Thursday, March 11, 2010

George Washington’s Ecumenicalism

Recently, I’ve done considerable reading about George Washington, our first president. I have learned a great many things that make Washington a far more interesting figure than the plaster saint created by Parson Weems after Washington’s death would suggest. (The cherry tree story, for example, is a complete fabrication.) Here’s a story that I suspect none of my readers have ever heard before.

In 1784, Washington learned that his estate at Mount Vernon was in need of a good carpenter and a good bricklayer. He wrote to his foreman, Tench Tillman, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa or Europe. They may be Mohammedans, Jew s or Christians of any sect or they may be atheists.” I found that an extraordinary sentiment for a man in the late 18th century. I like to think that some of Washington’s just-get-someone-who-will-get-the-job-done-spirit remains today.

Another letter of Washington’s, written in August of 1790 to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, just about made me tear up. By way of background, a few years earlier, the Emperor of Austria had issued an Edict of Toleration, proclaiming that the Austrian empire would now tolerate Jews. The Emperor really went whole hog on the toleration business, he even announced that the Austrian Empire would officially tolerate Protestants as well. (Jews? Maybe. But tolerating Protestants?) In 1790, the leaders of the Touro Synagogue had written Washington on his election to the Presidency. They asked him what his government’s policy toward Jews would be. Washington replied, “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 worth 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 was by 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 bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should conduct themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their support.”

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