The Founders on Religious Liberty and Toleration

Below are a selection of quotations from the Founding generation on religious liberty and toleration.

(1) Charter of the Colony of Rhode Island (1663)

“[N]oe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments[.]”

(2) Thomas Paine, Thoughts on Defensive War (1775)

“[S]piritual freedom is the root of political liberty.

First. Because till spiritual freedom was made manifest, political liberty did not exist.

Secondly. because in proportion that spiritual freedom has been manifested, political liberty has encreased. . . .

As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems near inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”

(3) John Adams to Dr. Price (1785)

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions . . . shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and powers. . . we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

(4) James Monroe, Address to the Virginia Assembly (June 20, 1785)

“We hold it for a fundamental and inalienable truth that religious and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction and not by force and violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction  and conscience of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

(5) Virginia Act for Religious Freedom (1786)

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

(6) George Washington, Letter to the United Baptist Church of Virginia (1789)

“[E]very man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

(7) George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790)

“While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in 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 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.

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 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.”

(8) Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut (1802)

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

(9) Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush (1803)

“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of its it the case of others.”

(10) James Madison to Mordecai Noah (1818)

“I have ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions and worship as equally belonging to every sect.”

Book Spotlight: Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness

John Kaminski, founder and director of The Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director and co-editor of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution series, has a new book out on Alexander Hamilton.

In “Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness,” Kaminski brings Hamilton to life by publishing the words of not only Alexander Hamilton but also his contemporaries. The quotations in this volume were taken from the letters of the Founder, journals, diaries, newspaper essays, and speeches.

A few quotes I’d like to spotlight from the book –

(1) President George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 2 February 1795 – “In every relation, which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions and integrity, has been well placed. I the more freely render this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information which cannot deceive me, and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard.”

(2) John Adams to Abigail Adams, 9 January 1797 – “Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know. As great an Hypocrite as nay in the U.S. His Intrigues in the Election I despise. That he has Talents I admit. But I dread none of them. I shall take no notice of his Puppyhood but retain the same Opinion of him I always had and maintain the Same Conduct towards him I always did, that is keep him at a distance.”

(3) The Federalist No. 34, 5 January 1788 – “We must bear in mind, that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil Government are not to be framed upon a calculation of exigencies; but upon a combination of these, with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing therefore can be more fallacious, than to infer the extent of any power, property to be lodged in the National Government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a capacity to provide for future contingencies, as they may happen; and, as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.”

(4) Caesar No. II, 17 October 1787 – “There are always men in society of some talents, but more ambition, in quest of that which it would be impossible for them to obtain in any other way than by working on the passions and prejudices of the less discerning classes of citizens and yeomanry. — It is the plan of men of this stamp to frighten the people with ideal bugbears, in order to mould them to their own purposes. The unceasing cry of these designing croakers is, my friends, your liberty is invaded! Have you thrown off the yoke of one tyrant, to invest yourselves with that of another! Have you fought, bled, and conquered, for such a change! If you have – go – retire into silent obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you.”

(5) The Federalist No. 15, 1 December 1787 – “The best oracle of wisdom, experience.”

(6) The Federalist No. 30, 1 January 1788 – “In disquisition of every kind there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind.”

I highly recommend that any fans of Hamilton, his eponymous Broadway show, or the Founders generally pick up this book! It’s available for purchase via Amazon.com here.

 

 

 

Knowledge is the Soul of a Republic: The Founders on Education

The Founding generation understood the fundamental importance of education. In 1785, John Jay wrote,  “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic[.]” Below is a selection of quotes from the Founding generation on the importance of education. I hope these quotes help inspire the current generation to invest in the education of our nation’s young people.

(1) “It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to a excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.” – John Adams

(2) “[T]he preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.” – John Adams

(3) “The infant mind is pregnant with a variety of passions; But I apprehend it is in the power of those who are entrusted with the education of youth in a considerable degree to determine the bent of the noble passions and to fix them on salutary objects, or let them loose to such as are pernicious or destructive. Here then lies the foundation of civil liberty; in forming the habits of youthful mind, in forwarding every passion that may trend to the promotion of the happiness of the community, in fixing in ourselves right ideas of benevolence, humanity, integrity and truth.” – Nathanael Greene

(4) “The slavery of a people is generally founded in ignorance of some kind or another; and there are not wanting such facts as abundantly prove the human mind may be so sunk and debased, through ignorance and its natural effects, as even to adore its enslaver, and kiss its chains. Hence knowledge and learning may well be considered as most essentially requisite to a free, righteous government.” – Samuel Phillips Payson

(5) “[I]lluminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes[.]” – Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge

(6) “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate.” – John Jay

(7) “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.” – Benjamin Rush

(8) Every child in American should be acquainted with this own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” – Noah Webster

(9) “In a government founded on the sovereignty of the people the education of youth is an object of the first importance. In such a government knowledge should be diffused throughout the whole society, and for that purpose the means of acquiring it made not only practicable but easy to every citizen.” – James Monroe

(10) “It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” – James Madison

(11) “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirit at the dawn of the day.” – Thomas Jefferson.

(12) “Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” – James Madison

(13) “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” – Thomas Jefferson

(14) “It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. Thepeople themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.” – James Monroe

 

 

The Founders on Elections and Politics

As we near the November 8 election, I thought I’d share some interesting and relevant quotations from the Founding generation on elections and politics –

(1) “Whenever politics are applied to debauch mankind from their integrity and dissolve the virtue of human nature, they become detestable; and to be a statesman on this plan, is to be commissioned a villain. He who aims at it, leaves a vacancy in his character, which may be filled up with the worst epithets.” – Thomas Paine

(2) “An auxiliary desideratum for the melioration of the Republican form is such a process of elections as will most certainly extract from the mass of the Society the purest and noblest characters which it contains; such as will at once feel most strongly the proper motives to pursue the end of their appointment, and be most capable to devise the proper means of attaining it.” – James Madison, Vices of the Political System of the United States (1787)

(3) “After all, Sir we must submit to this idea, that the true principe of a republic is that the people should choose whom they please to govern them. Representation is imperfect in proportion as the current of popular favor is checked. This great source of free government, popular election, should be perfectly pure, and the most unbounded liberty allowed.” – Alexander Hamilton.

(4) “Corruption in Elections has heretofore destroyed all Elective Governments. What Regulations or Precautions may be devised to prevent it in future, I am content with you to leave to Posterity to consider. You and I Shall go to the Kingdom of the just or at least shall be released from the Republick of the Unjust, with Hearts pure and hands clean of all Corruption in Elections: so much I firmly believe. Those who shall introduce the foul Fiend on the Stage, after We are gone must exorcise him as they can.” – John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (April 6, 1796)

(5) “In all free governments, contentions in elections will take place, and, whilst it is confined to our own citizens, it is not to be regretted; but severely indeed ought it to be reprobated, when occasioned by foreign machinations.” – George Washington

(6) “Politics is such a torment than I would advise everyone I love not to mix with it.” -Thomas Jefferson

(7) “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.” – Thomas Jefferson

(8) “Every man who acts beyond the lien of private life, must expect to pass through two severe examinations. First, as to his motives; secondly, as to his conduct. On the former of these depends his character for honesty; on the latter for wisdom.” – Thomas Paine

(9) “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 57

(10) “[I]n no case ought the eyes of the people to be shut on the conduct of those entrusted with power; nor their tongues tied from a just wholesome censure on it, any more than from merited commendations. If neither gratitude for the honor of the trust, nor responsibility for the use of it, be sufficient to curb the unruly passions of public functionaries, add new bits to the bridle rather than to take it off altogether. This is the precept of common sense illustrated and enforced by experience — un-controuled power, ever has been, and ever will be administered by the passions more than by reason.” – James Madison, Political Reflections

 

The Founders on the Presidency

As someone who runs a non-profit (www.ConSource.org) focused on making U.S. constitutional history more accessible to and understandable by the American public , I often spend my time steeped in the writing of the Founding Fathers. We are now exactly one month from election day and so I thought I’d share some of their thoughts on the presidency in today’s blog post.

(1) “This process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of president, will never fall to the lot of any man, who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” – Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 68 

(2) “The powers of the Executive of the U. States are more definite, & better understood perhaps than those of almost any other Country; and my aim has been, & will continue to be, neither to stretch, nor relax from them in any instance what ever, unless imperious circumstances shd. render the measure indispensible [sic].” – George Washington to Alexander Hamilton (July 2, 1794)

(3) “The next good quality that I remark is, that the executive authority is one. By this means we obtain very important advantages. We may discover from history, from reason, and from experience, the security which this furnishes. The executive power is better to be trusted when it has no screen. Sir, we have a responsibility in the person of our President; he cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon any other person the weight of his criminality; no appointment can take place without his nomination; and he is responsible for every nomination he makes. We securevigor. We well know what numerous executives are. We know there is neither vigor, decision, nor responsibility, in them. Add to all this, that officer is placed high, and is possessed of power far from being contemptible; yet not a single privilege is annexed to his character; far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.” – James Wilson, Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention (December 4, 1787)

(4) “There is an idea, which is not without its advocates, that a vigorous executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government. The enlightened well wishers to this species of government must at least hope that the supposition is destitute of foundation; since they can never admit its truth, without at the same time admitting the condemnation of their own principles. Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks: It is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws, to the protection of property against those irregular and high handed combinations, which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice, to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction and of anarchy. Every man the least conversant in Roman story knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals, who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community, whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies, who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome. . . . Taking it for granted, therefore that all men of sense will agree in the necessity of an energetic executive; it will only remain to inquire, what are the ingredients which constitute this energy–how far can they be combined with those other ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense? And how far does this combination characterise the plan, which has been reported by the convention? The ingredients, which constitute energy in the executive, are first unity, secondly duration, thirdly an adequate provision for its support, fourthly competent powers.” – Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 70

(5) “If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design; and, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely–and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion–have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete with such insupportable evils. If we make a king, we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the President, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke. I cannot with patience think of this idea. If ever he violates the laws, one of two things will happen: he will come at the head of his army, to carry every thing before him; or he will give bail, or do what Mr. Chief Justice will order him. If he be guilty, will not the recollection of his crimes teach him to make one bold push for the American throne? Will not the immense difference between being master of every thing, and being ignominiously tried and punished, powerfully excite him to make this bold push? But, sir, where is the existing force to punish him? Can he not, at the head of his army, beat down every opposition? Away with your President! we shall have a king: the army will salute him monarch: your militia will leave you, and assist in making him king, and fight against you: and what have you to oppose this force? What will then become of you and your rights? Will not absolute despotism ensue?” – Patrick Henry, Virginia Ratifying Convention (June 5, 1788)

This seems like a good time to encourage folks to read Article II of the Constitution, as well. You can read it here.