Our First President, Our First Bishop and Our First Freedom

George Washington and Archbishop John Carroll

It seems so fitting that the centerpiece of our local “Fortnight for Freedom” commemoration will be a June 24 “Celebration of Freedom” at the Charles E. Smith Center at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  That afternoon of prayer and celebration in support of religious freedom will take place at a university, and in a city, named for the “Father of our Country,” a man who had a profound respect for the importance of religious liberty and for the contributions that people of faith offer to our United States.

In a 1789 letter to the Quakers, President Washington noted, “The liberty enjoyed by the people of these states, of worshiping almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.”

That year, Washington had been unanimously elected as our first president, and Bishop John Carroll had been elected as the first Catholic bishop of the new United States.  On behalf of the Catholics of the nation, Bishop-elect Carroll sent a congratulatory letter to his friend, President Washington.  The letter was also signed by a distinguished group of Catholics including Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Marylander who was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to congratulating the new president, the letter noted, “While our country preserves her freedom and independence, we shall have a well-founded title to claim her justice, and the equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood spilt under your eyes, and to our common exertions for her defense – rights tendered more dear to us by the remembrances of former hardships.”  Before the American Revolution, then-Father Carroll had served as a priest in Maryland, which at the time of its founding a century before, had been a haven of religious toleration and the birthplace of religious freedom in the future United States. But in colonial times, Maryland devolved into a place where by law, Catholic chapels were locked and Catholics could not worship in public, vote, hold political office or practice law.

In his 1790 letter responding to the nation’s Catholics, President Washington expressed gratitude for the sacrifices that Catholics had made in helping to secure liberty for the new nation: “I presume that your fellow citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government….”  Washington emphasized his belief in the importance of all members of the community being “equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”

After President Washington’s death in 1799, Archbishop Carroll offered a moving eulogy of his friend, noting that in his farewell address upon leaving office, the first president had emphasized “that nations and individuals are under the moral government of an infinitely wise and just providence, that the foundations of their happiness are morality and religion, and their union amongst themselves their rock of safety.”

During this Fortnight for Freedom, Catholics all over America will stand together to offer prayers of thanks for the blessing of religious liberty and to express a commitment to defending that freedom for which their forebears died.  In Washington, we will gather in a city named for our first president, who recognized Catholics as his friends and fellow patriots and who knew that the right to religious liberty, our First Freedom in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, is central to who we are as people of faith and to who we are as Americans.  This is as true today as it was in 1789.