What the intolerant can learn from George Washington

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In August 1790, America was a new nation with a new constitution and a new government, unique of its kind in the history of the world. And the country had a war hero for its first president, a man the country knew and loved. A one-page letter of thanks written by George Washington on August 18 of that year would set the course for religious freedom and tolerance in America and pave the way for the passage of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

The story of how this letter – Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation of Rhode Island – was written reflects not only his character and ideals, but also those of his new nation.

America’s first president understood the importance of visiting the people of the new constitutional republic he led, as well as the power of the first three words of the newly ratified constitution: we, the people. He spent much time making ceremonial tours of the nation, visiting the people of the states he had been chosen to serve.

The first nine states, the number required for ratification of the Constitution, had been reached by June 1788, and the Constitution went into effect in March 1789. On April 30, 1789, Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall in New York.

Washington was the marvel of his time, a man who repeatedly achieved the improbable. He built an army from scratch, defeated the world’s greatest empire, willingly walked away from power, presided over an unprecedented constitutional convention, and was unanimously elected by the Electoral College to be the first president of the new republic.

Rhode Island was the last of the recalcitrant states, ratifying the Constitution in May 1790. Washington understood the gravity of the moment, visiting the Ocean State on August 18 not only to acknowledge the state’s ratification of the Constitution , but also to promote the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

George Washington learns that he was elected the first president of the United States in 1789.
Photo by MPI/Getty Images

When Washington arrived in Newport, he was greeted with an outpouring of affection. Among those who greeted him was Moses Seixas, director of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. The congregation probably numbered in the hundreds at the time, and the number of Jews in the new nation was no more than 2,000 in a country of nearly 4 million people. To call American Jews a minority, half of 1%, would be an understatement.

Seixas also understood the gravity of the president’s visit and took it upon himself to write a letter to Washington on behalf of his congregation. “Allow the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and your merits and to join our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport,” the letter began.

Seixas was just getting started. “He continued with an analogy, comparing the Revolutionary War to the struggles of the ancient tribes of Israel and compared Washington to King David,” according to the Fred W. Smith National Library for George Washington study, which is in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Seixas then issued his short but powerful appeal on behalf of his congregation – and all American Jews – referencing the history of Jewish persecution around the world and throughout history:

Deprived as we have hitherto been of the priceless rights of free citizens, we now have a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty who disposes of all events, here is a government, erected by the majesty of the people – a government which to sectarianism gives no sanction, to persecution no aid – but generously granting to all freedom of conscience and the immunities of citizenship: considering everyone, of whatever nation, language or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.. .

Seixas ended his letter with a prayer for the new president:

For all these blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under equal benevolent administration, we desire to give our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men entreating him, that the Angel who led our ancestors through the wilderness in the Promised Land, may you graciously lead you through all the difficulties and perils of this mortal life: And when, like Joshua full of days and full of honor, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you have been admitted into the celestial paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

“Washington was moved by these feelings,” the National Library said for the George Washington study. “On the same day, he responded to expressions of gratitude with his letter strongly affirming the principles of freedom of religion.”

Washington’s response to Seixas’ appeal would be the clearest statement on the subject by the leader of any nation in world history. Unlike so many nations, past and present, ruled by kings and despots who tolerated the Jewish faith, Washington, incorporating some of the language of Seixas, proclaimed:

Tolerance is no longer spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people for another to enjoy the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, fortunately, the government of the The United States, which gives no sanction to sectarianism, no aid to persecution, only demands that those who live under its protection humble themselves as good citizens by giving it their effective support at all times.

Washington, revealing his reverence for Scripture, addressed the Jewish people specifically:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants – while each one sits in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there will be no no one to scare him.

Washington’s quick and personal response was itself significant: it demonstrated his view that the president in law and under the law is the equal of the citizens and was elected to serve them rather than serve him. More importantly, America’s leader, himself an Anglican in a predominantly Christian country, addressed the Jewish people as equals.

Washington concluded his letter with his own prayer. These are perhaps the most beautiful words he would ever write:

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, on our paths, and make us all in our various vocations useful here, and in his time and in his way, eternally happy.

Washington’s letter undoubtedly affected public opinion, as did his tours of the country in support of the Bill of Rights. On December 15, 1791, three quarters of the states ratified the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. And there, in the First Amendment, was the very first liberty protected from government interference, ahead of freedom of speech or of the press, freedom of assembly, or the right to petition the government: “Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise.”

America was and still is a haven for religious people everywhere. And a haven for atheists and agnostics too. We have George Washington and our founders to thank, as well as Moses Seixas. And two letters written on the same summer day in 1791.

Vince Benedetto is the founder and chairman of the Bold Gold Media Group. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he is an avid historian and directs the Churchill Society of Pennsylvania.

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