On the Fourth of July: None of us has Inalienable Rights if American Muslims don’t

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

On this day when the United States was first conceived in rebellion against people being deprived of their God-given rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it is worth remarking on our political season.

One of our two major presidential candidates has targeted America’s some 3 million Muslims as second-class citizens who need not be granted their constitutional rights to freedom of worship and freedom of movement. He has talked of closing mosques and excluding their relatives from coming to this country.

It is too little appreciated that such a stand does not only deprive the minority of their constitutional rights but rather makes our entire society unfree for all. Lord Acton wrote, in his History of Freedom and other Essays, “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities:”

These proposals are completely out of keeping with the spirit and the letter of the Founding generation, a point I have made before.

Some of the below is revised from an earlier text

The Founding Generation of the United States of America, who explicitly mentioned Islam among the cases when they spoke of religious freedom:

‘George Washington asked in a March 24, 1784, letter to his aide Tench Tilghman that some craftsmen be hired for him: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, [sic] Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, [Muslims] Jews, or Christian of any Sect – or they may be Atheists …”


In his letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, RI, Washington pledged that the “Children of Abraham” would not be made afraid in the United States (implicitly contrasting the new nation’s liberties and personal security with the pogroms of the Old World). It should be noted that Arab Muslims consider themselves, as well, descendants of Abraham through Ishmael:

” The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

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 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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Washington underlined that in the new social experiment that is the United States, toleration is not merely the indulgence of one group of people by a dominant elite. It is a right, which requires only that the individual be an upright citizen of the new country, which “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Donald Trump is himself a bigot not good enough to pronounce George Washington’s name aloud, much less to succeed him in office.

Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here is the whole quote:

‘And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service. ‘

Not only did Ben Franklin not want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he wanted to invited them!

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom:

‘ that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right . . . ‘

As I observed on another occasion, it was Jefferson’s more bigotted opponents in the Virginia legislature who brought up the specter of Muslims and atheists being elected to it in the world Jefferson was trying to create. He was undeterred by such considerations, which should tell us something.

British social philosopher John Locke was extremely influential on the Founding Generation, and on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. John Locke had already advocated civil rights for non-Christians, including Muslims, in his Letter on Toleration:

‘ Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors [believers], all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. ‘

Here is Jefferson again: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”
– Thomas Jefferson, note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816.

Or: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

The US Senate, full of founding fathers, and the Adams government, approved the Treaty with Tripoli (now Libya) of 1797, which included this language:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The treaty is important for showing the mindset of the fashioners of the American system.

And here is a final point for Mr. Trump and his ilk to consider. The United States was born of a war against the British crown, the state religion of which was the Anglican Church. Those Anglicans who insisted on swearing allegiance to King George III were viewed as the enemy. And, the British custom of ‘establishing’ the Anglican church in many of the colonies, i.e. making it the state religion, was renounced by the revolutionaries. But there was no question that apolitical Anglicans could practice their religion freely, found Anglican (“Episcopalian”) churches anywhere they liked (even in places where the Americans and British had waged fierce battles, like New York), and even go to Britain to arrange for the training of Episcopalian/Anglican priests.

There is more. In 1787, Samuel Provoost was made the Episcopalian bishop of New York. He had been a Whig and a supporter of the Revolution even though an Anglican. In 1789, the US Senate made him its chaplain!

So not only did the Founding Generation not harbor a grudge against the religion of the British Crown (which had tried to crush them), they were perfectly willing to give non-Tory Anglicans high official positions in the new Republic. It would be as though the the current chaplain of the Senate were a former al-Qaeda member who had broken with Bin Laden and declared allegiance to the United States.

That is, the Founding Generation made a key distinction between religious practice and political loyalty, and had granted freedom of religion to non-Tory Anglicans.

13 Responses

  1. The Dhaka killers were young, wealthy and educated; and native – they were not coping with “assimilation” into an alien society, or the economic stresses of the recent immigrant. This simply raises the level of fear and suspicion.

    Further, the Founding Fathers would not have welcomed Savanrola to the new United States.

  2. Sorry Professor: Too much talk about Trump. He is just a caricature of most American politicians.
    So far he’s only talk.
    The other are the doers” They have been instrumental in the actual destabilization and killing of millions of Muslims in the last 15 years.

    • No, he’s not just talk. I left a planned long weekend visit with my family early on Sunday afternoon while just barely containing my dismay and rage at my father’s recital of bigoted statements drawn directly from the Trump playbook. Don’t know whether I’m welcome back in the future or if I want to be. Although my father has always been a ‘soft’ bigot to a degree, now that Donald Trump has opened the floodgates of public discourse in favor of bigotry and racism to the worst extent in decades, my father, who hasn’t a single reason in the universe to speak ill against any person based on ethnic heritage or skin color, is casually spouting filth. Donald Trump is a dangerously ignorant, rotten, utterly selfish con man whose current presence on one of the largest bully pulpits in the world has the potential to pollute American ‘civil’ discourse for decades, or worse.

      As to the ‘doers,’ the constant vitriol flowing from the Trump campaign provides them perfect cover. My father STILL buys the BS that Iraq was part of ‘they’ (apparently anyone with an Arabic-sounding name) who were behind the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s absurd, convoluted and self-contradictory dialogue is generating a thick cloud of smoke which repels truth and reason, and welcomes dissembling and the blaming of everything that might be not awesome about the United States on groups of people identifiable solely by ethnic background as poorly indicated via skin pigmentation or (the current target of opportunity – in so many more ways than one) names that sound sort of Arabic… It’s the crowning achievement of organized, motivated ignorance.
      If I ever meet the prick, I will simply call him out as a man to defend what he has said against me, an unarmed man, but with honor. President or not. That’s what he merits for pushing utter filth into my family. And – Juan or other moderator – I’m not advocating anything other than appropriately demanding that a man stand behind hateful rhetoric in a manner that it is entirely consistent with American principles of responsibility for one’s own conduct. Of course he would ditch such a challenge, and if he didn’t, he’d live through it, but he’d get a taste of the meaning of responsibility. His rhetoric may have cracked my extended family in half for an indefinite period of time, and that finally made the devolvement of the state of the 2016 national elections into the farce it has become very, very personal.

      • From here in the UK, I feel your pain, Dan. We had two political charlatans every bit as bad as Trump in Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I used to think that bad as the British press is, it’s not in the Fox News league. Oh, yes it is. Take a warning from what’s just happened here.

  3. Washington and his cohorts were faced with a potential threat for the new nation. Although the Bay Area Colony of Massachusetts had become more lenient towards allowing Catholics and other religious “riff-raff” to live in that state one could never be sure that there would not arise some day a fanatic in the State of Massachusetts who, with a large voting support in the State House, would again forbid Catholics to settle in that State. The amendment on government and religion throttled that threat.

  4. In a totalitarian regime, one is free to say anything the government wants you to say. In a land ruled by terrorists (such as the KKK), one is free to say anything that the terrorists approve of.

    Freedom is not only the ability to say things that the government does not approve of, but also having the government’s protection from those who seek to use force or the color of law to suppress differing opinions.

  5. How, then, in all that eschewal of official religiosity, did they imagine they should have an official *chaplain*? A blind spot, apparently.

  6. I would say say that slavery is a bit more severe curtailment of freedom than religious intolerance. Freeing slaves does not appear to have even been an agenda item, but it certainly appears that freedom from religious persecution was of the utmost concern.

    • there was a passage in the original Declaration about freeing the slaves; Jefferson had to take it out to get the text passed.

      • And what about the language concerning the oh so savage natives being whipped up by the Monarch. Were there any issues getting that language added?

  7. Professor Cole – great reminder of our founding principles vis-à-vis religious freedom, which too many Americans do not understand today. But for accuracy’s sake, you should have noted that John Locke did not extend “toleration” to Roman Catholics in England.

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