In August of 1790, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, received George Washington's justly famous letter on religious liberty. Responding to the Jews' congratulations on his presidency, Washington offered a concise but stirring enunciation of the novelty of American liberty:
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.George Washington, Writings (ed. John H. Rhodehamel; New York: Library of America, 1997) 766.
Washington drew a sharp distinction between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies the “indulgence of one class of people” toward another. It implies that a majority (or, alternatively, those who hold the balance of power in a polity) gives a minority (or a politically powerless group) the privilege of following their own way of life unmolested. For many centuries, toleration was the best that one could hope for, not just in Europe, but in the Muslim and pagan empires as well. Regimes of toleration, such as the millet system of the Ottomans or the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, allowed their subjects a generous latitude of belief and traditional behavior in the interest of civil peace, commercial prosperity, and so on. But “now no more” was toleration to be spoken of. The American experiment introduced a radical project of religious liberty. If toleration was, at best, an expression of enlightened statecraft, religious liberty was to be an expression of moral truth. Toleration was an act of prudence. Liberty was a requirement of conscience, of fixed moral principle. Toleration was grounded in politics, liberty in ethics.