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George Washington on Religious Liberty


Despite the Supreme Court's repeated invocations of America's Founding Fathers for First Amendment religion jurisprudence, George Washington's political thought regarding religious freedom has received almost no scholarly attention. This is unfortunate, for Washington's words and actions speak to contemporary Establishment Clause and Free Exercise issues. Washington, moreover, offers an alternative to Jefferson's and Madison's approach to church-state matters. The scholarly exclusion of Washington thus has led to a narrow view of the Founders' thought on religious liberty. This article sets forth Washington's understanding of the right to religious liberty. It pays particular attention to Washington's disagreement with Madison on the propriety of government support of religion. It also draws attention to the limits Washington placed on an individual's right to religious free exercise by focusing on how Washington dealt with Quaker claims for religious exemptions from military service.

Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved. —G. Washington, Letter submitting the proposed constitution to the President of Congress 17 September 1787

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Irving Brant , “Madison: On the Separation of Church and State,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 8 (011951): 324

Paul Weber , “James Madison and Religious Equality: The Perfect Separation,” Review of Politics 44 (1982): 163–86

see Vincent Phillip Muñoz , “James Madison's Principle of Religious Liberty,” American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 116

Elizabeth Fleet , “Madison's “Detached Memoranda,”William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 3 (091946): 559–60

Steven B. Epstein , “Rethinking the Constitutionality of Ceremonial Deism,” Columbia Law Review 96 (121996): 2110

Michael W. McConnell , “The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion,” Harvard Law Review 103 (1990): 1453.

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The Review of Politics
  • ISSN: 0034-6705
  • EISSN: 1748-6858
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-politics
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