On July 3, 1843, Mr. Joseph Simpson of Baltimore, a US citizen and a member of the Jewish faith, wrote President John Tyler a letter complaining of General of the Army Winfield Scott, in full military regalia, participating is some sort of Christian religious event in Baltimore. Mr. Simpson believed it was never the intention of the Founders to advantage any single religious confession over another, and the participation of General Scott and other officers in this Christian event in the official regalia of the US military may be misunderstood to suggest otherwise. Mr. Simpson wrote President Tyler, believing it his duty to report to the President this violation of the great tradition of the United States and its Constitution.
On July 10, 1843, President Tyler responded. Tyler expressed no knowledge of the event involving Scott, but suggested it must be him participating only as a private citizen. To that end, Tyler assured Mr. Simpson Scott must “lay aside his sword and epaulets” and appear “as a distinguished citizen but in no other light . . .” Tyler continues,
“. . . The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible cored of faith. The Mahomedan, if he will to come among us, would have the privilege guaranteed to them by the Constitution, to worship according to the Koran, and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions. The fruits are visible in the universal contentment which everywhere prevails. Christians are broken up into various sects, but we have no persecution, no stake or rack-no compulsion or force, no furious or bigoted zeal; but each and all move on in their selected sphere, and worship the Great Creator according to their own forms and ceremonies. The Hebrew persecuted and down-trodden in other regions, takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid . . . he may worship God of his fathers after the manner that worship was conducted by Aaron . . . and the aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it. The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Minds should be free as the light or as the air. While I remain connected with the Government, be assured, Sir, that so far as the Executive action is concerned, the guarantees of the Constitution in this great particular will know no diminution . . .”
Even more interesting, Tyler, imagining permutations of Scott as a non-Christian, stated, “Was he a Hebrew and of the same tribe with yourself . . . (it) would in no manner affect him in his military character; nor would it make him obnoxious to the censure of the Government for so doing.” Tyler is clear, a person’s religious, cultural, ethnic, etc. nature is of no consequence to a person’s full participation in the rights of citizenship in these United States.
A mere fifty five years after the ratification of the Constitution, President Tyler, describes not only the separation of church and state, an essential construction of our noble experiment, but he also provides insight into the expectation of cultural and ethnic diversity as a true and present reality of the great and noble experiment undertaken by our Founders. In the time of the Founders, in the time of Tyler, and in our time, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity was and remains a core value upheld and protected by our great and noble experiment. As Tyler wrote, “Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions.” Any action by any branch of the US government intended to alter or diminish this spirit of toleration is inconsistent and antithetical to the intent of the Founders. Tragically, we find ourselves living in a time when some actively encourage and support ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, LGBTQ, and racial intolerance. It is left to us, those who embrace the great and noble experiment of our Founders, to resist this assault on the values and aspirations of our Constitution and our nation. In this season of Thanksgiving, a holiday of our nation, I give thanks for the vision of our Founders and the vision of diversity and toleration they imagined, however flawed and limited in their own time. Perhaps it is left to us, the future, to protect and perfect more completely the fullness of their imaginations.