Moses Seixas welcomes George Washington to Newport.
In 1790, President Washington paid a good-will visit to Rhode Island. Joining him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton and other government leaders.
On the morning of August 18, officials of Newport and representatives from various religious groups presented messages of welcome to the President. Among them was the leader of the town’s Jewish congregation, Moses Seixas, who penned a letter of welcome expressing the hope that this new nation would grant all of its citizens respect and tolerance whatever their religious beliefs and backgrounds.
Click this image to see and hear George Washington reading his famous letter.
Washington responded in writing a few days later, assuring the Hebrew Congregation that the government of the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction.” He added that every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This biblical reference was Washington’s way of pledging that religious minorities would be safe in their homes and houses of worship.
The tone of Washington’s letter was declarative, assertive, and unusually crisp. It was a clarion call that has echoed through the centuries. Washington promised in his letter not just tolerance, but full liberty of conscience no matter what one’s religious beliefs. He was paving the way for the First Amendment, which would be added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.
Influence of the Letter After 1790
A few days after Moses Seixas received Washington’s letter, its text appeared in a local paper, the Newport Mercury. From there, it was reprinted in several newspapers across the United States.
From its publication to the present, Washington’s letter has remained a touchstone of American Jewish life. More than one historian has described the letter as the single most important document in American Jewish history. A Google search for “George Washington Letter to the Hebrew Congregation” conducted in January 2013 yielded a quarter of a million results. The Letter has been reprinted in American Jewish publications ranging from Passover haggadahs to synagogue newsletters. It has been displayed at museums. Although the message of the letter is universal, the fact that Washington wrote it to a Jewish community has been a special source of pride.
A Genesis of Religious Freedom: The Story of the Jews of Newport, RI and Touro Synagogue, Dr. Melvin I. Urofsky, Heritage Muse, 2013
Washington’s letter has had an enduring impact well beyond the Jewish community. Its words have been cited by Supreme Court justices in at least three religious liberty cases. Congress has passed resolutions extolling the letter. It was recently the subject of a letter to the editor in the New York Sunday Times Magazine and cited numerous times during the debate over construction of a mosque in the proposed Park51 Muslim community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. President Obama cited it during Jewish American Heritage Month, 2013.
In 2004, the letter went on exhibition at the Library of Congress to mark the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America, and is presented on-line by that institution as one of the greatest documents in American history. Through 2023, it will be displayed for four months per year at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA.