George Washington and Toleration
by
Senator Barbara A. Hoffman
February 22, 1999


Good evening.
 

Mr. President, Rabbi, Dr. Carter, colleagues and friends. The first time I gave the Washington's birthday address was about 15 years ago and there was a large wax effigy of George Washington looking over my shoulder. I see he's still here, but he's been moved to the back. Certainly his spirit is here in this room where he made history.

Before I begin I do want to make some special acknowledgments. First I'd like to recognize my husband, Donald. I also want to recognize Dr. Ed Papenfuse. He spends his time taking care of Maryland's treasures, and he is one of them himself. I want to recognize the able assistance he gave me in preparation for this address. Secondly I want to acknowledge the fact that this is the first time since I've been in the Senate that our late Comptroller, Louis Goldstein, hasn't been here for the Washington's birthday address. His spirit, too, is here with us. He cared tremendously about Maryland's history and he is missed.

When the Senate of the United States sought inspiration and guidance for its pending ordeal over impeachment, it retired to the old senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol in the hopes that the richness of the history represented there, and the quiet dignity of those historic surroundings, would inspire a tolerance of each others views and the wisdom necessary to bring matters to a dignified conclusion.

Each year we retire here to a place even more historic and evocative of past achievements and noble ideals. Here in this room was tested the very idea of a thoughtfully deliberative body called a Senate. In Federalist 63, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton pointed to the Maryland Senate as the embodiment of what the founding fathers hoped to achieve in creating a Senate for the country at large. "If the federal Senate ...really contained the danger which has been so loudly proclaimed" by the opponents of the Constitution, wrote Hamilton and Madison, "some symptoms at least of a like danger ought by this time to have been betrayed by the Senate of Maryland, but no such symptoms have appeared. On the contrary, the jealousies at first entertained by men of the same description with those who view with terror the correspondent part of the federal Constitution, have been gradually extinguished by the progress of the experiment; and the Maryland constitution is daily deriving, from the salutary operation of this part of it, a reputation in which it will probably not be rivaled by that of any State in the Union." What high praise, and what a high standard of our own we have to live up to.

Each year the occasion for our retiring here is to celebrate the birthday of George Washington whose visits to this very chamber in symbolic and practical ways led to the successful launching of our Republic. He came here to reinforce the vital democratic principle of the preeminence of the civil authority over the military by dramatically surrendering his commission as commander in chief to a Congress meeting in this very room. Shortly thereafter he returned as a private citizen to lobby successfully here and across the hall for a badly needed transportation route to the west that would help focus the growth and expansion of the nation on the bounty of its hinterland while stimulating the commerce and industry of the original thirteen states.

In the hustle and bustle of our modern world with its fragmentation and short attention span, it is easy to forget or overlook the inspiration of the past. Even George Washington has suffered. A recent article by William L. Hamilton in the New York Times entitled "Calling Up the P.R. Troops for the Father of His Country" noted the panic that has set in at Mount Vernon because attendance is dropping. Hoping to capitalize on the 200th Anniversary of Washington's death this winter, millions of dollars are being invested in a multi-media campaign to revitalize his image in the minds of Americans. The New York Times observes that:

Troubled by stagnating attendance and a rocky recognition factor, especially among school children the directors of Mount Vernon, the capital of George Washington's legacy, have inaugurated a $3 million public relations campaign to reposition him as a national figure with what the spinmasters call "heat." Think Leonardo DiCaprio, Diana and Elvis Presley. "We were looking for something with a lot of sizzle," said Michael Quinn, one of Washington's campaign people, the deputy director for programs at Mount Vernon. "He had great name recognition, but not a real high quotient of excitement. Dull, boring. He was the first President. So What?"

In order to grab the public interest there was even some "discussion of piping in bad smells" into the chamber where he died as an added attraction, but "staff historians could not agree on what would be authentic to the period." Is this really how we need to be reminded of our first president? As one critic of trivializing Washington points out he "wouldn't have wanted to be thought like everyone else... . He was the leader of the nation. You did not pat him on the back when you met him on the street."

Washington was far more than that and perhaps it is time we pause to remember and celebrate him for the leadership and inspiration he provided then and can continue to provide today. Take for example the matter of Toleration, a subject on which he wrote eloquently and acted accordingly. Today we tend to view toleration as a double edged proposition. On the one hand it implies begrudging, almost unwilling and ungraceful acceptance of uncomfortable ideas and opposing points of view, while on the other it calls for persistent effort at understanding and a willingness to work with a diversity of ideas, free from bigotry and prejudice. George Washington's task of inspiring tolerance in the new nation was not unlike that confronting Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore, in 1649, 350 years ago this coming April, when Calvert

successfully urged the Maryland General Assembly to pass an Act Concerning Religion, known as the Act of Toleration, which beneath its archaic and strident language, encouraged Marylanders through economic incentives to hold their tongues and not do battle over their respective points of view.

This Act showed toleration only towards Christians and only lasted for 5 years, after which time the tumult of the Puritan Revolution in England spilled over into the colonies and the Act was no longer enforced.

Even so, the history and sentiment of toleration eventually overcame these circumstances.

As a recent exhibit at the Library of Congress pointed out, in 1658, a Jewish community arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, seeking religious liberty. They were followed by others who settled mainly in the seaport towns. By the time of George Washington's inauguration there were several thriving synagogues, some of which took it upon themselves to address the new President on the matter of religious toleration in the new Republic, just a few months after the States, like Maryland in this very room, had begun to ratify the first amendments to the Constitution, including the first which guaranteed religious freedom. Perhaps the most famous of these memorials came from the Newport Rhode Island congregation which welcomed Washington to a visit to their city on August 17, 1790 :

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People--a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance--but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men--beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua, full of days and full of honor, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Washington responded with equal graciousness and dignity:

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 a 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 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 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.

How words are translated into action, of course, is often the true test of a democracy. Washington's support of toleration at the national level led to the appointment in 1801 of one of the founders of the Baltimore Jewish Community, Reuben Etting as a Federal Marshall, even at a time, because of local laws he could not vote. But even more importantly, by his own personal behavior Washington helped to define a practice of toleration that was based upon a concept of personal achievement and deportment that knew no religious test. That was perhaps most evident when he was most exasperated.

Tonight we assemble not only in this historic chamber, but in the shadow of a portrait of Washington and two of his best friends, Lafayette and Tench Tilghman, whose swords to the left of the portrait we dedicated last year. In retirement Washington struggled to build Mount Vernon into the national showpiece he envisioned, struggling to find the craftsmen necessary to construct and carry out his plan. In March of 1784, not long before he came to Annapolis to lobby for the Potomac Canal under this very portrait of his good friends, he wrote to Tench Tilghman in Baltimore for help:

Mount Vernon, March 24, 1784.

Dear Sir: I am informed that a Ship with [German] Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Tradesmen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an Sect, or they may be Athiests. I would however prefer middle aged, to young men, and those who have good countenances and good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them, although, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating. I do not limit you to a price, but will pay the purchase money on demand. This request will be in force 'till complied with, or countermanded, because you may not succeed at this moment, and have favourable ones here after to do it in. My best respects, in which Mrs. Washington joins, are presented to Mrs. Tilghman and Mrs. Carroll, and I am etc.

George Washington

Instead of trivializing Washington, we need to celebrate him for what he was, and what he stood for, while tolerating him for his and the failures of his generation with regard to such blatant blind spots as slavery. In May of 1786 Washington outlined his concerns about slavery to his other friend in the portrait above us tonight, the Marquis de Lafayette:

The benevolence of your heart my Dr. Marqs. is so conspicuous upon all occasions, that I never wonder at any fresh proofs of it; but your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it. Some petitions were presented to the Assembly, at its last Session, for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarcely obtain a reading. To set them afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience and mischief; but by degrees it certainly might, and assuredly ought to be effected; and that too by Legislative authority.

Washington's despair was not sufficient to bring him to act during his lifetime, but in death he chose to set an example that he expected others to follow. Stricken in conscience by the evil of an institution on which his livelihood had depended, and in the face of the final of all judgments Washington freed his slaves.

In remembering tonight let us recall the real George Washington. Let us hark back to his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Providence Rhode Island, and pay tribute to his expression of tolerance and the strength of his leadership by echoing his closing words:

Let us all

continue to merit and enjoy the good will of [all the inhabitants of the nation]; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Thank you


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