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The Story Behind the Letters

Courtesy of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Back in 1789, the Constitution that we Americans today take so for granted had still not been ratified by all of the Colonies, much less had the First Amendment to the Constitution been adopted. George Washington, in his first presidency, decided to tour all of the New England states that fall of 1789. Today we might consider it a public relations trip. But he didn’t visit Rhode Island. Some scholars believe that was because Rhode Island hadn’t yet ratified the new Constitution.

By 1790, Rhode Island had finally signed it, so after Congress adjourned that year, President Washington decided he would pay a good-will visit to Rhode Island after all. He took along with him Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and New York Governor George Clinton. They sailed from New York City (then the American capital) in a little packet passenger boat to Newport, where the group spent the night of August 17, 1790.

The next morning, on August 18, notables and officials of that city, and representatives from various religious groups, jockeyed for the honor of reading the president letters of welcome to their city. Among them was one of the officials of the congregation, Moses Seixas, who was allowed to read his letter aloud to the president.

Moses Seixas poured out his heart full of gratitude to George Washington for his leadership in the establishment of a new government. He expressed the hope that this new country would accord all of its citizens respect and tolerance, whatever their background and religious beliefs.

The Seixas letter moved the president. He responded to that letter on August 21, 1790, assuring the Hebrew congregation that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, vand there shall be none to make him afraid.” This was a very poetic way of saying they would be safe in their homes and houses of worship.

He also said this would be a country which “gives to bigotry no sanction.”

Beginning in 1789, George Washington wrote letters to various religious organizations in this country:

  • On May 10, 1789 he wrote to the United Baptist churches in Virginia;
  • That same month, he wrote to the General Assembly of Presbyterian churches;
  • In September of 1789 he wrote to the annual meeting of the Quakers;
  • And on August 21 of 1790, on a trip to Rhode Island, as part of his campaign around the colonies to pass what became known as the Bill of Rights, George Washington sent his now famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.

The tone of this last one was different from the other letters—it was declarative, assertive, and unusually crisp compared with Washington’s ordinary style. It was a clarion call that has echoed down through the centuries. Washington promised in his letter not just tolerance, but full liberty of conscience no matter what one’s religious beliefs happen to be. He was paving the way for the First Amendment, which would be added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.

Some of the words in that George Washington letter never fail to move us:

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.

And he goes on:

For happily the Government of the United States 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. Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

American historian Melvin Urofsky has written:

Although this letter carries with it a unique and cherished significance for American Jewry, in many ways it is a treasure of the entire nation. America, as de Tocqueville (a French political thinker and historian who visited America in the early 1800’s) famously wrote, had been ‘born free,’ unfettered by the religious and social bigotries of medieval Europe. The United States, although initially founded by people from the British Isles, had well before the Revolution become a haven of many peoples from continental Europe seeking political and religious freedom and economic opportunity. The new nation recognized this diversity for what it was, one of the country’s greatest assets, and took as its motto E Pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One . . . The separation of church and state, and with it the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, has made the United States a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples everywhere.1

  1. Citations

    • 1 Newport Jewry and The Touro Synagogue. Melvin Urofsky, unpublished Manuscript, 2003, p.98.

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