Last Friday, while on a family vacation in Philadelphia, my wife and I visited the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Square. We toured the wonderful exhibit that chronicles American Jewish history from the first immigrants to the current period. The permanent exhibit alone is worth a few hours of touring.
We were especially lucky to be present the first day of a new exhibit that runs until the end of September: “To Bigotry No Sanction—George Washington and Religious Freedom.” The exhibit centers on the August 1790 letter that Washington sent to the “Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island.” The Museum recently acquired the original letter which had been hidden away for the past decade. Due to the delicacy of the original, it can only be on display three months a year.
It is an extraordinary document that is especially worthy of attention in the days surrounding July 4th. The letter was handwritten by Washington shortly after he received a letter from Moses Seixas, the “warden” of the Newport synagogue. In the letter Seixas welcomed Washington to Newport and thanked God for having led the Jews to America:
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People…generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine….we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness to the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of mortal life. And when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the after of life and the tree of immortality.
In Washington’s response a few days later he laid out a vision of religious tolerance that likely had no historic precedent (the French legislation emancipating its Jews was not adopted until September, 1791).
In a few, terribly moving few paragraphs, Washington declares that, “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.”
In beautiful prose he invokes the words that Seixas had included in his letter that, “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 on all occasion their effectual support.”
In what is a rather prescient view of societal dynamics, Washington makes clear that it is really not for one set of citizens to express “toleration” for another, acceptance is not theirs to give. Liberty is, after all, the exercise by the minority of their “inherent natural rights.”
Below is the full text of Washington’s letter, it’s worth a read.
It probably needn’t be noted, but the exquisite language of tolerance that Washington expressed in 1790 did not extend to either slaves or women or Native Americans and did not reflect itself in the laws of many of the states which had attitudes that were considerably less benign. The Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves) was seventy three years and a civil war away. And as recently as the past decade seven states still had statutes on the books (though unenforceable) that had religious tests for holding office.
Notwithstanding the fact that Washington’s vision took a while to realize—-“every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid”—it was an aspiration that helped set the bar for what America was to become, a nation that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
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
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.