The First Amendment and Washington’s Influence

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american freedom

George Washington and Religious Freedom (Part Two):

After the end of the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783, George Washington retired to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia. When he arrived after the many years of serving as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he found his home had deteriorated and needed his attention. He was also tired from the duties of directing a citizen army and was more than ready to retire.

He was sure this was where he wanted to stay.

Washington quickly discovered he would still be involved in the development of the country. Many came to Mount Vernon to stay and discuss the state of the new nation. Each day, visitors would arrive to seek advice and guidance and give political insight. Washington, as usual, stayed above the fray and held his thoughts close to the vest. He would only reveal his concerns about the state of this new nation to his closest friends.

After the end of the war, the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which had been put in place by the Second Continental Congress. They weren’t working, and much rancor between the individual states developed. Finally, in 1787 it was decided a convention was needed to discuss drafting some changes.

First, they needed a leader.

Washington was the one person all could agree upon. His independent, non-opinionated, and above-the-fray demeanor was welcomed and sought after. At first, Washington wouldn’t agree to attend. Not wanting to be part of the rancor and selfish positioning of some, he refused. But two men, James Madison and General Henry Knox, knew that without Washington the efforts of this convention would not produce adequate results. Eventually, they convinced Washington, and he arrived in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787.

Quickly after arriving, Washington was elected as the president of the convention and took the seat at the head of the room. Washington led the convention not with opinion but to ensure adequate debate. He only expressed himself when things got overly argumentative. His very presence added dignity and trust for all who attended.

The Bill of Rights

By the middle of September, the Constitutional Convention had scrapped the Articles of Confederation and drafted a new document, now called the Constitution. But some still felt that the document wasn’t complete. After much handwringing, James Monroe agreed to draft a separate set of Bill of Rights to further amplify the protections for the citizenry. With Washington’s back-office lobbying, the new plan was agreed to, and Monroe would draft the supplemental document called the Bill of Rights.

Monroe drafted seventeen individual rights and submitted them for approval. Later, these were pared to ten and sent to the various states for ratification.

One in particular—number three in the first draft, which later became number one—was the statement about personal freedoms. This amendment now reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note the inclusion of religious freedom. This was of paramount interest to many who attended.

Washington and others were well aware of the need for this inclusion. Most European countries were actually theocracies in that, while there were some personal freedoms, there was also a state religion. The group was also well aware of the many wars in Europe over religion, and the Founders saw this as a threat to the stability of the new country.

Limited Freedom

Further, even in the new United States, religious freedom was very limited. Even though the Puritans had come to escape religious persecution, they themselves denied freedom to others. Maryland, which had been settled by Catholics were being persecuted by the local protestants. The only real place for the Jewish population to live without recourse was New York City. In spite of the original attraction of religious freedom in relocating to the thirteen colonies, many were still persecuted.

The inclusion of this amendment set the stage for the great expansion of religious fervor in the following three decades, culminating in a period called the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s. During this time, many were baptized and were able to select their own form of beliefs. This gave rise to two new denominations, the Methodists and the Baptists. In fact, by 1840, 44 percent of the country was Methodist, growing from nearly zero at the time of the American Revolution. Later in the nineteenth century, Catholicism would also experience a similar revival.

First President

Later, Washington would become greatly affected by this amendment due to his role as the first president. As a side note, Washington took office in 1789 and is the only president ever elected unanimously by the Electoral College.

Washington took this religious freedom to heart and became very private about his own religious activities. He stopped taking communion, only attended church once a month, and often reassured the various groups of his neutral stance.

Washington famously wrote while president: “Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.”

He wrote to the Jewish population, assuring them of their protection.

The Baptists, in particular, who had previously experienced persecution in Massachusetts and the south, wrote asking for assurances. Washington wrote back, stating, “No one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers to end spiritual tyranny.”

Washington knew that spiritual tyranny would threaten both society and the young union. For the balance of his life, he was a silent Christian for the sake of the great experiment of government for the people by the people.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Dr. Bruce L. Hartman is the author of Jesus & Co. and Your Faith Has Made You Well.

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