History, Observations, Religion.

To the Hebrew congregation in Newport Rhode Island

A remarkable and short exchange of letters between George Washington and Moses Seixas in 1790 beautifully illuminates the Constitution’s 1st Amendment protections for religious freedom as intended by the founders, written as the states were still ratifying the proposed Bill of Rights.  Seixas, the warden of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, R.I., wrote first to Washington on behalf of his congregation, expressing their gratitude at the prospect of a government which expressly protected liberty, especially to worship freely.

The heart of Moses Seixas’ message:


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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: — This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

Washington’s reply expresses in a short letter the heart of America’s radical departure from inherited attitudes and prejudices regarding religion, inherited from European laws and customs:


Click to view entire letter.. PD-US.


To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in 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 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, 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. 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.

G. Washington

Moses Seixas’ gratitude for the new Bill of Rights, “generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship, . . . which to bigotry gives no sanction , to persecution no assistance” is echoed by Washington. Washington then emphasizes that “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”.

When Seixas’ said, “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” he was alluding explicitly to the European Jew’s historical exclusion from civic participation, lack of protection under the law, and much worse. Jewish life in Europe was marked by periods of intolerance and less occasionally, tolerance. As Washington suggested, tolerance is at the whim of those in power, and can be replaced by intolerance, whether religious, economic, or civic.

Washington also underscored the difference between the inherited European attitudes and the new American one regarding religion. European states each had a formal state religion; generally Lutheranism in Scandinavia and Northern German principalities and duchies, a scattering of other Protestant sects, and Roman Catholicism in much of the rest of Europe. Following the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion, an uneasy religious peace reigned in many territories, marked by the idea of tolerance of the state’s religion towards religions other than the lawful one. As Washington suggested, this was a full step below religious freedom.

Seixas was grateful for the new American idea of full freedom of religion, and the more extended idea of the liberty for the individual. A person under the new regime was given a free conscience, to think and act and worship freely without coercion of the state.

Additional thoughts on this exchange of letters by:

Jeff Weintraub and Sam Fleischacker here and here.

Alan Dershowitz here.

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