This essay appeared in both the Providence Journal and The Newport Daily News in March, 2017 after it was ignored by The Rhode Island Catholic; the highly-selective diocesan newspaper. It deals with George Washington’s expressions of tolerance for both Catholics and Jews. Both groups suffered civil exclusions during the colonial era in Rhode Island–but were not denied freedom of religion.
In previous books I have made detailed references to Washington and Touro Synagogue where I delivered George Washington Letter Day remarks in 1976 as state bicentennial of independence chairman. My recently discovered earlier letter from Washington to American Catholics, while not directed to Rhode Islanders, should be of interest to the state’s predominantly Catholic population. Both letters, read in tandem, gave an early indication that freedom of religion, pioneered by Rhode Island, would become a hallmark of American life.
Rhode Islanders are, or should be, familiar with George Washington’s famed letter of
August 21, 1790 to the Friends of Touro Synagogue in Newport and that public missive’s ringing declaration “to bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance.” Lesser known is the fact that
Washington was repeating and reaffirming the phrase formulated by Moses Seixas in an earlier letter of August 17th that had been given to the new chief executive by the Jewish congregation in Newport during Washington’s triumphal visit to that town in mid-August 1790 after Rhode Island belatedly joined the Union.
Lesser known still (in predominantly Catholic Rhode Island) is Washington’s letter of hope to America’s tiny Catholic minority written on March 12, 1790 five months prior to the new president’s delayed visit to recalcitrant Rhode Island.
In the aftermath of Washington’s unanimous selection by the Electoral College, America’s first Roman Catholic bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, joined with his brother Daniel, constitutional convention delegate and Maryland’s first congressman; his cousin Charles of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence; Thomas Fitzsimmons of Philadelphia, another Catholic signer; and Galway-born Dominick Lynch, a prominent merchant-philanthropist and the founder of Rome, New York, to send a letter of congratulation to America’s new chief executive. This address, after expressing the “joy” of American Catholics upon Washington’s election, expressed the following hope: “While our country preserves her freedom and independence, we [Catholics] shall have a well-founded title to claim her justice–the equal rights of citizenship . . . . We pray for the preservation of them where they have been granted and expect their full extension from the justice of those states which still restrict them.”
Rhode Island had denied voting rights to Catholics in 1719 but removed that ban in 1783 due to the helpful and benevolent presence of Rochambeau’s French troops. Three states, however, continued to discriminate against Catholics when Carroll and his associates wrote their letter, and several more, including Rhode Island, withheld the vote from those of the Jewish faith. In 1798 Rhode Island relented.
President Washington’s reply to the five-person Catholic contingent came on March 12, 1790. It acknowledged the claims of Catholic citizens to equality and added, “I hope to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.” He could have also alluded to Article VI, Section 3 of the new Constitution whereby “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Bishop Carroll and President Washington maintained a cordial relationship until Washington’s death in December, 1799. During the last summer of Washington’s life, he entertained the bishop and his niece, Elizabeth Carroll, at Mount Vernon. Carroll’s eulogy for the departed Washington was moving, eloquent, and sincere.
Just as those of the Jewish faith annually celebrate George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport’s Touro Synagogue (an event at which I was privileged to speak in 1976), so also should Catholics acknowledge and celebrate Washington’s letter of March 12, 1790 “To the Roman Catholics in the United States of America.” Both documents are milestones along America’s rocky road toward complete freedom of belief–an achievement that is our greatest contribution to world civilization. Roger Williams, its early advocate, aptly described it as “Soul Liberty.”
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley