George Washington’s Letter To The Jews

In August of 1790, George Washington wrote a brief letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. If anything, it is more timely than ever as we continue to struggle with questions of toleration and bigotry, and of the joys and dangers of insisting on freedom of conscience in our nation and in our lives.

George Washington
George Washington Image source: Wikimedia Commons
George Washington

Gentlemen:

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. ~ G. Washington

Washington came to Newport for a visit on August 17 th , 1790 and was addressed by Moses Seixas , one of the officials of the long-established Jewish congregation of Newport. Seixas noted that, given the grim history of the Jews, America was a particularly important place, for:

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…

While I suspect many reader will find, as I do, the notion of being a part of the “great governmental machine” far less appealing than Seixas did, his main point remains a vital one. For a people who had been chased from their homes by persecution, forced conversions, violence, and governmental theft of their property, the American promise of toleration was an almost incomprehensible blessing.

George Washington – Toleration in Rhode Island

A civil society should give to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance.When I visited the Touro synagogue—home of the Jewish congregation Washington addressed–last week, my tour guide reminded me that Rhode Island’s version of religious toleration was particularly impressive, even within the wider American context.

Founded by the famously ornery Roger Williams, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “new and dangerous opinions,” and established by a charter from King Charles II, Rhode Island was based on principles of complete religious toleration from its very beginning. The 1663 founding charter notes that Rhode Island is meant to be:

a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…with a full liberty in religious concernments… our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others, any law, statute, or clause therein contained, or to be contained, usage or custom of this realm, to the contrary hereof, in any wise notwithstanding.

Even the structure of Newport echoes the words of its royal charter. The city’s churches are not next to the statehouse, but clustered behind it, emphasizing their equality with one another and the separation between church and state.

It is hard for a modern reader to understand exactly how astonishing this promise of complete freedom of religious conscience was for the time. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that, when this royal charter was drawn up, Europe had suffered through more than 120 years of near constant religious warfare. The death toll from that religiously motivated violence totaled somewhere between 5.6 and 18.5 million, depending on which historians you read and whether or not you count deaths caused diseases and famine resulting from warfare.

Rhode Island must have seemed like a miracle to any 17 th century citizen. And for the Jews of Spain and Portugal, making their way to Newport via Amsterdam, the promise of such freedom must have been tantalizing and a little terrifying. Could they really trust that non-Christian religions would be included in these promises? Would they really be safe?

They would.

And the letter that Seixas read to George Washington makes that sense of security perfectly clear. Seixas did not speak of toleration and freedom as promises made in hopes of some much-desired future. He spoke of them as established truths that were in place then and there, as he was writing. “ We now …behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

George Washington – Freedom Works

Washington’s response to Seixas and the other Jews of Newport is similarly focused on the success of the American experiment in toleration. He writes:

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.

Old hatreds, old prejudices,

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