Thursday, July 7, 2011

Washington's 1775 instructions regarding respect and toleration for religion

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.]


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do you believe that what we have today with Islam's intrusion upon our liberties, such as "blasphemy laws" are appropriate? These are to be "respected" just as the Catholics were the "once despised"? If we go down that road, we are going to undermine our nation, just as other countries are experiencing today! Freedom of speech is of formost importance in freethought and liberty itself!!!

Mark D. said...

I agree on the importance of freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean a lack of respect. I disagree with anyone who would seek to set up an authoritarian regime, whether it was based on religion or on a secular philosophy. It is possible, though, to disagree with an authoritarian political philosophy while showing respect to a religion and to those who adhere to that religion.

I think Washington's orders are instructive here. In Canada, even under the British, Catholicism was an established religion. It was the state-supported religion in Canada. And Washington ordered that the overwhelmingly Protestant Continental Army refrain from acts of disrespect, harassment or destruction against Catholicism. At the same time, he insisted on the freedom of conscience not only for Catholics but for those outside the establishment of religion that existed in Canada. Respect + liberty. That's Washington's approach. I think that's an approach worth emulating.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

July 7, 2011 4:06 PM
Mark in Spokane said...
"I agree on the importance of freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean a lack of respect. I disagree with anyone who would seek to set up an authoritarian regime, whether it was based on religion or on a secular philosophy"...I couldn't agree more. Respect in this regard is understanding where one differs and agreeing to disagree. That is respect without authoritarianism dictating another's choice or conscience.

Mark also said,". It is possible, though, to disagree with an authoritarian political philosophy while showing respect to a religion and to those who adhere to that religion." NO, I couldn't disagree more, because this suggests that political liberty is negotiable, as to liberty of conscience! Liberty of conscience IS political liberty, itself! This is why we do not have a "State sanctioned" Anglicanism or Catholicism...

Theologizing is not respectable, as it dismisses the "real world" for "some ideal" understanding of "God", "God's control", or "God's purpose", ETC.! Irrationality, in regards to universals, are again authoritarian....and there is no way to reason another out of their position because it is sanctioned by "God"!!!

While you first statement agrees that religious or political authoritarianism was not to be commended, you affirm respecting a religious conscience that submits to such authoritarianism, under the auspices of "God".... is that not commending a religious authoritrianism, as it is dependent on some "transcendental worldview"...or if a secular State affirms certain sanctioned "Churches", is that political liberty really real, as to individual the point, really, that individual conscience is to be limited under the guise of "order"? I can agree, IF the order is one of lawfulness, where liberty is upheld for conscience regarding one's life.

If not, what would it mean to/for me to "respect" such submission? I think it would be hard to hear how such as these are "theologizing" their lives. Why? because I know how much time can be wasted thinking that one is "waiting on God"...and what exactly does that mean to the person? Does it mean that one separates and waits for the "hereafter" where justice will be met out? Or does it mean, that those that believe that their 'idea" of "God" Should be everyone's reality??? Is one's understanding of "God" to be imposed under threat of punishment?

Respect means to me that I can see rationally how one can understand something differently. If a political side "wins", then that is more respectable, than saying that "God willed it so"!!! Irrationality is NOT respectable!!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Or I should say that "irrationality" is disrespecable because it dismisses a Constitutional government for some other "ideal".

Art, beauty and literature can be "irrational appeals" to "the human", but these have no place in understading government, or structuring government!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I can respect a person if they are respectful of me. That meeans that I have a right to disagree with them politically. Mutuality of respect is basic to relational equality. Otherwise, one is the dependent and the other is the empowered. This is not mutuality, but subservience, which is not political liberty.

Ideas aren't all equal, so respecting ideas that aren't based on real live solutions, experience, investigation, etc. are prone to appeals to emotion, but little else.

Therefore, respect for individuals can be based on relational mutuality, respect for boundaries, and compromise/negotiation of the basis of relationship, otherwise there is no real basis to consider an "I-Thou" relationship, because then, I am only the "IT". And I don't think it is wise to respect that!

Jason Pappas said...

Excellent example, Mark, of Washington leading by example. He didn't write the essays and books like Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. However, establishing a practice and/or tradition was and is just as important. If he didn't do more, as some today wished, it wasn't for lack of trying. I marvel at how much he did do.

PS Let's remember that a few years before when Parliament passed the Quebec Acts, the Colonials were alarmed at the regard and power given Catholics. Thus, Washington was leading the way to establishing a respect that didn't exist.

Mark D. said...


Great points. You are spot on about the colonists' response to the Quebec Act -- in fact, if one looks at language in the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of Independence, it is clear that the colonists were unhappy, to say the least, about a Catholic establishment in North America.

You're also spot on about Washington leading by example. Of all the Founders, Washington was the least theoretical but by his example sought to incarnate the virtues of the emerging American order. One of those key virtues -- one that Washington emphasized both in his military career and as a politician -- was religious liberty as a uniform value. Religious liberty for Protestants (of various stripes) as well as for tiny religious minorities in the young American Republican like Catholics and Jews.

Phil Johnson said...

Seems quite clear that Washington was the consummate diplomat when it came to addressing his religious audiences.

Mark D. said...


Well phrased. Washington's orders to Arnold are the product of Washington's effort to win the Canadians over to the American side of the emerging conflict with Britain. He was being diplomatic, no question, in an effort to show that the American Continentals were not going to endanger the unique culture and religion of the inhabitants of Canada. That was the prudential part of Washington's approach. But there was a principled part as well -- that's the part of liberty of conscience that Washington emphasized. That wasn't needed -- Washington simply could have ordered that the Catholic establishment be respected and protected. But he went beyond that. Again, was there a prudential concern in play? Yes -- likely to prevent a revolt among the Protestant Continentials if they were required to enforce a Catholic establishment. But there was also a principled element there -- an element that Washington would continually emphasize during his public life.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done to Jason, Phil & Mark. This understands Washington the public man. As for the private man, I think he believed everything and disbelieved everything. He went to church often to listen to sermons, and had a big collection of printed sermons, more than big-thinker books.

In our lives, young, old, and not-so-young-or-old, we are all seekers. The wise or prudent man always leaves the question open. Perhaps Jim is right; perhaps Joe. Perhaps neither, but let them be.

To his pal Lafayette, Washington wrote:

I stand before you as a Culprit: but to repent and be forgiven are the precepts of Heaven: I do the former, do you practice the latter, and it will be participation of a divine attribute.

This is kind of Christian. But as for "faith alone saves," and doctrine and dogma all the rest, he later wrote to Lafayette

"I am not less ardent in my wish, that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Let them be. This is genuine American religious pluralism, set in motion from the first by George Washington, the father of his country.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I can let them be, as long as they let me be...that goes also for the humanists, or the scientific investigator....people need to MTOB (mind their own business), and look after their "own stuff", then we might find and have peace...

But, those that are bent on getting everyone one "their airplane", also disturb the peace of another's vision, goal or purpose...our courts were to arbitrate in these conflicts, weren't they?

Tom Van Dyke said...

No. Our legislatures. Somebody's always going to "interfere" with somebody else's vision. We elect a legislature to determine what "our" vision shall be.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, certainly, this is true as to our nation, at the federal and local levels. And the visions that are projected become the job opportunities within the government, equal opportunity, meaning an advertisement for the positions needed.

Even though the "good ole boy" system is still in place, the government must advertise these positions, unless it is a political appointment...

Tom Van Dyke said...