George Washington Writes to the First Jewish Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “The Government… Gives to Bigotry No Sanction, to Persecution No Assistance” (1790)

In the ear­ly Unit­ed States, devout Chris­tians who would impose their beliefs on oth­ers were in the minor­i­ty among the country’s founders. Thomas Jefferson’s views on the sub­ject are well-known. Much more con­ser­v­a­tive than Jef­fer­son, fel­low Vir­gin­ian George Wash­ing­ton made fre­quent state­ments on reli­gion as part of the essen­tial tex­ture of pub­lic life. But while Wash­ing­ton dis­cussed reli­gion as a com­mu­nal affair with impor­tant social and polit­i­cal dimen­sions, like Jef­fer­son he endorsed reli­gious lib­er­ty and free­dom of con­science and belief.

Wash­ing­ton went fur­ther in defense of reli­gious minori­ties than the huge­ly influ­en­tial the­o­rist of reli­gious tol­er­a­tion, John Locke. The prin­ci­ple of tol­er­a­tion was unique in Europe and Eng­land, where “state-spon­sored reli­gion was the norm,” as New­port, Rhode Island’s his­toric Touro Syn­a­gogue explains.

But the idea was usu­al­ly tak­en to mean that “non-Chris­tians were to be ‘tol­er­at­ed’ for their beliefs” in a pater­nal­ist sense, “with the hope that ‘Jews, Turks, and Infi­dels” would become Chris­t­ian.” Wash­ing­ton, how­ev­er, declared:

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 good cit­i­zens, in giv­ing it on all occa­sions their effec­tu­al sup­port.

These words come from Washington’s short 1790 let­ter to the “the Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion in New­port, Rhode Island,” the first in a series of let­ters writ­ten to cit­i­zens of New­port after he and then-sec­re­tary of state Jef­fer­son made a vis­it. The address responds direct­ly to a let­ter of wel­come read to him on his arrival in the city by Moses Seixas, an offi­cial of the first Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tion in New­port, which states:

Deprived as we hereto­fore have been of the invalu­able rights of free Cit­i­zens, we now (with a deep sense of grat­i­tude to the Almighty dis­pos­er of all events) 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: deem­ing every one, of what­ev­er Nation, tongue, or lan­guage, equal parts of the great gov­ern­men­tal Machine….

As did many such procla­ma­tions, the doc­u­ment gloss­es the bru­tal con­tra­dic­tion of slav­ery, indige­nous slaugh­ter, and actu­al dis­crim­i­na­tion reli­gious minori­ties faced. Nonethe­less, the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples Seixas out­lined so accord­ed with Washington’s ideals that the first pres­i­dent repeat­ed key phras­es ver­ba­tim. This is no mere pan­der­ing. When Wash­ing­ton arrived in New­port in 1790, state leg­is­la­tures were in the process of rat­i­fy­ing what was then the Third Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion, which we know as the First, pro­hibit­ing the estab­lish­ment of state reli­gion and grant­i­ng free­dom of the press.

Argu­ments over reli­gious lib­er­ty were fierce, and tol­er­a­tion had strict lim­its. In some states “the rights of minor­i­ty groups such as Bap­tists, Pres­by­te­ri­ans, Catholics and Quak­ers were restrict­ed,” notes Touro. “In most states, non-Chris­tians were denied the rights of full cit­i­zen­ship, such as hold­ing pub­lic office. Even in reli­gious­ly lib­er­al Rhode Island, Jews were not allowed to vote.” While the First Amend­ment “did lit­tle to erase these injus­tices,” Washington’s let­ter set out ide­al con­di­tions in which the country’s “enlarged and lib­er­al pol­i­cy” grant­ed “lib­er­ty of con­science and immu­ni­ties of cit­i­zen­ship” to all.

That Wash­ing­ton would make such claims in Rhode Island bears par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance giv­en that the state is “most not­ed as the place where reli­gious free­dom was actu­al­ly born,” writes for­mer Ambas­sador and UN Del­e­gate John Loeb. The colony’s 1663 char­ter “set forth the first polit­i­cal enti­ty in the world to sep­a­rate the church from the state.” Washington’s state­ment one hun­dred and twen­ty-sev­en years lat­er “applied—and con­tin­ues to apply—to every Amer­i­can,” Loeb argues, despite its spe­cif­ic address “to a small group of Jew­ish cit­i­zens.” But that spe­cif­ic address mat­ters. It promised inclu­sion and pro­tec­tion to a com­mu­ni­ty that had faced cen­turies of ter­ror.

As his­to­ri­an Melvin Urof­sky writes, the let­ter “to the Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion,” like many oth­er such state­ments made by the founders, “is a trea­sure to the entire nation”—a nation that “rec­og­nized,” at least in words, “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.”

Read Wash­ing­ton’s con­cise “Let­ter to the Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion in New­port, Rhode Island” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read George Washington’s “110 Rules of Civil­i­ty”: The Code of Decen­cy That Guid­ed America’s First Pres­i­dent

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

Har­vard Launch­es a Free Online Course to Pro­mote Reli­gious Tol­er­ance & Under­stand­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • June says:

    “In the ear­ly Unit­ed States, devout Chris­tians who would impose their beliefs on oth­er *white land-own­ing men* were in the minor­i­ty among the country’s founders.” There. Fixed it.

    “For hap­pi­ly the Gov­ern­ment of the Unit­ed States, which gives to big­otry no sanc­tion, to per­se­cu­tion no assis­tance…” lol.

  • June says:

    Glad that this author ques­tioned that con­nec­tion. Still it seems absurd that some­one could be blind­ed by their own big­otries that they could say those words while killing indige­nous peo­ple, enslav­ing black peo­ple, and sub­ju­gat­ing women.

  • Josh Jones says:

    You’re absolute­ly right, June. The hypocrisy is stag­ger­ing.

  • Gerald says:

    Very good post, but I do not agree with the com­ments post­ed there­after. There is a dif­fer­ence between what soci­ety should aspire to and what can be prac­ti­cal­ly achieved at any giv­en moment of time. Rec­og­niz­ing that dif­fer­ence is not hypocrisy at all — it is wis­dom.

  • JV says:

    Total­ly agree. Ascrib­ing cur­rent morals and beliefs on peo­ple liv­ing hun­dreds of years ago is myopic. They exist­ed with­in a soci­ety, as do we. Most like­ly, wher­ev­er you are on the cur­rent polit­i­cal spec­trum is where you’d be in the past, so that if you’re a cen­trist now, you’d be a cen­trist in the 1700s. As we all know, cen­trist views back then includ­ed gen­er­al (if grudg­ing) accep­tance of slav­ery, sub­ju­ga­tion of indige­nous pop­u­la­tions and women, etc. To think you’d believe in the 1700s what you believe now is sil­ly, Don’t fool your­selves into think­ing you’d be a pio­neer­ing rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ary back then. You almost cer­tain­ly would­n’t.

  • Gerald says:

    JV, I think you make a valid point. For exam­ple, vir­tu­al­ly all cul­tures prac­ticed slav­ery in some form or anoth­er through­out his­to­ry until things began to change in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Notwith­stand­ing that, I think many of the Founders were ill-dis­posed to the insti­tu­tion, but under­stood that insist­ing upon abo­li­tion at that time would have destroyed any pos­si­bil­i­ty of form­ing a union among the states.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Hm, yes, mea­sur­ing his­tor­i­cal fig­ures’ behav­ior against their loud­ly pro­fessed prin­ci­ples is anachro­nis­tic. Men of their time, and so on.…. It’s not like they per­son­al­ly ben­e­fit­ted from an insti­tu­tion they claimed to loathe and knew under­mined their ideals. Maybe I’d buy their good faith if Wash­ing­ton had man­u­mit­ted his slaves *before* his death, or Jef­fer­son had done so at all (his own chil­dren except­ed, of course). Sure­ly we could at least agree the motives were mixed. Prag­ma­tism and prof­it.

  • June says:

    It is ahis­tor­i­cal at best to sug­gest that any giv­en fig­ure did­n’t have the req­ui­site tools to make moral deci­sions. At no point in his­to­ry was there only one ide­ol­o­gy avail­able to choose from (let alone in the com­pa­ny of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies with thoughts of lib­er­a­tion).

    For exam­ple: George Mason — “As much as I val­ue an union of all the states, I would not admit the south­ern states into the union, unless they agreed to the dis­con­tin­u­ance of this dis­grace­ful trade, because it would bring weak­ness and not strength to the union.” and “The aug­men­ta­tion of slaves weak­ens the states; and such a trade is dia­bol­i­cal in itself, and dis­grace­ful to mankind.” They knew that what they were doing was wrong, but it was mak­ing them very rich and very pow­er­ful.

    Three hun­dred years from now, reac­tionar­ies may argue that peo­ple are wrong to judge today’s big­ots by the moral val­ues of a more lib­er­at­ed soci­ety, but they would be absolute­ly dead wrong.

    When peo­ple argue that peo­ple can’t be held to moral stan­dards above those of the dom­i­nant class­es of their time and place, they are basi­cal­ly reit­er­at­ing the Nurem­berg defense. Harm­ing peo­ple is evil no mat­ter how much the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es of your soci­ety approve of it. This idea was­n’t an inven­tion of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

  • Gerald says:

    June, the point is not that the Founders lacked “the req­ui­site tools to make moral deci­sions”. Rather, often­times, two or more entire­ly moral posi­tions are in direct con­flict and, as a con­se­quence, com­pro­mise is nec­es­sary. To wit, a moral­ly inde­fen­si­ble insti­tu­tion on one hand — albeit one prac­ticed on every con­ti­nent then — and, on the oth­er, the moral imper­a­tive of form­ing a union capa­ble of coex­ist­ing and pre­serv­ing a fledg­ling inde­pen­dence. As Thomas Sow­ell is fond of say­ing, there are no solu­tions in life, only trade-offs.

  • June says:

    “Moral­ly inde­fen­si­ble,” and yet, here you are.

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