The ways people think about who belongs and who does not have been influenced for centuries by religious beliefs as well as beliefs about race and gender. However, Enlightenment-era ideas about natural rights and human equality challenged the notion that one’s religious beliefs should determine a person’s rights and privileges in society. In the late eighteenth century, the United States and France were both new democracies with large Christian majorities, struggling with tensions over religion, loyalty, and belonging.

On August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, an official of the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, was selected to deliver a public letter to President George Washington, who was visiting the state. While Seixas expressed hope that the young country would extend respect and tolerance to all of its citizens, regardless of religious beliefs, his letter emphasized the vulnerability of a religious minority in the new nation. The relationship of religion to the state was not yet clear. Responding to Seixas three days later, Washington used the opportunity to explain his own beliefs about religious freedom in the young democracy, writing:

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 [conduct] themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.1

Although over half of the United States population, including women and slaves, was disenfranchised during this time, and Washington himself owned slaves, his words nevertheless established an ideal of religious freedom and equality. Shortly after Washington’s visit to Newport, in 1791, Americans added ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, to the Constitution. The first begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, judges at first interpreted the amendment to mean that it applied only to the national or federal government. The states were free to establish an official church, limit the rights of religious minorities, and discriminate against them. The struggle to end that discrimination took much longer.

Questions about religious freedom were raised in France as well. Shortly after the French Revolution began in the spring of 1789, a new body called the National Constituent Assembly was formed with the goals of reforming the French government and rewriting the French constitution. In August of 1789, it took a major step toward ending the monarchy: it adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a political document that begins with the words, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Two years later, in 1791, France became the first European country to grant “emancipation” (or full civil rights) to its Jews—its largest non-Christian minority.

Their rights, however, came with a limit. As a French member of the assembly named Clermont-Tonnerre put it, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jew as an individual.”2 In other words, as long as Jews kept their collective identity and religious practice private, their rights as French citizens were ensured. But the constitution granted nothing to them as a religious group.

In 1799, ten years after the French Revolution began, Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself emperor. Questions of French citizenship and nationality still persisted: while some felt that religion was to be kept out of public affairs, others, including Napoleon, felt that Catholicism had a special relationship to the French state. In 1807, less than 20 years after Jewish emancipation, Napoleon summoned a group of French Jewish religious leaders in order to find out how loyal they were. Among a list of 12 questions, he asked,

In the eyes of the Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren? Or are they considered as strangers?

Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as French citizens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it?

Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?3

His questions reveal the uncertainty many French people felt toward the minority groups in the country; for many, non-Catholics were not to be trusted. Fully aware of these feelings, the Jews at the meeting pledged their undivided allegiance to France:

The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France. To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that during the last war, French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France.4

The Jewish leaders stated clearly that their allegiance was to France and that their religious affiliation was secondary to their national identity. In the decades following this exchange, Jews climbed slowly but steadily up the social ladder in France. Many of them became well-known artists, authors, and scientists; others developed flourishing businesses; still others enjoyed successful careers in politics and in the military. In a story that would be echoed across much of Europe, however, an upsurge of antisemitism toward the end of the nineteenth century disrupted their progress.

Citations

Connection Questions

  1. What is George Washington saying in his letter to Jews about the relationship between religious beliefs and citizenship in the new United States?
  2. Why are Washington’s statements about religious liberty significant? How might a president’s words shape what citizens believe about who belongs and who does not?
  3. How were the rights of French Jews defined in the 1790s? Were Jews part of the country’s universe of obligation?
  4. How did French Jews respond to Napoleon’s questions about their loyalty? What factors might influence how people emphasize membership in one group over another? What might be the consequences of being forced to choose one aspect of your identity over another?
  5. How might laws divide a society into “in” groups and “out” groups? How might laws unite a society? What do laws indicate about a nation’s universe of obligation?

Related Content

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Story Behind the Letters

Learn about George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, an important moment in the history of religious freedom in America.

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Timeline of French Secularity

Learn about key events in the history of French secularity.

Audio
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI

On August 21st, 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to Moses Seixas and the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Washington was responding to a letter from Seixas that expressed hope that the newly formed United States would accord respect and tolerance to all of its citizens. Washington’s response promised not only tolerance, but full liberty of conscience to all, regardless of background and religious beliefs. Use the side arrows to scroll between the two photos.

Reading
Global Immigration

Public Schools: Where New Citizens Are Made

Learn about the challenges of addressing religious difference in French public schools.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.