"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Washington knew about the link between property rights and religious liberty

One of the treasures of American literature are George Washington's letters to various groups of citizens following his election as the first president of the United States under our current Constitution. The letters are short and contain concise and dense reflections on the nature of ordered liberty in the new American Republic, explaining the nature and scope of freedom under the Constitution. 

Of particular interest is Washington's letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington wrote the letter on August 21, 1790, as a response to a statement of welcome delivered by one of the leaders of the Touro Synagogue in Newport on the occasion of Washington's visit to that town following the ratification of the Constitution by Rhode Island. In the letter, Washington expresses his conviction about the importance of property rights to protecting other rights under the Constitution:  

Gentlemen: 
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens. 
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. 
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. 
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity. 
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell 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. 

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
G. Washington 
This is a telling statement about the nature of religious liberty, recognized by the Constitution, grounded not in the preference of the elite but in natural rights common to all and the duties of citizenship. Of additional interest is the linking of religious liberty and property rights. To draw that linkage in his letter Washington quotes the Prophet Micah from the Hebrew Bible:
And every man shall sit under his vine, and under his fig tree, and there shall be none to make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken. (Micah 4:4, Douay-Rheims Version.)
Property rights serve as an essential bulwark for other freedoms, in the they provide citizens with the space and the means to exercise their other rights. Without property rights, there can be no liberty of speech, of religion, of the press, or to be secure against unlawful searches and seizures. Washington understood this and propounded a constitutional order where citizens -- not just those favored by the government -- may sit secure in their possessions, "and there shall be done to make them afraid." To be secure in your property is to be free indeed. 

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