can and should cultivate. …The founders of our Republic knew the fearsome potential of sectarian religious belief to generate civil dissension and civil strife. And they also knew that nothing… is so inclined to foster among religious believers of various faiths a toleration—no, an affection—for one another than voluntarily joining in prayer together, to the God whom they all worship and seek.” - Justice Antonin Scalia, Dissenting Opinion, Lee v. Weisman (1992)

Objectives

  • Understand the evolution of religious liberty from the colonial period to the Founding Era.
  • Assess legal and historical documents as examples of toleration and/or liberty.
  • Analyze George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.
  • Appreciate Washington’s letter as an example of the shift from religious toleration to religious liberty in America.

Materials

  • Essay: From Establishment to Free Exercise: Religion, George Washington, and the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
  • Handout A: Defining Toleration and Liberty
  • Handout B: Religion in America’s Past— Toleration, Liberty, or Both?
  • Handout C: Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
  • Handout D: Document Guide

Background

Have students read Essay: From Establishment to Free Exercise: Religion, George Washington, and the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island and answer the questions.

Warm-up 20 minutes

DAY ONE

  1. Have students work in pairs to complete Handout A: Focus Quotations— Defining Toleration and Liberty.
  2. Have a few pairs share their definitions, keeping a list of key terms and phrases on the board. (Clarify for students the difference between “tolerance,” which refers to private relationships, and “toleration,” which refers to a government policy toward minority religions.)
  3. Identify and discuss similarities and differences between the definitions, with the goal of arriving at a consensus on the best way to define the two terms. Write the agreed-upon definitions on the board.
  4. To conclude the activity, tell students that the quotations were not selected randomly—the “toleration” quotation is George Mason’s draft of Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) and the “liberty” one is James Madison’s amendment to Mason’s draft. The delegates approved Madison’s wording. How does this amendment demonstrate an important shift in thinking about religion and government?

Activities 30 minutes each

DAY ONE

  1. Maintain student pairings and distribute Handout B: Religion and America’s Past—Toleration, Liberty, or Both? Have students read each document excerpt, determine what type of document it is (e.g. private letter, official government document, etc.), and write a paraphrase. Finally, they should decide whether it is an example of the principle of toleration, liberty, or both. Variation: Assign each pair two documents and then conduct either a jigsaw or large group discussion in order to analyze all the documents.
  2. Using an overhead of Handout B, fill in the chart together as a large group. Ask students what trends, if any, they observe over time.

DAY TWO

  1. Distribute Handout C: Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Read the document aloud for the class.
  2. Have students work in pairs or trios to complete Handout D: Document Guide. Let students know that the critical thinking questions will serve as discussion questions in the wrap-up activity to follow.

Wrap-up 20 minutes

DAY TWO

Reconvene the class and, using an overhead of Handout D to guide students, conduct a large-group discussion to answer the critical thinking questions, as well as the questions below:

  • How significant is it that this letter was written by a sitting President? Would the letter have carried as much (or more?) weight if it had been written by:
    • A member of Congress?
    • A government official who had not attended the Constitutional Convention?
    • A private citizen?
  • Washington spoke of the role of the U.S. government in giving persecution “no assistance” and “bigotry no sanction.” Do private citizens also have this responsibility to each other? Explain.
  • What does Washington say about the distinction between toleration and liberty in the American political experiment?
  • What civic values are required of citizens living in a religiously diverse society? (In addition to the ideas students generate, you may suggest respect, consideration, and humility.)

Homework

Have students write a one-page reply to George Washington expressing their opinion on the state of religious liberty in America today.

Extensions

Distribute Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists in Lesson Four. Have students create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the ideas expressed in Jefferson’s letter with those expressed in Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.

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