On August 18, 1790 George Washington was welcomed to Newport, Rhode Island. Among the addresses given by the town’s citizens was one read by Moses Seixas from the Newport’s Hebrew congregation, expressing their affection and esteem for him and their gratitude to God for “a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.” The letter also touched on their previous deprivation of rights because of their religion.
In his reply, Washington assured the Hebrew congregation in their unspoken concerns as he affirmed their hopes, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” in his unequivocal declaration of religious liberty, “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.”
He was also laying down a marker for religious liberty. He had been President for only a few months, and the Bill of Rights had yet to be ratified.
“The state legislatures of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia were in the process of debating the first ten Constitutional amendments (eventually known as the Bill of Rights) during the summer of 1790. Washington utilized heavy rhetoric, consistently reaffirming themes of liberty throughout his tour of Rhode Island.”1
Washington astutely recognized that to speak of tolerance was to imply two classes of citizens, and with the phrase, “All possess alike,” he swept the notion off the table, preempting the idea that, “the exercise of their inherent natural rights,” was to be decided by a select group. By saying that rights were inherent and natural, Washington reiterated the foundational ideas of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and that certain unalienable rights were endowed by God, not bestowed by man, and as such, the role of government was to secure those rights, not to give or take them away.
“…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…
“—We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
“—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
And the words, “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” undergirded Washington’s desire that, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
This congregation later became known as the Touro Synagogue, and Washington’s letter is read annually. This year’s reading will be this upcoming Sunday.
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in 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 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.
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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.2
1Yaari Tal, “Touro Synagogue,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/touro-synagogue.
2“From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.]
Touro Synagogue, National Historic Site, http://www.tourosynagogue.org.