George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Society of Quakers, 13 October 1789

To the Society of Quakers

[c.13 October 1789]


I receive with pleasure your affectionate address, and thank you for the friendly Sentiments & good wishes which you express for the Success of my administration, and for my personal Happiness.1

We have Reason to rejoice in the prospect that the present National Government, which by the favor of Divine Providence, was formed by the common Counsels, and peaceably established with the common consent of the People, will prove a blessing to every denomination of them. To render it such, my best endeavours shall not be wanting.

Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the Persons and Consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of Rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but according to their Stations, to prevent it in others.

The liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights—While men perform their social Duties faithfully, they do all that Society or the State can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for the Religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or profess.

Your principles & conduct are well known to me—and it is doing the People called Quakers no more than Justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burthen of the common defence) there is no Denomination among us who are more exemplary and useful Citizens.

I assure you very explicitly that in my opinion the Consciencious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy & tenderness, and it is my wish and desire that the Laws may always be as extensively accomodated to them, as a due regard to the Protection and essential Interests of the Nation may Justify, and permit.

Go: Washington

ALS, PHC: Quaker Collection; LB, DLC:GW; copy, Berkshire Record Office, Shire Hall, Reading, England; copy, NHyF: Collection of Naval and Marine Manuscripts. GW headed this address: “The answer of the President of the United States to the Address of the Religious Society called Quakers, from their yearly Meeting for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Western parts of Maryland and Virginia.”

1The address of “the Religious Society called Quakers, from their Yearly Meeting for Pennsylvania, New-Jersey, and the western Parts of Virginia and Maryland,” held in Philadelphia, 28 Sept.–3 Oct. 1789, reads: “Being met in this our Annual Assembly for the well-ordering the Affairs of our Religious Society, and the Promotion of universal Righteousness, our Minds have been drawn to consider that the Almighty, who ruleth in Heaven and in the Kingdoms of Men having permitted a great Revolution to take place in the Government of this Country, we are fervently concerned that the Rulers of the People may be favered with the Counsel of God, the only sure Means of enabling them to fulfill the important Trust committed to their Charge, and in an especial manner that Divine Wisdom and Grace vouched from above, may qualify thee to fill up the Duties of the exalted Station, to which thou art appointed.

“We are sensible thou hast obtained great Place in the Esteem and Affe[c]tions of People of all Denominations, over whom thou presidest; and many eminent Talents being committed to thy Trust, we much desire they may be fully devoted to the Lord’s Honour and Service, that thus thou mayest be an happy Instrument in his Hand, for the Suppression of Vice, Infidelity and Irreligion, and every Species of Oppression on the Persons and Consciences of Men, so that Righteousness and Peace, which truly exalt a Nation, may prevail throughout the Land as the only solid Foundation that can be laid for the Prosperity and Happiness of this or any Country.

“The free Toleration which the Citizens of these States enjoy in the publick Worship of the Almighty, agreable to the Dictates of their Consciences, we esteem among the holiest of Blessings; and as we desire to be filled with fervent Charity for those who differ from us in Faith and Practice, believing that the general Assembly of Saints is composed of the sincere and upright hearted of all Nations, Kingdoms and People; so we trust we may justly claim it from others, and in a full Persuasion that the Divine Principle we profess, leads into Harmony and Concord, we can take no part in carrying on War on any Occasion, or under any Power, but are bound in Conscience to lead quiet and peaceable Lives in Godliness and Honesty amongst Men, contributing freely our Proportion to the Indigences of the poor and to the necessary Support of civil Government, acknowledging those ‘who rule well to be worthy of double Honour,’ and if any professing with us, are, or have been ⟨of a con⟩trary Disposition and Conduct, we own them not therein, having never been chargeable from our first Establishment as a Religious Society, with fomenting or countenancing Tumults or Conspiracies or Disrespect to those who are placed in Authority over us.

“We wish not improperly to intrude on thy Time or Patience, nor is it our Practice to offer Adulation to any; but as we are a People whose Principles and Conduct have been misrepresented and traduced, we take the Liberty to assure thee, that we feel our Hearts affectionately drawn towards thee, and those in Authority over us, with Prayers that thy Presidency may, under the Blessing of Heaven, be happy to thyself and to the People; that through the encrease of Morality and true Religion, Divine Providence may condescend to look down upon our Land with a propitious Eye and bless the Inhabitants with a Continuance of Peace, the Dew of Heaven, and the Fatness of the Earth, and enable us gratefully to acknowledge his manifold Mercies. And it is our earnest Concern, that he may be pleased to grant thee every necessary Qualification to fill thy weighty and important Station to his Glory; and that finally, when all terrestial Honours shall fail and pass away, thou and thy respectable Consort may be found worthy to receive a Crown of unfading Righteousness in the Mansions of Peace and Joy for ever” (NHyF). The address is signed by Nicholas Waln, clerk of the assembly.

A delegation of Quakers met with GW on 13 October to present the address, which, with GW’s reply, was printed in the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Evening Post of 17 October.

A second address from the assembly, also signed by Nicholas Wain, was addressed to GW, the Senate, and the House of Representatives: “Firmly believing that unfeigned righteousness in public as well as private stations is the only sure ground of hope for the divine blessing, whence alone rulers can derive true honour, establish sincere confidence in the hearts of the people, and feeling their minds animated with the ennobling principle of universal good-will to men, find a conscious dignity and felicity in the harmony and success attending the exercise of a solid uniform virtue; short of which the warmest pretensions to public spirit, zeal for our country, and the rights of men, are fallacious and illusive.

“Under this persuasion as professors of faith in that ever blessed all perfect Lawgiver, whose injunction remains of undiminished obligation on all who profess to believe in him; ‘whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them,’ we apprehend ourselves religiously bound to request your serious christian attention to the deeply interesting subject whereon our religious society in their annual assembly in the Tenth month 1783, addressed the then Congress, who, though the christian rectitude of the concern, was by the Delegates generally acknowledged, yet, not being vested with the powers of legislation, they declined promoting any public remedy against the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow-men; but divers of the legislative bodies of the different states on this continent, have since manifested their sense of the public detestation due to the licentious wickedness of the African trade for slaves, and the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it; the debasing influence whereof most certainly tends to lay waste the virtue, and of course the happiness of the people.

“Many [of] the enormities abhorrent to common humanity [in] this abominable commerce, are practised in some of these united states; which we judge it not needful to particularize to a body of men chosen as eminently distinguishable for wisdom and extensive information; but we find it indispensably incumbent on us as a religious body, assuredly believing that both the true temporal interest of nations, and eternal well being of individuals depend on doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God, the creator, preserver, and benefactor of men, thus to attempt to excite your attention to the affecting subject, earnestly desiring that the infinite Father of Spirits may so enrich your minds with his Love and Truth, and so influence your understanding by that pure wisdom which is full of mercy and good fruits, as that a sincere and impartial enquiry may take place, whether it be not an essential part of the duty of your exalted station, to exert upright endeavours to the full extent of your power, to remove every obstruction to public righteousness, which the influence and artifice of particular persons, governed by the narrow mistaken views of self interest has occasioned; and whether notwithstanding such seeming impediment, it be not in reality within your power to exercise Justice and Mercy; which if adhered to, we cannot doubt, must produce the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

“We consider this subject so essentially and extensively important, as to warrant a hope that the liberty we now take will be understood, as it really is, a compliance with a sense of religious duty; and that your christian endeavours to remove reproach from the land, may be efficacious to sweeten the labour and lessen the difficulties incident to the discharge of your important Trust” (DNA: RG 46, First Congress, Petition and Memorials, Resolutions of State Legislatures, and Related Documents). This address was presented to the House of Representatives on 11 Feb. 1790 (Journal of the House description begins The Journal of the House of Representatives: George Washington Administration 1789–1797. Edited by Martin P. Claussen. 9 vols. Wilmington, Del., 1977. description ends , 2:33).

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