Understanding the Letter: Content, History, and Relevance
Understand the circumstances and context of Washington’s visit to Rhode Island and why the George Washington Letter is important to the development of the American concept of religious freedom.
George Washington, President; Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President; and other prominent political figures of their day, traveled throughout the New England states to promote ratification of the first amendments to the Constitution of the new nation.
On August 17, 1790 they reached Newport, then the capital of Rhode Island, and were greeted by the city’s leaders. These men represented the varied political, economic, and religious interests of the residents. Many of them read welcoming messages to the visitors.
Moses Seixas, representing the Jewish community, stated its affection and respect for General Washington. He further expressed the Jewish community’s deep gratitude for the opportunity to be free citizens within “a Government, to which 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.”
George Washington, ever gracious and appreciative of the support he received, wrote to thank the Jews of Newport for rallying to his cause. In his letter he quoted from Moses Seixas’s letter.
President Washington’s letter, with its few brief words, became the foundation of support for two tenets of our democracy: the right of individuals to believe in and practice their religion, and the separation of government from religion.
Motivation and Activities
- Students will read and compare the letters of Moses Seixas and George Washington to find the extent to which General Washington reinforced his support of the religious freedom amendment with Mr. Seixas statement.
- Students will read an account of the meeting of the two men in the newspaper, the Newport Mercury of August 23, 1790 and discuss the event.
Materials & Resources
Students will need access to computers with web-capability (or printed copies of the following items):
- Moses Seixas letter welcoming General George Washington to Newport, RI., August 17, 1790
- General Washington’s letter to The Jews of Newport, August 21, 1790
- The Newport Mercury, RI., 1790 facsimile newspaper
- Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
- The Bill of Rights
- Key documents in the history of religious liberty, including the Mayflower Compact (1620); John Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-92); Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786); Papers of George Washington, French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), Royal Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663) [These documents are available in digital form from the Avalon Project.]
Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
The Avalon Project website presents digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government.
Bill of Rights Institute
The Bill of Rights Institute is one of GWIRF’s partners in educating students on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
Facing History and Ourselves
Facing History and Ourselves is one of GWIRF’s partners in educating students on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
First Amendment Center
The First Amendment Center offers comprehensive research coverage of key First Amendment issues and topics, daily First Amendment news, commentary and analyses by respected legal specialists, and a First Amendment Library of legal cases and related materials.
Library of Congress
Comprehensive source for digital versions of key documents of American history, with teacher resources and ideas on how to use primary source materials in classrooms.
TeAchnology, U.S. Constitution Teaching Theme
TeAchnology provides free resources for teachers. The site has over 42,000 lesson plans, 9000 free printable worksheets, rubrics, teaching tips, worksheet makers, web quests, math worksheets, and other teacher resources. Material is available for Kindergarten through High School teachers.
Additional material is available at www.tourosynagogue.org
All modules meet curriculum standards of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).
See www.socialstudies.org for additional information.
- Standard 1 — Understands the ideas about life, politics and government
- Standard 2 — Understands the historical perspective
- Standard 8 — Understands the institutions and practices of Government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundations of the American political systems based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights
- Era 3 — Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
- Standard 7 — Uses reading skills and strategy to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts