George Washington's Letter to Newport

Washington promises no sanction to bigotry, and no assistance to persecution.

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Second page of Washington's letter to the Newport congregation, including the quote

The second page of Washington's letter to
the Newport congregation.
Credit: American Jewish Historical Society.

Not surprisingly, it is Washington's response, rather than Seixas's epistle, which is best remembered and most frequently reprinted. Washington began by thanking the congregation for its good wishes and rejoicing that the days of hardship caused by the war were replaced by days of prosperity. Washington then borrowed ideas--and some of the words--directly from Seixas's letter:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving 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 themselves as good citizens.


Washington's concluding paragraph perfectly expresses the ideal relationship among the government, its individual citizens and religious groups:

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 everyone shall sit under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
George Washington
The president closed with an invocation: "May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy."

The letter, a foundation stone of American religious liberty and separation of church and state, is signed, simply, "G. Washington." Each year, Newport's Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, now known as the Touro Synagogue, re-reads Washington's letter in a public ceremony. The words deserve repetition.

 

 

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.