In 1775, the Continental Army invaded Canada in an effort to guarantee that colony's cooperation in American efforts to sustain relief from the British government short of overt independence. George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and he issued formal instructions to one of his field commanders, Colonel Benedict Arnold, regarding the proper deportment of the Continental troops on the subject of religion. This was an issue in the Canadian campaign due to the strong anti-Catholic opinions that were then common among the vast majority of the American colonial population. The Canadians, at that time overwhelming French in language and culture, and Catholic in religion, therefore were possible targets of colonial bigotry in the field.
In his Instructions to Arnold, dated September 14, 1775, Washington was clear and direct in ordering the American troops to follow two basic approaches in regard to religion. First, in order to prevent resentment towards the Continentals, American soldiers were to be prevented, under punitive discipline if necessary, from attacking the Catholic religion then established in Canada. Without mentioning Catholicism by name, Washington prohibited any action that would result in the "ridiculing" of any Catholic clergy or "Ceremonies." There was to be no overt acts of mockery or contempt shown to Catholicism by the Continentals. The American army would be respectful, even towards religious views and ministers to which the vast majority of American colonials at the time vehemently objected.
Second, in addition to demonstrating respect, the Continentals were to "protect and support the free Exercise of the Religion of the Country and the undisturbed Enjoyment of the rights of Conscience in religious matters." Washington's orders left no ambiguity -- the American intervention in Canada was to have no deleterious consequences for the Catholics there. Yet, at the same time, Washington couched his language to apply not simply to the Catholic population there, but to all people who sought to enjoy their "rights of Conscience in religious matters." As the army would not mock or attack Catholics for their faith, so too it would not enforce Catholicism or attack religious believers who were not Catholic.
While Washington issued his orders to Arnold as an act of military strategy -- to avoid alienating the Catholic population of a fellow colony with which the Continentals desperately wanted to be allied -- his orders show a commitment to deeper religious liberty than what military expedience required. Respect for a despised religion, not simply tolerance. Liberty not only for the majority religion but for all. While the American intervention in Canada proved to be a failure in winning Canadian support for the American cause, Washington's orders regarding the army's conduct in regard to religion set a pattern of prudential and principled judgment. In this regard, as in so many others, Washington proved himself to be the Father of Our Country.
[Cross posted over at my own blog, Ordered Liberty.]