Toleration: As American as George Washington

Writing a book about toleration is a funny thing. There are some political values that everyone claims to be for while arguing about what they are: e.g. freedom, justice, and since 1945, democracy. There are other values whose meaning seems relatively clear (meaning that there’s room for several books about what they mean but not several thousand) but which seem mostly good to some people and mostly bad to others, depending on ideology: solidarity, authority, social justice, and so on. And then there are a very few concepts that seem to mean something clearly bad to one group of people but clearly good to another for reasons having involving neither ideology nor an endless argument about political life (as with “democracy,” an essentially contested concept). Essentially, there’s a heated and permanent disagreement over deep connotation among people who seem not to disagree profoundly over value but probably disagree on how the world works. Some people think that concept X simply means something that would be generally agreed to be bad; others, the opposite. Perhaps “civility” is a little like that. “Toleration” definitely is.

More precisely: a great many people who write about toleration think it’s obviously something hierarchical and condescending: a political authority arrogates the right to define which creeds or ideologies are wholesome, approved, and recommended as ideals but out of its infinite and self-congratulatory magnanimity chooses not to interfere with those who uphold different beliefs (while reserving the right to do so and clucking disapprovingly all the time). Another, equally respectable group, assumes that it’s synonymous with liberty and equality. On this view, toleration is what citizens of a diverse liberal polity practice towards one another all the time; we dislike many things about one another’s beliefs and practices, but indignantly, equally, and reciprocally reject the idea that interfering with others over them is our business.

When it comes to conceptual care, I can’t improve on Rainer Forst’s work, which traces and distinguishes the two connotative dogmas with great wisdom and erudition. What I can do is debunk the very common belief that George Washington employed the former. In fact, the opposite is the case. He distinguished toleration from indulgence, and applauded the equality inherent in toleration, American style. This matters. For if we think a liberal and democratic society can do without toleration, we’ll make fundamental mistakes about how it works.

The literature on American toleration ubiquitously—trust me on this, or google it—says that Washington, in a letter to Newport, R.I. Jews, declaimed the Old World practice of toleration in favor of universal religious liberty and equality. Typical here is Seymour Martin Lipset in American Exceptionalism (page 155):

The encouragement to American Jewry to play a full role in society and the polity is endemic in George Washington’s message to the Jews of Newport in 1790, that in the new United States, “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Even more significantly, the first president emphasized that the patronizing concept of “toleration…of one class of people…[by] another” has no place in America, that Jews are as American, and on the same basis, as anyone else. He recognized that tolerance denotes second-class citizenship.

[Bold type mine; internal footnote omitted]

Those ellipses might raise red flags. Indeed, what Washington really wrote (academic paywall) was this:

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 were 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 factions, 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.*

[Bold type mine]

In other words, Washington called indulgence a hierarchical and unequal concept but denied that toleration had anything to do with that. On the contrary: far from opposing toleration to equal “liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” regardless of religion and contingent only on demonstrated responsible behavior (“demean [oneself]” at the time meant “behave, conduct, or comport [oneself],” as in our “demeanor”—OED 6a), Washington wrote of toleration as a synonym for this kind of equal liberty.

As said, I think this matters. Those who deny that toleration could possibly be an egalitarian and democratic thing often have in mind that citizens of a democracy should celebrate one another’s beliefs and actions rather than merely tolerating them. But I’m with Judith Shklar on this (read the chapter on snobbery). While there’s a kind of aristocratic toleration that’s undemocratic, another kind is completely democratic. That is: in a diverse society, fragmented into small groups with their own tastes, standards, moral practices, and beliefs, each of us will at times feel superior to others, equally and reciprocally (those who listen to Thelonious Monk look down on those who prefer George Jones, and vice-versa). And everyone has reason to feel a bit afraid of what an actual or potential majority of fellow citizens could do to them if unchecked—and thus reason to value the checks.

Washington, the only prominent founder to lack a college education, was no deep, abstract political thinker. But his awareness that toleration could be a fine and necessary practice among equals suggests an insight akin to Shklar’s. Democracy and equal liberty cannot and should not entail that each of us is to love, or even like, everyone else’s beliefs and practices. They entail that we refrain from persecuting others for what seem like stupid beliefs to us, on the condition that they refrain from persecuting us for what seem like stupid beliefs to them. As long as we all behave decently, our beliefs are not others’ business. That kind of toleration will never go out of style.

*Lewis Abraham, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 3 (1895): 87-96, pp. 91-2. The last sentence alludes to something the Newport congregation had written about how the Government gives “bigotry no sanction.” That makes more sense than “factions.” Either Washington made a mistake or the 1895 transcriber did.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.