As the United States celebrates its 245-year-old freedom, the current climate is unfortunately rife with rising anti-semitism. As anti-semitic attacks – both physical and verbal – increase in this country (targeting Orthodox Jews most commonly, though not exclusively) let us remember on this Independence Day, the promise that was made to the Jews of the United States of America by its founding father, President George Washington, so eloquently framed in this letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. While the letter is relatively short at 340 words, its reassurance and message of tolerance is one that should give hope to Jews in America now and always.
Washington wrote the letter in August of 1790 as a comfort and a promise to Jews who had fled their home countries where religious tyranny had oppressed them. The letter was a thank you and follow-up to his visit to Newport, Rhode Island alongside then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, among other founding fathers and dignitaries, soon after Rhode Island’s ratification of the Constitution. There, he was addressed by Moses Seixas of Kehillat Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Newport, who said:
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—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…
Washington’s follow-up letter to Seixas and the Jews of Newport did more than thank them for welcoming him with warm hospitality; it also emphasized the new government’s policy of religious tolerance and religious liberty. This welcoming of Jews to this fledgling nation provided hope, despite the fact that Jews in Rhode Island did not yet have the right to vote at that time, (by 1830, most states had finally granted voting rights to Jews). This meeting and letter exchange set the stage for the policy of freedom of religion in the Unites States to come, including his blessing that the “Children of Abraham” be granted safety and “no one to make him afraid.”
Despite the dark times of anti-semitic attacks brought forth by violent individuals recently, the government’s policy remains as Washington set forth in his letter; America has valued religious diversity and liberty since its inception, specifically including religious Jews from the start.
The full text of the letter is below:
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.
18 August 1790