July-August 2020 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2020

A Message From George Washington: 230 Years Ago, America's First President Penned A Letter On Religious Freedom That Still Speaks To Us Today

  Rob Boston

On the morning of Aug. 15, 1790, President George Wash­­ington and a small group of government officials boarded a boat in New York City, the first capital of the fledgling United States. Two days later, they arrived in Newport, R.I.

Just one year into his first term as president, Washington was on something of a goodwill tour. Rhode Island had just become the thirteenth and last state to ratify the new Constitution. Prominent citizens met the president and his party at the dock and escorted the guests on foot through town. That evening, a banquet was held. One attendee reported, “The dinner was well dished, and conducted with great regularity and decency … after dinner some good toasts were drank [sic].”

But Washington’s trip wasn’t just about feasting and merrymaking. While in Newport, the president was inspired to issue a major statement on religious freedom, making it clear that the new government of the United States intended to do things differently from other nations: Here, government-sanctioned religious bigotry would be a thing of the past. All faiths would be welcome in an atmosphere of mutual respect and peace. He promised a government where “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” which worshipped at Touro Synagogue, is a powerful statement that outlines our first president’s understanding of religious freedom – and it’s a stinging rebuke to “Christian nation” mythology. As we celebrate the 230th anniversary of that missive next month, it’s the perfect time to examine Washington’s message and its larger impact on the course of American religious freedom.

A little context is helpful: The U.S. Constitution as originally written contained no explicit guarantee of religious freedom. Although Article VI bans religious qualifications for federal office, the original document was otherwise silent on matters of religion. Not long after the Constitution was ratified, political leaders like James Madison began working to rectify that with a series of changes to the document, among them guarantees of religious freedom, free speech, free press and freedom of assembly.

Madison’s original proposal was a somewhat cumbersome list of 20 alterations. Members of Congress later whittled it down to 12 amendments and submitted them to the states for ratification.

What we know today as the First Amendment was actually the third on Madison’s list. But the first two amendments failed to win support in the states and were put aside, and the third proposal moved up to number one. (The original first proposal was an unwieldy formula for determining the size of the House of Representatives. The second dealt with the circumstances under which Congress could vote itself a raise. That one was ratified two centuries later in May 1992, and became the 27th Amendment.)

At the time that Washington and his party, which included Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state; John Blair, a Supreme Court justice; and George Clinton, governor of New York; visited Rhode Island, the amend­ments had yet to be ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution. Some scholars believe Washington’s visit may have been a gentle way to apply some pressure on Rhode Island’s legislators to act. (In addition, Washington was probably making amends for not including Rhode Island in his New England visit itinerary the year before.)

Even in the absence of a formal Bill of Rights guaranteeing religious liberty, Washington had no problem eloquently highlighting religious freedom as a key feature of American life and criticizing all forms of religious bigotry.

It’s a powerful statement – but how did it come about?

In Washington’s era, letters were one of the few lasting forms of communication. Political leaders were aware that their letters were often looked at as quasi-public documents, and they often used them to make policy pronouncements.

Upon Washington’s arrival in Newport, Moses Seixas, warden of what was then known as Congregation Yeshuat Israel (the Dispersed [i.e., Diaspora] of Israel) or just the Hebrew Congregation, presented him with an address that welcomed the president to the city and went on to discuss religious freedom through the eyes of the American Jewish community. (The congregation at the time didn’t have a rabbi. Seixas’s position was akin to that of lay leader of the synagogue.)

‘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.’ — President George Washington

The handful of American Jewish congregations at the time considered a joint letter to welcome Washington to the area, but Seixas decided that his congregation should go its own way. Seixas may have felt a special connection with Washington since both men were Masons; in fact, at the same time he penned the words of greeting on behalf of his synagogue, Seixas also wrote a separate one representing Newport’s Masonic lodge. In that letter, Seixas invoked common Masonic language, calling on “the Sovereign Architect of the Universe” to protect Washington during his time in office. Washington replied that he was convinced that Masonic principles promoted “private virtue and public prosperity,” a statement which made Seixas feel sure that the president would indeed promote them.

Seixas and the members of his Yeshuat Israel Congregation were likely also aware that Jews in Rhode Island enjoyed a panoply of rights that were denied to their co-religionists elsewhere. The state, which had been founded as a British crown colony by the iconoclastic religious freedom advocate Roger Williams in 1636, was known for a spirit of tolerance. Unlike other American colonies, Rhode Island never had an established church. Jews were free to worship as they pleased and build synagogues.

That often was not the case in other parts of colonial America. When New York (then New Amsterdam) was under Dutch rule in the mid-1600s, its governor, Peter Stuy­vesant, was openly anti-Semitic and considered Jews “a repugnant and disgusting race.” Stuyvesant worked with clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church to ban Jews from the colony but was overruled by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. Stuyvesant then had to allow Jews to settle, but he made life as difficult as he could for them and denied them the right to worship openly.

Newport’s Jews were undoubtedly aware that their situation in Rhode Island was unique. They knew that Jews had not been granted religious freedom in other nations, and that they were not faring well even in nearby states. Both Connecticut and Massachusetts had official churches at the time, and many states retained religious tests for public office, in some cases requiring that only Christians could serve.

In his message, Seixas, speaking on behalf of his entire congregation, referred to Newport’s Jews as “the children of the stock of Abraham.” He welcomed Washington to the town, and expressed the congregation’s thankfulness that the president had survived the Revolutionary War intact. This happened, Seixas asserted, because “the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.”

Seixas then got down to business. He noted that American Jews, “deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” now looked forward to living under  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.”

In his written reply to Seixas, delivered a few days later from presidential headquarters in New York, Washington echoed some of Seixas’s own language. “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves,” Washington wrote, “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.”

Continued Washington, “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.”

Concluding the letter, Washington wrote, “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.”

As was expected, the letter didn’t remain private for long. Days later, Washington’s reply to Seixas appeared in the Newport Mercury. It was later reprinted in other newspapers across the country.

Since then, the Washington missive has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, celebrated by politicians and occasionally put on public display. While the original is in private hands, Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, now a designated National Historic Site, holds a facsimile and contains historical exhibits that flesh out the history of the letter.        

The original letter is sometimes loaned out. It has been displayed by both the Library of Con­gress in Washington, D.C., and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. (To see photos of both the Seixas letter and Washington’s famous reply, visit the museum’s website at religiousfreedom.nmajh.­org/­#.)

Scholars have commented on the letter’s importance as well. Charles C. Haynes, senior fellow for religious freedom at the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., has written of the Washington letter, “Although the United States has sometimes failed to protect liberty of conscience for all (even Rhode Island imposed religious tests for office for a period), our lively experiment remains strong and vibrant in the most religiously-diverse society on earth. The story of American history is the story of an ongoing struggle to extend the nation’s promise of religious liberty more fully and fairly to every person and group.”

“Today,” Haynes continued, “our urgent task is not only to sustain, but to expand our lively experiment in religious liberty – to ensure in the 21st century that we remain true to the words of the prophet Micah quoted by President Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport: ‘Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.’”

Michael Feldberg, executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, which operates the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, said he has been pleased to see awareness of the letter increase in recent years.

For a long time, Feldberg said, the letter was a point of pride to the American Jewish community, which celebrated its connection to our first president – but it wasn’t necessarily well known outside of Jewish circles. Feldberg cited the work of John L. Loeb Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Denmark and the founder and chairman of the Institute, who spent decades working to raise the letter’s profile.

“I’m increasingly seeing it invoked by journalists and religious tolerance advocates who aren’t Jewish,” Feldberg said.

Addressing the letter’s enduring significance, Feldberg said he sees it as an endorsement of some American principles that may be obvious to people today, but were anything but well-established at the time Washington penned the missive.

“I think what Washington was trying to say is that the force of government, the power and authority of government, will not be used either to inhibit or to impose any form of religious belief or nonbelief on the people of the United States,” Feldberg said. “I think he was saying the government will not sanction or reinforce any bigotry or intolerance that is endemic in society, and it certainly won’t use the force of law to reinforce that bigotry.”

Added Feldberg, “The letter says we can’t abolish this bigotry, but there will be no official religion that will be imposed on the populace through the instrument of the state. There will be no Church of America as there was a Church of England. When it comes to religion, the role of the government here should be hands off.”             

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