Introduction

Upon his election as President, many churches, congregations, and religious societies wrote to George Washington to congratulate him on his new office, and he replied to each of them with personalized messages of thanks for their well-wishes. In his reply to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Washington applauded the people of the United States for rejecting the European practice of religious “toleration,” embracing instead the “large and liberal policy” that religious liberty is a natural right — and not a gift of government — which all citizens are equally free to exercise.

In 1790, George Washington visited Rhode Island to acknowledge the state’s recent ratification of the Constitution and to promote passage of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.   As was the custom, when Washington visited Newport, he was met by a delegation of citizens, who read messages of welcome.  One of those who welcomed Washington was Moses Seixas, the warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport.  In his welcome, Seixas gave thanks to “the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of men” that the Jews, previously “deprived … of the invaluable rights of free Citizens” on account of their religion, now lived under a government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  In his letter to the Synagogue responding to Seixas’ welcome, Washington used some of Seixas’ own words to describe with moving eloquence the religious liberty found in the new republic. It was of the utmost importance that Washington used his extraordinary moral authority to support this new and untried liberty.


Gentlemen:

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.[1]

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.

Study Questions

A. What is the difference between toleration and religious freedom? Would tolerance be acceptable given the argument of the Declaration of Independence about the rights that men are endowed with?

B. How is Washington’s view in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation similar to and different from the views expressed in the Colonial laws excerpted in Laws, Rights, and Liberties Related to Religion in Early America?

Footnotes

  1. Micah 4:4 (“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.”) was one of the more popular Biblical passages during the Revolution. The preceding verse (Micah 4:3) is now better known: “And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”