A 220-year-old lesson

Last week, 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 installation chronicling American Jewish history from the first immigrants to the current period. The permanent exhibition alone is worth a few hours of touring.

We were especially lucky to be present on the first day of a new show that runs until the end of September: “To Bigotry No Sanction — George Washington and Religious Freedom.” The exhibition 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 and is especially worthy of attention in the days surrounding the Fourth of July. The letter was handwritten by Washington shortly after he received a letter from Moses Seixas, the “warden” of the Newport synagogue. In Seixas’ letter, he 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. … [W]e 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 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: “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 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.” (You can find the full text of Washington’s letter at jewishjournal.com. 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 slaves, 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 73 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.”

David A. Lehrer co-directs Community Advocates Inc. with Joe Hicks. They write The Wide Angle blog at jewishjournal.com/thewideangle, where this piece originally appeared.