24 August 2011

George Washington, Moses Seixas, "To bigotry no sanction"

[B]ehold 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.
Moses Seixas
An editorial in today's Wall Street Journal describes a campaign launched by the Jewish Daily Forward to make available for public viewing an original letter by George Washington. In the letter, George Washington replies to a letter from a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island that welcomed him to the city and describes hopes that in the new nation, Jews will enjoy rights that had been denied them in the past. The editorial describes Washington's letter as "one of the greatest statements on religious liberty of all time."

The letter is owned by the Morris Morgenstern Foundation. Morgenstern purchased it in 1949. It had been on public display while on loan to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum until ten years ago, according to the article in the Forward.

The article in the Forward describes the discovery of letters "detailing a secret tug-of-war between the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport and Morris Morgenstern" (Paul Berger, "Papers Reveal Secret Struggle To Display Washington’s Letter").
Since the museum put the document in storage, the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and the Library of Congress have sought to display the letter, to no avail.
Paul Berger, "Papers Reveal"
The letters were found by Beth Wenger during research for her History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage (2010).

The opinion piece in the Journal, by former editor of the Forward Seth Lipsky, picks up on quotes in the Forward article that compare the letter's significance to foundational texts of American history, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
The letter is, after all, private property. But it is also a national treasure, containing one of the greatest statements on religious liberty of all time. And the campaign to give it a public home—so it can be leaned over and read as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are—comes at a time when the free exercise of religion is increasingly constrained around the world.
Seth Lipsky, "A Missing Monument to Religious Freedom"
President Washington's letter was written in reply to a letter the previous day welcoming him to Newport. The strong expressions concerning religious freedom in the letter incorporate text from the letter by Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel. The text of Washington's letter is widely available on the web.
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
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.

Go: Washington
The Papers of George Washington
The letter of the Congregation is also available.

To the President of the United States of America
Newport Rhode Island August 17th 1790.


Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.

With pleasure we reflect on those days--those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

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: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men--beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this 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 water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by Order of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island
Moses Seixas, Warden
Papers of George Washington


Jonathan Rowe at American Creation posted a link to a news story from the Providence Journal that is worth reading alongside the Jewish Daily Forward story linked above.

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