Wednesday, January 03, 2007

George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island (1790)

Some recent controversies (including this one) have reminded me of a famous letter that George Washington wrote in 1790, as President, to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. (In those days, most Jews in the U.S. were Sephardic, and this was a Sephardic congregation, so I imagine that they probably called themselves "Hebrew Americans" or perhaps "Israelites," rather than "Jewish.")

Washington's letter is brief, but in its own way it ranks as one of the great documents of the Enlightenment. It also remains very timely.

(For a photocopy of Washington's original letter, click here.)

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The following is adapted from The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, W. W. Abbot et al., eds., vol. 6, 284-86 (Mark A. Mastromarino, volume editor), University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, 1996).

[Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island]
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]

Gentlemen.

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, [note 1] 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 a 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 was by 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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Go: Washington

1. See Washington to the Clergy of Newport, R.I., 18 Aug. 1790, note 2, in Papers, Presidential Series. vol. 6.
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Some further explanation of the historical context and significance of this exchange between Washington and the Newport congregation is below.

Yours for political & religious liberty,
Jeff Weintraub

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From the Jewish Virtual Library

“To Bigotry No Sanction,to Persecution No Assistance”
George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, (1790)



On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, penned an epistle to George Washington, welcoming the newly elected first president of the United States on his visit to that city. Newport had suffered greatly during the Revolutionary War. Invaded and occupied by the British and blockaded by the American navy, hundreds of residents fled, and many of those who remained were Tories. After the British defeat, the Tories fled in turn. Newport’s nineteenth-century economy never recovered from these interruptions and dislocations.

Washington’s visit to Newport was largely ceremonial—part of a goodwill tour Washington was making on behalf of the new national government created by the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. Newport had historically been a good home to its Jewish residents, who numbered approximately 300 at the time of Washington’s visit. The Newport Christian community’s acceptance of Jewish worship was exemplary, although individual Jews such as Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer were unable to obtain full political equality as citizens of Rhode Island. The Jews of Newport looked to the new national government, and particularly to the enlightened president of the United States, to remove the last of the barriers to religious liberty and civil equality confronting American Jewry.

Moses Seixas’s letter on behalf of the congregation – he described them as “the children of the Stock of Abraham” – expressed the Jewish community’s esteem for President Washington and joined “with our fellow citizens in welcoming [him] to New Port.” The congregation expressed its pleasure that the God of Israel, who had protected King David, had also protected General Washington, and that the same spirit which resided in the bosom of Daniel and allowed him to govern over the “Babylonish Empire” now rested upon Washington. While the rest of world Jewry lived under the rule of monarchs, potentates and despots, as American citizens the members of the congregation were part of a great experiment: a government “erected by the Majesty of the People,” to which they could look to ensure their “invaluable rights as free citizens.”

Seixas expressed his vision of an American government in words that have become a part of the national lexicon. He beheld in the United States “a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but 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: – This so ample and extensive federal union whose basis is Philanthropy, mutual confidence, and public virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatsoever seemeth [to Him] good.”

Seixas closed his letter to the president by asking God to send the “Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land [to] conduct [Washington] through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life.” He told Washington of his hope that “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 water of life, and the tree of immortality.”

Not surprisingly, it is Washington’s response, rather than Seixas’s epistle, which is best remembered and most frequently reprinted. Washington began by thanking the congregation for its good wishes and rejoicing that the days of hardship caused by the war were replaced by days of prosperity. Washington then borrowed ideas – and actual words – directly from Seixas’s letter:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving 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 was by 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.
Washington’s concluding paragraph perfectly expresses the ideal relationship among the government, its individual citizens and religious groups:
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 under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Washington closed with an invocation: “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

The letter, a foundation stone of American religious liberty and the principle of separation between church and state, is signed, simply, “G. Washington.” Each year, Newport’s Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, now known as the Touro Synagogue, re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony. The words deserve repetition.

Source: American Jewish Historical Society.

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