Toleration: As American as George Washington

George Washington knew what toleration meant: not condescension from on high, but everyone having to put up with someone.

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.


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

14 thoughts on “Toleration: As American as George Washington”

  1. Hear, hear!

    Are there people who don't believe in civility now? Glad I don't know any. Eeeesh.

    1. I believe in civility, but I also understand that it's often a pretense used to tell inconvenient people to shut up and sit down. Genuine civility is a fine thing. The kind that's used to silence points of view? Not so much.

      1. Add "professional" and "appropriate" to the list of "shut up and sit down" words. In my childhood and youth, "ladylike" was also one but that has, thank goodness, gone away.

  2. Good catch on the elided Washington quote!

    The questionable point in your argument is this:

    But his awareness that toleration could be a fine and necessary practice among equals suggests an insight akin to Shklar’s.

    You thoughtfully emphasized it for me: Is this truly a society of equals? I'm not so sure. One of the questions we've been working out for some time now is whether a form of government intended for democracy among an elite can serve an entire nation equally. It's not settled.

    There's a third possibility beyond the two you posit in the paragraph above, the aristocratic downlook and the democratic jostle: pluralistic dominance. (The concept of "white fragility" fits nicely into this.) We see it in the GOP's relentless struggle to find a significant group of non-white people they don't hate and who don't hate them. For some time after white folks stop being the majority of people, they're going to retain the majority of power. If they can build a shifting coalition based on common enemies, tactical tolerance will be both carrot and stick.

    1. I don't think people are motivated by hatred as much as you would have it.

      In the last election, Republicans improved their standing with Hispanics and with Asians. (And with Whites, too, by the way.) The Dems got 62% of the Hispanic vote, which was comparable to the GOP's 60% of the white vote. And the GOP got almost half of the Asian vote.

      Whether this trend continues, we will see. IA lot will depend on their choice of candidate in 2016.

      Blacks are firmly in the Democratic camp, and the GOP has mostly written them off. I can't say that's a bad strategy.

  3. johnarkansawyer: Of course the possibility of tolerance (or toleration; some would like to sharply distinguish the two, but descriptive English usage doesn't cooperate) among equals doesn't settle the question of who will be truly accepted as equals. As an obvious example: Washington did, I think, intend to include Newport's Jews as equal citizens. Women, not to mention his own slaves, not so much.

    All manners of combinations among these phenomena can occur (for instance, as you imply, there may simultaneously be "indulgence" toleration towards subordinate groups but reciprocal/equal toleration among the ruling group[s]). As a citizen and political junkie, I have my own opinions and predictions. But I don't think political theory or conceptual analysis can in any way settle the question.

    1. It seems that there's another key distinction, which is governmental vs private: Jews were treated as equals by the government, but there was a huge amount of private discrimination against Jews.

      That government should accept differences which privately are sometimes tolerated and sometimes sanctioned is workable, and the historic norm. The recent development has been insisting that the same "not tolerance, but acceptance" dogma that applies to government should apply to everyone's private conduct, which is a huge change-it makes government acceptance or disapproval a winner-take-all system.

  4. Yeah, this whole discrepancy is WRIT LARGE in the gay marriage discussions. I see a whole lot of "Boulder Progressives" (you know, the type who drive a Prius and have been to one gay wedding, but think unions are horrible and do all their shopping at Wal-Mart and want to make sure their kids get into the local catchment school that has fewer of…..THOSE sorts) who crow about how "tolerant" they're teaching their kids to be. They baby-talk at them, "it's OKAY that Flora has TWO MOMMIES," And out of the other side of their mouths, they react with horror when their daughters display some sort of benignly Sapphic behavior. The message is clear: I won't be the first in line at the lynching, but the person I'm tolerating is certainly THE OTHER, and not of my kith and kin.

  5. Oh, yes, tolerance should never be married to hypocrisy; it must be genuine acceptance and respect for those who accept and respect us. But in the world today, I see too many Talibans — even here in the good old USA.

    In defense of George Washington, we should see his progressive attitudes as being advanced for the conventions of his day. Women were formidable and influential, but let's be serious, we can't let them vote or become members of the legislature. As for slavery, he clearly understood that it had to be part of the "grand bargain" necessary to create a United States of America in 1787. But he (like many southern contemporaries) saw slavery as a slowly-expiring institution, and did not foresee the cotton gin that would give it a new lease on life. Finally, he was a firm but fair slave owner, never brutal, and he freed his personal slaves in his will upon his death. On the whole a good man, for his time. And, by the way, also a good general who learned from his errors, and was lucky — a quality Napoleon valued in his generals.

  6. Mr. Washington's letter is in the public domain, so it's not hard to find a copy that isn't hiding behind a paywall. Here's one:

    In response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling in the matter of Employment Division v. Smith, which denied unemployment benefits to a member of the Native American Church who was fired from his job for using peyote in a ritual setting, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to correct what they saw as an infringement of religious liberty. People really believed in religious freedom in those days, so much that the bill passed unanimously in the House and 97 to 3 in the Senate and signed by President Bill Clinton.

    Just last year, in Indiana, there was a bill that attempted to do that at the state level. The state bill was modeled after the earlier Federal bill and the differences were quite minor. If you supported one, you really ought to support the other. There were a bunch of big corporations I’m sure many of the readers of this blog have read about this bill.

    A very, very low bar for liberals to jump over is to support the Indiana bill. If you can’t support that, you’re not much of a liberal. Where were the Democrats on this one? Why couldn’t Obama, after all his flowery speeches about religious diversity, speak out in favor of this very modest, very benign Indiana bill? I can’t find any important Democratic figures who offered a word of support.

    The Republicans did much better, with most of the presidential contenders speaking out in favor of the bill.

    Liberals are not welcome in today’s Democratic Party. You can call yourself a liberal, but you’d better not speak out in favor of any kind of liberal polity. This is all of a piece with the Hobby Lobby case, where the Obama Administration insisted that the closely held corporation provide insurance for certain contraceptives, contrary to their religious objections.

    1. Why should an employer get to decide what health benefits an employee gets to use? Either they offer healthcare or they don't — and take the consequences. A corporation cannot have religious beliefs.

      But nice try.

      1. Why should an employer get to decide what health benefits an employee gets to use?

        Because, in this case, it violates the employer's religious beliefs.

        A corporation cannot have religious beliefs.

        We have a family-run business, organized as a corporation, all of whose owners share the same religious values. I think it's very reasonable to say that such a corporation has religious beliefs. Things are different in a publicly held corporation with a diverse collection of shareholders.

        Regardless of whether we view the corporation as having religious beliefs, it is certainly true that the business owners do.

        An administration that respected religious differences could have (at the very least) provided a waiver.

    2. Actually, the differences between the federal law and the Indiana law were, while subtle, pretty important. The effect is that the federal law was much narrower in scope and primarily dedicated to protecting the freedom of religious expression in private life, rather than allowing for profit enterprises to discriminate in their public activities.

      1. For reference, the Federal statute:

        There isn't any language in the Federal statute that specifies private life or that excludes for-profit enterprises. Here's what it says:

        Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.

        This all hangs on what we mean by "person." Definitions are given in the so-called "Dictionary Act."

        In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise—

        . . . .

        the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;

        If Congress had indeed wanted to narrow the scope of the bill to include only individuals, they would have made it explicit. The Indiana law makes explicit what is implicit in the Federal Law. Maybe it's because they don't have a similar dictionary statute, I'm not sure.

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