On June 29, 2012, the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia opened an exhibition called “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington & Religious Freedom.” Included in the exhibition are letters from 1789 between George Washington and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which are part of PYM records here at Haverford. The exhibit will run through September 30, 2012.
The letter to President Washington was composed on October 2, 1789 by a group of nineteen Quakers led by George Churchman and approved the next day during the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The meeting then selected a group of six Friends who “proceeded to New York” and, joined by a delegation from the New York Meeting for Sufferings, the path was cleared “for their personal attendance on the President” during which time “the address was read by one of the number, and [...] they were respectfully received.” Meeting records indicate that the delegation presented a copy of Robert Barclay’s Apology, the famous scholarly defence of Quaker practices, to Washington during the visit. Washington’s response, while critical of Quaker practice in some regards, was generally positive. News of the meeting spread quickly and on November 4, 1789, one Susanna Dillwyn reported in a letter to her father that Washington read his reply himself instead of leaving the task to his secretaries so that “he gains the esteem of everybody—those who agree in few other things all unite in admiring General Washington”(Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence, Library Company of Philadelphia).
The meeting with Washington followed the English Quaker tradition of making similar presentations upon the coronation of a new monarch. However, this letter had particular significance given Washington’s rocky history with the Friends. Washington’s first encounter with Quakers occurred as a young officer in Virginia when he faced the problem of what to do with six Friends who were among his conscripted men but refused to fight, work, or do anything to support the army. Though he treated them leniently, Washington resented the Quakers’ refusal to help with common defense. Washington’s distrust continued during the Revolution, as he believed the Quakers’ refusal to fight with the colonists stemmed from political sympathy for the British, and consequently he refused Quaker relief parties passage through colonist lines on a number of occasions. Still, Washington treated Friends with respect including entertaining a group of Quaker ladies, who had come to petition for the release of seventeen Quaker leaders, over dinner.
Washington became more friendly to the Quakers after coming to understand that the Friends’ pacifism stemmed from religious feelings not political leanings. Indeed one of his most trusted generals was the former Quaker Nathanael Greene. Given this history, the most explosive statement in the Friends’ letter is “As we desire to be filled with fervent charity for those who differ from us in faith and practice [...] we can take no part in carrying on war on any occasion, or under any power.” The duality of Washington’s feelings on this issue and for the Quakers in general comes through in his response, as he says of the Quakers that “except their declining to share with others the burthen of the common defence, there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens.” Washington believed that religion was valuable because it supported good citizenship, so, while Washington respected their freedom of belief, he rebuked Quaker practice for making for less useful citizens. Still, given their history of persecution, receiving Washington’s respect for their beliefs and the freedom of conscience must have been a remarkable moment for Quakers.
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