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

100 min
  • 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  • Assess legal and historical documents as examples of toleration and/or liberty.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.

  • 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

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

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?

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.

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.)

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

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.