George Washington’s letter of August 1790 (sixteen months after he became president) responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is rightly celebrated as one of the definitive statements of religious freedom under the new US Constitution. Washington’s assertion that “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” made clear that our nation’s first president would not permit the power of the new government to become an instrument of religious intolerance.
And to a Jew like myself, the exchange of letters between Warden Seixas and President Washington, even at a distance of 229 years, remains profoundly moving. It expresses so beautifully how the children of Israel, after centuries of persecution, had finally found a genuine welcome in this newborn nation, the United States of America.
The events immediately preceding this exchange did not augur such a positive result. Only three months earlier, in May 1790, Rhode Island, a bastion of rural antipathy to federal government, had finally ratified the federal Constitution—the last of the thirteen states to do so—but only under intense economic pressure from its neighboring states. Prior to ratification, the new president and beloved hero, George Washington, had boycotted Rhode Island, a situation that, in turn, put Newport’s little Jewish congregation in an awkward spot.
In May 1790, the Jewish congregation in New York proposed that, in light of Rhode Island’s ratification, the Newport congregation join the New York congregation in sending congratulations to the new president. But the New York and Newport congregations did not always see eye to eye. The leader of the Newport congregation, Moses Seixas, wrote to the New York congregation, saying: “[We] are of the opinion, that as we are so small in number, it would be treating the Legislature and other large Bodies in this State, with a great degree of indelicacy, for us to address the President of the United States, previous to any of them [doing so].” In other words, we Jews of Newport have to act with great circumspection, for we cannot afford to offend any reigning power.
But in short succession, a series of events modified this view. First, in June 1790, Rhode Island became the ninth state to approve what is now the First Amendment, which begins with the wonderful pronouncement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” True, it was more than a year later that the necessary tenth state ratified the First Amendment, and for decades after several of the states, most notably Massachusetts, still designated one or another Protestant sect as the established state-sponsored religion. But in June 1790, Rhode Island, with its own history of religious toleration, had firmly declared its support for freedom of religion for the nation as a whole.
Next, also in June 1790, the Jewish congregation of New York, along with the Jewish congregations of Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston, went ahead and sent congratulations to President Washington. And he responded in a most cordial manner, as he had to an even earlier letter from the Jewish congregation in Savannah, Georgia.
Finally, the lawmakers of Rhode Island broke down and invited Washington to visit, and he accepted—not least because he saw it as an opportunity to convince Rhode Island to ratify the rest of the Bill of Rights. So it was that on August 17, 1790, George Washington arrived in Newport and was greeted by a committee of city officials and prominent clergy, including a now-emboldened Moses Seixas.
Warden Seixas presented Washington with a letter that, not only in its sentiments but also in its very language, found in Washington a receptive audience. It was Seixas’s letter that first announced that “we now… 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.” While Seixas dutifully attributed these results to the work of the Divine, he also proclaimed that “the same Spirit… rests, and will ever rest, upon you” (that is, Washington).
The most remarkable thing about Seixas’s letter is that it announces that in this brave new world of the United States, Jews will be, not simply tolerated (as they had begged to be back in Europe), but free and equal, under a government that Seixas says in his letter is “generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
Seixas’s letter immediately brought forth from Washington the now-famous response, undated but sent on August 21, 1790. As a number of commentators have remarked, it has sometimes been overlooked how good a politician George Washington could sometimes be. Picking right up on Seixas’s theme, and using some of Seixas’s own language, he noted that in the United States “[a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” and that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” These are the words for which the letter remains famous.
But somewhat less noticed has been that Washington’s letter, in his own language, goes on to make explicit what in Seixas’s letter was implicit, namely, the right of Jews to be accepted as equals as a matter of right, not indulgence. Thus, Washington’s letter states: “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.” In short, in the United States, Jews were never to be second-class citizens, dependent on others for their security and livelihood.
Washington then went on to express the hope that the Jews of the United States will “continue to… enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.” This was a bit optimistic. Despite having ratified the First Amendment, Rhode Island, for one, did not even allow Jews to vote in state elections until 1842.
Nationwide, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the scourge of anti-Semitism was never absent from mainstream America, with Jews regularly excluded from everything from country clubs to business boardrooms. It was one thing to let a Jew onto the Supreme Court, as the US finally did with Louis Brandeis in 1916, but quite another thing to let Jews into your law firm, let alone into your neighborhood.
Extreme expressions of verbal anti-Semitism probably reached their peak in the 1920s and 1930s, with the tirades of Father Coughlin, not to mention those of Henry Ford. But even after World War II, opinion polls consistently found that a considerable percentage of Americans still regarded Jews as Communist sympathizers who, nevertheless, secretly controlled Wall Street—which would have been a pretty good trick to perform, to say the least.
Still, by contrast with the situation in Europe, there were few outright murders of Jews as Jews in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915 being a possible exception). And throughout the late twentieth century, polls showed an overall decline in anti-Semitic sentiment in the US. Thus, for a time, there was every reason to believe that the prediction that Washington had also made for the Jews in his letter—that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”—would come true.
But is it still true? There may be cause to worry. Two years ago, in August 2017, neo-Nazi marchers, some of them carrying Nazi flags, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Some of these neo-Nazi demonstrators, carrying semi-automatic rifles, surrounded a local synagogue and posted messages online threatening to burn the temple down. Finally, James Alex Fields Jr.—a confessed Hitler admirer—intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring twenty-eight others.
Then, last October, an expressly anti-Semitic mass murderer entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven members of the congregation and wounding several others. This, the single most violent anti-Semitic incident in US history, was followed, just a few months ago, by a synagogue shooting near San Diego, California, that left one Jew dead and several others injured.
Needless to say, Jews have not been the only victims of the acts of domestic terrorism that have become all too common in our country. Black and Hispanic people, and others, have suffered much worse, as recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, so horribly attest. But that a violent hatred of Jews is once again rearing its ugly head in certain quarters is difficult to deny. Although in America, in contrast to anti-Semitism in many other parts of the world, this hatred and accompanying violence is mostly the work of small fringe groups of political extremists, it is apparent that such attacks are increasing in both number and ferocity. American Jews, so fortunate in so many ways, need to be more alert to these threats, both to others and to ourselves.
I do not wish to seem an alarmist, and all of this must be put in perspective. Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US, we Jews owe the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans a huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our “natural rights,” and for increasingly welcoming us into the life of the American Republic without obliging us to abandon our traditions and beliefs. As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become “a great and a happy people,” Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge, and confront, the growing dangers we face.
Unlike the Moses Seixas of May 1790, who feared to give offense, we must be like the Moses Seixas of August 1790, who asserted our rights, as Americans and Jews, to lead our daily lives free of fear.
This essay is adapted from the text of the author’s keynote address at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, on August 18, 2019, at the 72nd annual reading of George Washington’s letter to the Jewish Congregation in Newport, celebrating the 229th anniversary of the letter.