Even before his presidency, George Washington demonstrated great sympathy for the Jewish community and for Jewish religious rights. A lovely tale, which I have told before in these pages, reveals the inspiration provided to him by a lone Jewish soldier in Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-78, when prospects were bleak and all seemed lost for the nascent American revolution:
One frigid evening, while out trying to boost his despondent troops, General Washington observed a solitary soldier struggling to protect a little flame from the bitter Valley Forge wind. The soldier told the general that, as an immigrant who had fled his native Poland seeking freedom from the Russian regime to practice Judaism, he had lit the candles on the soon-to-be-free American earth in celebration of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the impossible Jewish victory many centuries ago against vastly superior fighting forces.
He told Washington that just as the G-d of Israel helped the ancient Jews prevail over their mighty enemy, so would He help America prevail in its just cause for independence and freedom. Washington, inspired by the message of the little Chanukah candles, went on with increased confidence and vigor to lead the Continental Army to an unlikely victory against the British.
Later, in December 1778, when Washington was dining during Chanukah at the home of Jewish merchant Michael Hart, his host began to explain the customs of the holiday. The general, explaining that he already knew about the holiday from a Jew at Valley Forge, told the above story, which Hart’s daughter recorded in her diary.
Although Article VI of the Constitution outlaws religious tests “as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” no Constitutional provision secured religious liberty until the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, with the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion among other fundamental rights. (The original Bill of Rights which Congress sent to the states on September 28, 1789 had 12 proposed amendments; thus, what we now call the “First” Amendment was originally the third.)
However, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Barron v. Mayor and the City Council of Baltimore (1833), states had the right to deny protections to its citizens under the Bill of Rights. Thus, until after the post-Civil War adoption of the 14th Amendment, states could – and did – deny the right of Jews to hold public office.
Within one week after Washington’s April 30, 1789 inauguration, Levi Sheftall, president of the newly reorganized Savannah Hebrew Congregation, dispatched a letter of congratulations to the new president, who responded, closing with the following beautiful blessing (May 1790):
May the same wonder-working deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dew of heaven, and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people, whose God is Jehovah.
Shearith Israel Congregation in New York (then the capital city of the U.S.) was embarrassed that the Savannah synagogue had beaten them to the punch. Accordingly, Manuel Josephson invited the congregations in the four other major Jewish population centers – Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Richmond – to prepare a joint message to send to the president.
Twelve states by then had ratified the Constitution, but Rhode Island, which refused to convene a state convention, had not. Sensitive to the fact that the Rhode Island legislature had not yet addressed the president, Moses Seixas, warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel (better known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport), wrote back to Shearith Israel declining to participate. He explained, though, that his community was most sympathetic to the idea of a joint address.
When the new president toured New England in 1789, in part to campaign for passage of the Bill of Rights, he manifested his displeasure with Rhode Island by pointedly avoiding it. Ratification required only the approval of two-thirds (or nine) of the states, but it was important to Washington that the Constitution be ratified unanimously. After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790 – on a very narrow 34-32 vote – Washington arranged a special ceremonial visit there, arriving in Newport (then the capital of Rhode Island) on August 18, 1790, accompanied by a large entourage, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Consistent with standard practice at the time, the president was formally greeted by various dignitaries who delivered welcome statements, including addresses by the Newport civil authority, a representative of the Christian clergy, and Moses Seixas on behalf of the community’s Jews.
Newport had historically been a good home to its 300 Jewish residents, although individual Jews were unable to obtain full political equality as Rhode Island citizens. The Jews of Newport looked to the new national government, and particularly to the enlightened American president, to remove the last of the barriers to religious liberty and civil equality confronting American Jewry.
Seixas (1744-1809) had immigrated with his family from Lisbon, Portugal to Newport, where he rose to prominence as warden of Newport’s Touro Synagogue, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Rhode Island, and co-founder of the Bank of Rhode Island. Not surprisingly, he is best known for his letter to Washington, which he read aloud on August 18. (Few know that Seixas wrote a second letter to the president as a fellow Freemason, asking the nondenominational G-d of the masons [the “Sovereign Architect of the Universe”] to protect Washington during his presidency.)
Seixas’ letter on behalf of “the children of the Stock of Abraham” expressed the Jewish community’s esteem for the president and expressed pleasure that the G-d of Israel, who had protected King David, had also protected General Washington. While the rest of world Jewry lived under the rule of monarchs, potentates, and despots, American Jews could look to ensure their “invaluable rights as free citizens.”
Seixas expressed his vision of an American government in words that have become a part of the national lexicon: He beheld in the U.S. “a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Not surprisingly, it is Washington’s response – a foundation stone of American religious liberty and the principle of separation between church and state – which is best remembered, even though he essentially borrowed ideas, and actual words, from Seixas’s letter:
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 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 everyone 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.
The words “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid” come from Micah 4:4, a powerful vision of the day when “the house of the Lord is established” and all creatures live in peace. Washington’s allusion to Micah’s vision was consistent with the founders’ vision of America as a new promised land; indeed, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson sought to have the official seal of the United States depict scenes of the Egyptian Exodus.
Some academics suggest that Washington’s letter, which virtually all agree presents his most prominent pronouncement on religious toleration, was actually drafted by Jefferson. See, for example, Julian P. Boyd, et al., Jefferson Papers.
Washington’s letter was broadly published and republished across the country. Exhibited above is an excerpt from the February 2, 1824 New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, published in Concord, NH featuring “a copy of a letter from Gen. Washington in reply to an address from the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I. presented to him August 1790.” The letter, whose 337 words remain a cornerstone in the chronicles of religious freedom, may currently be seen at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Prior to his letter to Seixas, there is no record of Washington’s ever thinking about the philosophical relationship between Jews and broader society in any way. His few Jewish associations appear to have been exclusively official, and there is no record of his having developed any close friendships with Jews.
Thus, his concern for the welfare of the Jewish community in America, so beautifully expressed in his Newport letter, was not due to Jewish influence, nor did he seek to afford any special consideration or treatment to Jews. Rather, extending equal treatment to Jews was consistent with his overall commitment to religious liberty and the equal role of all citizens in the Great American Experiment.
Moreover, Washington was a religious man, raised as a churchgoing Anglican and well-versed in the Bible, who saw the Jews as the most persecuted minority in history deserving protection under the new Constitution.
To Jewish Americans – most of whom had fought for and supported independence – these promises were particularly glorious, since one of the most important reasons for leaving Europe had been to escape centuries of religious bigotry and persecution. There were about 2,500 Jews at the time of the Revolution (about 0.1 percent of the population), but their contributions to the cause, both as soldiers and patriotic supporters, were truly remarkable and disproportionate considering their small numbers.
Although Washington’s private life and correspondence contain not a hint of anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish bias, various anti-Semitic quotations have been attributed to him – all of which have been disproven. That has not stopped the Arabs and other anti-Semites, however, from continuing to cite them.