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As commander in chief of the Continental Army and president of the United States, George Washington encouraged religious toleration and promoted liberty of conscience as a right. He did so to win the country’s independence and to perfect the nation’s freedom.

By Holly A. Mayer


In the mid 18th century, many British colonists derided Roman Catholicism in general and French Canadian Catholics in particular. The new British governors-general of Quebec Province nevertheless had taken the first steps toward toleration after the French and Indian War. Then the Quebec Act of 1774 further accommodated Catholic practices and institutions, infuriating Protestant zealots.

The need for allies in the War for Independence, however, meant that such extremists, along with other Americans, had to accept creeds and peoples they had formerly considered enemies. Although the First Continental Congress deemed the Quebec Act intolerable for political reasons, it soon echoed part of its religious liberality. The Second Continental Congress stepped up the toleration promised in Britain’s act and proclaimed that God, not Parliament, had granted liberty of conscience to all. Anti-Catholicism remained widespread during the Revolution and in the new Republic, but the recognition that allegiance to one nation did not require allegiance to one faith was growing.

General Washington advanced that belief when he ordered his officers and soldiers to respect Catholic practices as they marched into Canada in the fall of 1775. And he declared in an address to the Canadians that September: “The cause of America and of liberty is the cause of every virtuous [A]merican citizen; whatever may be his religion or his descent, the united colonies know no distinction but such as slavery, corruption, & arbitrary domination may create.”

The General also censured anti-Catholic actions among American troops camped around Boston. On November 5—Guy Fawkes Day in Old England and Pope’s Day in New England—he condemned plans to burn an effigy of the pope. He denounced the lack of decency and common sense, for the Canadians were comrades in the cause of liberty, and thus “insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused.”

Not everyone obeyed Washington’s directives or followed his example of toleration, but Congress supported the orders with its own. As American forces grimly hung on in Canada after the failure to take Quebec on December 31, 1775, Congress sent a delegation to assess the remaining forces and assist operations the following spring. Among its many instructions, Congress stipulated that the commissioners declare to the Canadians “that we hold sacred the Rights of Conscience” and that they could freely practice their faith if they guaranteed that other Christians “be equally entit[u]led to hold Offices and enjoy civil Privileges and the free Exercise of their Rel[e]igion.”

Paul Revere's engraving "The Mitred Minuet" was in reaction to the Quebec Act, which American colonists' condemned as one of the "Intolerable Acts." Corcoran Collection (National Gallery of Art)
Paul Revere's engraving "The Mitred Minuet" was in reaction to the Quebec Act, which American colonists' condemned as one of the "Intolerable Acts." Corcoran Collection (National Gallery of Art)

The commissioners could not persuade the wary Canadians, some of whom were angered by uncompensated seizure of supplies by Continentals and others who wanted proof that the Americans could prevail against British forces. Evidence of American intolerance, such as General Daniel Wooster’s opinion that Canadian recalcitrance was due to weak character and the influence of the Catholic clergy, also provided Canadians with a reason to reject a continental union.

Yet many Canadians had supported the American offensive into Canada, and hundreds of them joined the Continental Army. In so doing, French Canadian Catholics added to the religious pluralism of the army. They found, however, that freedom of conscience did not necessarily mean freedom from Protestant services. The “Rules and Articles for the Better Government of Troops” recommended that officers and soldiers “diligently” attend divine service. That provision and corollary orders by Washington were meant to promote virtue, establish good order, and ensure military discipline, not insult the faith of Catholic Continentals.

The commander in chief tried to prevent sectarianism from undermining unity in the ranks—whether between Protestants and Catholics or among different Protestant denominations. When in late May 1777 Congress resolved that there be one chaplain assigned to each brigade rather than to each regiment, Washington responded with officers’ protests that the new distribution might “introduce religious disputes into the Army” and, in some cases, “compel men to a mode of Worship, which they do not profess.” Washington said that regimental chaplains representing the men’s own religious sentiments showed “more generous toleration.”

Learn more about Washington's Belief in Religious Freedom

He thus supported enabling that kind of diversity, but he accepted reality’s constraints. The army could neither recruit nor pay for so many chaplains; nor, as evidenced by Catholics in the ranks, were all regiments religiously homogeneous. Necessity, as well as desire, underpinned the promises of toleration and promotion of ecumenical services. That was even more important when France became an ally and sent troops in 1778.

As president, Washington continued to pronounce against sectarianism as a threat to national union and personal rights. He assured the Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation in 1790: “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...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.”

About the Author

Holly A. Mayer is an historian of early America. She taught at Duquesne University for decades, studying the social and cultural histories of military forces in late 18th-century North America. She is the author of Congress's Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union.

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