Religious Liberty and the Founding of America

Religious Liberty and the Founding of America

August 21, 2015 – March 11, 2016

Explore the role religion played in Colonial America and learn how freedom of religion became a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Documents include George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation and printings of his Letter to the Roman Catholics in America and his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, both from 1790. Religious Liberty and the Founding of America is made possible by loans from generous collectors and institutions. 

About the Exhibition

About the Exhibition

MONDAY – FRIDAY: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. 

SATURDAY: 9:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. 

SUNDAY: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. 

Included with General Admission.

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Explore the role religious liberty played in early America and learn how freedom of religion became a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America open now through January 3, 2016.

The National Constitution Center’s Religious Liberty exhibit is free to all visitors.

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Documents in Religious Liberty and the Founding of America include George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation and a printing of his letter to the Roman Catholics in America, along with others that illuminate how the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses came to be drafted.

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Stephanie Reyer, Vice President of Exhibitions at the National Constitution Center, admires the historic documents in Religious Liberty and the Founding of America during the Center’s August 19 press preview. 

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Joshua Runyan, Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Exponent, viewing the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America, during the August 19 press preview.

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Peter Crimmins, Arts and Culture Reporter for WHYY, interviews Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, during the August 19 press preview of Religious Liberty and the Founding of America. 

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Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO, and Jenny Parker McCloskey, Vice President of Communications, pose for a photo in the National Constitution Center’s newest exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America. 

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“The Lord Baltimore’s Case, Concerning his Plantation in Mary=Land,” 1649

Credit: Private Collector, courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.    

In this document, Maryland’s Catholic proprietor defends his right to religious freedom against an accusation that he was not upholding the Protestant faith. Lord Baltimore argues that, when granted the lands, his family was given no requirement to maintain a certain religion, and in fact, a new law protected freedom of religion for all Christians—the first American colony to make such a guarantee.    

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Constitution of the State of New York, 1777

Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia

This printing of New York’s first constitution shows that it allowed for “free exercise… without discrimination or preference” but did not “excuse acts of licentiousness” or allow “practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State” as defined by religious teachings.

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Oaths & Declarations for Office, 1704

Credit: Courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.

Though Pennsylvania emphasized freedom of conscience, there was tension between Quaker and Anglican sects. Quakers refused to swear oaths that were considered mandatory to hold government office. Pennsylvania accommodated the Quakers: This document, signed by William Penn’s son, among others, shows Quakers agreeing to a separate affirmation, instead of an oath, to serve on the Provincial Council.   

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An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786

Credit: Private Collector, courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, this act was the most expansive of its time, and provided that “all men shall be free to profess… their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” 

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House Passes 17 Amendments, The Daily Advertiser, August 26, 1789

Credit: Private Collector, courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.    

This newspaper printed 17 proposed amendments two days after they were approved by the House. The religious liberty clauses were changed to state: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”

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Printing of the U.S. Constitution, 1789

Credit: Private Collector, courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.

Although the original Constitution signed on September 17, 1787, did not include a bill of rights, it did protect individual liberties in several places. Article VI of the Constitution includes a prohibition against requiring religious tests for federal office—a clear break from the requirements found in colonial charters.

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House Committee Report on Madison’s Proposals, Gazette of the United States, August 1, 1789

Credit: Courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.

James Madison and 10 other members of the House reviewed and debated the amendments in late July 1789. The committee proposed a religious liberty clause that simply read: “No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”

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Test Oath Denying Catholic Doctrines, 1754-55

Credit: Private Collector, courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc.    

The Protestant-dominated colonies were often hostile to Catholics, outlawing their churches and denying them civil rights. Government officials in Virginia were required to sign oaths denying key Catholic teachings; this oath rejected the belief in transubstantiation, or the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. George Washington is among its many signers. 

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Credit: National Constitution Center

Installation of the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America on display at the Center from August 21, 2015 to January 3, 2016. 

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Credit: National Constitution Center

Installation of the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America on display at the Center from August 21, 2015 to January 3, 2016. 

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Credit: National Constitution Center

Installation of the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America on display at the Center from August 21, 2015 to January 3, 2016. 

Download Hi-Res JPG

Credit: National Constitution Center

Installation of the National Constitution Center’s new exhibit, Religious Liberty and the Founding of America on display at the Center from August 21, 2015 to January 3, 2016. 

Download Hi-Res JPG

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