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Handout E: Letters to the Congregations: George Washington and Religious Liberty


  1. For each of the following quotes, use a different color highlighter to mark the respective sections of the text:
    • Blue: Religious Liberty
    • Green: Virtue
    • Yellow: Good Citizenship and Republican Government
  2. Then answer the questions below at the end of the handout.

George Washington (and the other Founders) believed that religion was a primary means of learning about virtue. He also believed that virtue was the basis of good citizenship, and that a virtuous citizenry was necessary for republican self government. Logically, therefore, according to this approach religion was indispensable for self-government.

Washington also played an instrumental—though largely unsung—role in establishing the idea of religious liberty as a natural right through important correspondence related to ratification of the Bill of Rights.

George Washington, “Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia,” May, 1789

ONE: “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution. For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, 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.”

George Washington, “Letter to the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches,” May, 1789

“While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon Heaven as the source of all public and private blessings; I will observe that the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy seems, in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and conforming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally tube expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.”

George Washington, “Letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers,” September, 1789

“The liberty enjoyed by the people of these states of worshipping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights. While men perform their social duties faithfully, they do all that society or the state can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for their religion, or modes of faith, which they may prefer or profess.”

George Washington, “Letter to the Roman Catholics in the United States of America,” March, 1790

“The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature,commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.

“As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”

George Washington, “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” August, 1790

“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 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 were 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…
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who well 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”


  1. Does George Washington support the idea of religious tolerance or religious liberty of conscience? Explain your answer with evidence from the primary sources
  2. What virtues does Washington think self-governing citizens must have?
  3. How does Washington connect religion, virtue, and happiness?