Today is Washington’s birthday. He was born 288 years ago today. He great letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, rhode Island is great way to remember this magnificent letter by a magnificent man:
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 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,2 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 a 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 figtree, 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.
LS, DBn; LS (photocopy), RHi; photocopy of LS (copy), DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW; copy, Netherlands, Algemain Rijksarchief: Collection Jorissen. This letter has been widely reprinted in facsimile.
For a suggestion that Jefferson originally drafted the president’s reply to the address of Newport’s Jewish congregation, long regarded as GW’s most prominent pronouncement on religious toleration, see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, 19:610. See also Freeman, Washington, 6:275, n.136.
The Jewish presence in Newport, R.I., dated to the arrival of fifteen Sephardic Jewish families in 1658. In 1677 they bought land for a burial ground,
but religious services were held in private homes until property for a synagogue was purchased in 1759 and a building was completed and dedicated in 1763. At least twenty-five Jewish families lived in Newport by the time of the Revolution, making it the largest Jewish community in the colonies. Many left during the British occupation of the town, and the Jewish community in Newport had only begun to recover its former prominence at the time of GW’s visit in August 1790 (see Morris Adam Gutstein, The Story of the Jews of Newport: Two and a Half Centuries of Judaism, 1658–1908 [New York, 1936], 28, 36–39, 84, 98, 114, 182; see also 133, 189–90, 193, 198, 204, 209, 218, 219–21).
1. The address was dated 17 Aug. 1790 and signed by the warden of the Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Newport, Moses Seixas (1744–1809), a leading town merchant and later cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island. Seixas probably presented it to GW on the morning of 18 Aug. 1790 when the town and Christian clergy of Newport also delivered addresses to the president (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, 19:610, n.8).
The address reads: “Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits—and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.
“With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these 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: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick 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.
“For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men—beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality” (DLC:GW).