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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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Viewing Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue

In 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, which was an early expression of the federal government’s commitment to religious neutrality. The text of that letter appears back here.

Two upcoming events pertain to that letter. First, on 13 June, Ted Widmer, head of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, will speak about “A Test Case for America: Washington, Longfellow and the Jewish Community at Newport” at the First Parish Church in Cambridge. The touchstones of this talk will be Washington’s letter and Henry W. Longfellow’s poem on the Jewish cemetery at Newport.

Widmer speaks as part of the Cambridge Forum series of lectures and talks. His lecture is free, co-sponsored by the Friends of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge, The Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, and fellow organizations. It is scheduled to begin at 7:00.

Second, starting on 4 July Washington’s original letter will be the center of an exhibit called “To Bigotry No Sanction” at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Paul Berger at the Jewish Daily Forward reported the background of this display:
As the Forward reported in a series of articles and editorials last year, Washington’s letter spent decades on display in the Klutznick Museum at B’nai B’rith International’s flagship headquarters in Washington. In 2002, when financial pressures forced B’nai B’rith to relocate to smaller offices, the majority of its collection, including the letter, was put into storage. Many scholars did not know where the letter was until the Forward revealed it to be housed in an art storage facility in suburban Maryland.

Several institutions, including the NMAJH and the Library of Congress, have tried for years to pry the letter away. But B’nai B’rith claimed that its hands were tied by the letter’s legal owner, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, which would not allow the letter to be moved.
The Forward’s website catalogues its reporting and editorials on the matter that resulted in the July display.

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