J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Washington Really Said About Jews

To understand how George Washington viewed Jews and their place in America, we don’t need unreliable oral traditions; we can consult the historical record.

On 17 Aug 1790 Moses Seixas presented President George Washington with a laudatory address on behalf of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island. (Newport’s Touro Synagogue appears at right.) Seixas wrote:

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.
Washington replied on 18 August, looking back on the war and constitutional uncertainty:
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.
This is a forward-looking attitude, more so than respecting Jews for being “children of the prophets,” as the legend of Hanukkah at Valley Forge emphasizes. Washington rejected the religious system that had dominated in Europe for well over a millennium: some form of Christianity being a state’s official religion while Jews and others were occasionally “tolerated.” Instead, in his America people’s “inherent natural rights” meant that no form of religious thought or behavior was privileged above any other.

Both letters were published immediately and republished many times since. Such public addresses to government officials and the replies were a common way for those officials to express political positions when gentlemen were not supposed to engage in aggressive politicking.

RETROSPECTIVE: The posting that started this all.

5 comments:

MS said...

Thank you very much for the interesting series about George Washington and the Jewish People.

For an interesting perspective on the original intent of the Establishment Clause, I recommend this article: What Wall?

Incorporation of the Establishment Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited States from endorsing a particular religion. Prior to that time, the States were free to choose whether to adopt an official religion.

Dana Huff said...

Thanks again for your Washington/Jews series. I teach at a Jewish high school, and though I have shared this blog with our American history teacher before, I'll point her toward these posts.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments.

ms, the convoluted way the First Amendment starts ("Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion...") shows how it still allowed states to favor one religion over others. Congress was not only not allowed to establish one religion, it was also forbidden from affecting states' own laws on religions. The Congregationalist orthodoxy of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire was the strongest religious establishment in the U.S. of A. then.

Connecticut Baptists wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the discrimination they suffered during his administration. His reply was a lot like Washington's to the Newport Jews: a public statement, released to newspapers, in favor of religious freedom at all levels of society. That's indeed where the "wall of separation" phrase comes from.

It took another couple of decades before Massachusetts dropped government favoritism for Congregationalist churches.

Rachel L. said...

A (gentile) historian friend of mine just told me about this book when her daughter picked it up. I immediately went, "there's no way that happened," and while searching for corroboration I stumbled upon this excellent series of blog posts. Thank you!

J. L. Bell said...

Glad to help. I think the picture book is a handsome fable, but we shouldn't treat it as more than that.