In a letter that will go on display before Independence Day, George Washington conveys his commitment to one of America’s founding principles while corresponding with the Jewish community.
At the center of “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom”—an exhibit opening June 29 at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia—is a letter written by Washington in August 1790 to Congregation Jeshuat Israel in Newport, R.I., now called the Touro Synagogue, in which Washington expresses his revolutionary understanding of religious freedom.
The privately owned letter, which for many years was on view at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC, will appear in the first special exhibition mounted in NMAJH’s new building. This exhibit puts the Washington letter in the context of developing thoughts about religious freedom in the early republic and sets it among both our nation’s founding documents and similar correspondence between Washington and other religious groups.
Washington visited Newport in 1790 after the state of Rhode Island had finally ratified the Constitution—the last state to do so. As was the custom at the time, Washington received celebratory addresses read by members of the community, one of them by Moses Seixas, leader of Jeshuat Israel.
“Seixas outlined the hopes of his community and all Jews for the design of the new nation and that the freedoms being developed—beginning in the Declaration of Independence and continuing with the Constitution and Bill of Rights (which were in circulation but not ratified) would be applied and applied broadly,” Dr. Josh Perelman, deputy director for exhibitions, programs and collections at NMAJH, tells JNS.org.
Washington’s understanding of religious freedom stood in stark contrast to the experience of Jews in late 18th century Europe, where states vacillated between persecuting Jews for their religious identity and granting them limited acceptance. But Washington’s ideas, as encapsulated in his letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, were quite different. “Washington’s response was short but was one of most profound and moving expressions of freedom of religion in this country that I have ever read,” says Perelman. “It was a courageous and eloquent statement by our first president committing himself and the country to a broad definition of religious freedom.”
Washington was working without a model—because no nation in the world guaranteed freedom of religion to all of its citizens. “For Washington and other leaders of the nation to commit themselves to this vision in which people of all faiths would be granted equal opportunity to observe and practice as they so choose was for its time revolutionary,” Perelman says. The Constitution itself does not guarantee religious freedom per se—it guarantees only that there be no religious test for elected office.
At the time, Perelman says, “There were some who advocated for broad religious freedom; some who envisioned a more limited version of that freedom—that there be no religious test for an oath of office; and some who considered a Christian nation to be the ideal.”
Not all the framers viewed Jews positively, and in some sense the decisions they made were not predicated on careful consideration of the Jewish question. “They were having a larger dialogue about the meaning of freedom,” he says. “They decided that if they were going to stand up to those values that were being debated and eventually espoused in our founding documents, then those freedoms had to be universal.”
Jewish Philadelphia merchant Jonas Phillips wrote to the constitutional convention in a letter (rephrased by Perelman) as follows: “In my state of Pennsylvania we have to swear on the Christian Bible in order to take the oath of office, and that is a discriminatory policy. I believe in what you are doing and the values and ideals of this nation, and I hope you follow a different path.”
In selecting artifacts for the exhibit, the museum’s curatorial staff was guided by two principles, which Perelman explains. “One, a steadfast belief that this correspondence is significant not just to the story of the American Jewish experience but significant to our nation’s founding.” Hence, the exhibit includes one of the earliest printings of the Declaration of Independence, the first public printing of the Constitution, and Philadelphia’s ratification of the Bill of Rights.
Secondly, it was important to illustrate that Washington was not just having this conversation with the Jewish community, and that the Washington letter and similar ones to other religious communities had great historical import. “He was developing over time a language for articulating religious freedom through his give and take with a bunch of different religious communities: Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodist Episcopals, and three different Jewish communities,” says Perelman.
Washington’s responses varied based on the particular concerns of the community he was writing to, but he generally would include a couple of themes: that religion is an inherent natural right and that the American government is a government worthy of imitation. But Perelman asserts that the letter to Newport is special. “In some ways it is the most concrete and profound of those and that is why it withstands the test of time and is his iconic statement on religious freedom.”
One of Perelman’s personal favorites in the exhibit is the Gilbert Charles Stuart portrait of Washington, loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that is the basis for his picture on the dollar bill. “It allows all visitors of the exhibition to feel familiar with our protagonist,” he says.
Perelman also appreciates the letters Washington wrote to various religious communities.
“They are a vivid illustration of the dialogue between the president and his constituents when we had a small country and the president sat down to write his constituents letters,” he says.
Perelman says he wants people to leave the exhibit “with a sense that, even in these most complicated and challenging times that we live in, the freedoms that we debate and the principles we uphold as Americans—which in the time when they were developed and continue to be today are profoundly revolutionary—we should never take them for granted.”