George Washington’s Vision of Religious Freedom

George Washington continues to be a source of wonder, wisdom, and ethical clarity.

Every year in August, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island hosts a reading of President George Washington’s 1790 letter to “the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.” Before this month, I was unaware of either the celebration or the letter, I am ashamed to say. In it, the first President laid out clearly the ideals of religious freedom to be embraced by our fledgling nation, to a group that had reason to do doubt whether they would be welcome to worship as they pleased.

For generations, the Hebrew community that ultimately  settled in Newport had been fleeing religious persecution. The same year Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, in 1492, Spain enacted a policy forcing Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Thousands sought refuge in the Netherlands, the Caribbean Islands and South America, only to be pursued by the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1658, fifteen Jewish families from  the Iberian Peninsula arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, drawn by the small colony’s philosophy, expressed by founder Roger Williams, that religion should be separated from government. Five years later that philosophy was embodied in Rhode Island’s 1663 Royal Charter, which included the passage: “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments.”

A century later,  in 1776, the British captured Newport causing most Jews, who generally supported the Revolution, to flee again. The synagogue building, dedicated in 1763, was taken over by the  British army as a military hospital.

By 1790, the United States government was a year old, but the Bill of Rights, with its First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, was not yet part of the Constitution. With reason to be wary, Moses Seixas, warden of the Jewish congregation in Newport, wrote to President Washington seeking his views on religious liberty.

Here is what George Washington wrote after the usual formalities (you can read the entire letter here):

“…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….”

Bingo.

The United States gives “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, [and] requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support….”

Those words are worth reading every day, not just every year.

3 thoughts on “George Washington’s Vision of Religious Freedom

  1. Great post. Just one historical footnote: In 1492, upon learning of Queen Isabella’s decree of expulsion, the Ottoman Emperor Beyazit sent emissaries to Spain to invite all Jews to come to the Empire where they would be welcomed and could live free as Jews. Thousands came and stayed. In the next century Ottoman jews sent emissaries to Germany to tell Jews there that they could live free from persecution in the Empire.

    • Is this the same Emperor Beyazit featured in Handel’s opera Tamerlano? The emperor is also a character in another opera by Gasparini. Just asking.

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