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.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.
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.
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.