A short but concise letter written by President George Washington set the stage for religious liberty in the United States.
In August of 1790 Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island, along with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and others to sure up support for the 12 proposed amendments to the constitution (also known as the Bill of Rights). During his stay he visited with various groups, including with the congregants of Touro Synagogue, the oldest standing synagogue in the United States. After his visit the president penned a letter to the synagogue in which he reaffirmed his commitment to religious liberty in the newly formed country.
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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.George Washington, Letter to the Jews of Newport
Historians say despite the letter being short, it had a big impact on the acceptance of Jews (and other religious minorities) in the United States. The letter put forward Washington’s wish that the United States would be a country that respects and tolerates all religious beliefs and backgrounds.
In the New York Review, Jed S. Rakoff writes: “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.”
Noted American Historian Melvin Urofsky writes:
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 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.
Letter to the Jews of Newport
While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on 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 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 were 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Originally Published Jul 6 2021 08:41AM EDT
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