On a muggy August morning in 1790, President George Washington sailed to Newport, R.I., with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and other dignitaries. Three months earlier, Rhode Island's legislature had made it the last state to ratify the United States Constitution, and Washington was eager to gain support for the amendments that would later become the Bill of Rights.
The group was greeted by Newport’s politicians, businessmen and clergy and, together, they gathered at a red-brick customs house where representatives of the community addressed the president.
Among them was Moses Seixas, who read two letters—one as the grand master of the Masonic Order of Rhode Island and the other as the warden of Newport’s Hebrew Congregation.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the moment. Much of Newport’s Jewish population had come to America to escape centuries of persecution in Europe. And Seixas’s opportunity might have happened only in Rhode Island, which was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a haven for religious dissenters. Outside the colony, freedom of religion for non-Christians was hardly a given. In fact, the freedom to worship for many nonmajority Christians—including Quakers, Baptists and Catholics—was nearly as precarious.
In the early days of the United States, religious minorities had several concerns: Would they be allowed to practice their religion? Would they be allowed to build houses of worship? Would they have the same political rights as members of mainstream Protestant sects? After all, it was within living memory that “heretics” had been banished and even burned at the stake. And, in 1790, many of the states excluded Jews, Catholics, Quakers and others from civic participation on the basis of religious differences. Even in Rhode Island, Jews could not vote or hold public office.
In this context, Seixas read his message to Washington on behalf of Newport’s small Jewish population:
“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 … which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The courteous thing for the president to do was to respond in writing. But what would he say? Then, as now, disputes over religion had the potential to dissolve into controversy.
In 2012, Americans belonging to minority religions as well as those who believe in no religion still struggle to claim a place in the public square. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 2.2 billion people—more than a third of the world’s population—face religious restrictions. They live either in nations where the government restricts worship or where social hostilities force them to defend their beliefs. Even in the United States, there has been a long debate about the role that religion should play in our national identity, and research suggests that we know very little about each others' faiths, traditions and practices.
Lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstanding and distrust. Echoing debates in Europe, head coverings have come under suspicion in schools, government buildings and motor-vehicle licensing bureaus. The effort to build an Islamic center near New York City’s Ground Zero memorial caused a firestorm of debate. A poll taken in July 2011 revealed that 22 percent of Americans would not vote for a Mormon for president, regardless of that candidate's policies or record.
It’s in this environment that students can benefit from learning about Washington’s response to Newport’s Hebrew Congregation.
Writing back just four days later, the nation’s first president reassured the Jewish community of Newport that his government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He went further, explaining the difference between mere forbearance and true freedom:
“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.” Washington envisioned that in the new nation, members of all religions would be able to practice their individual faiths by right—not through the permission or indulgence of the majority.
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Washington wrote, defining religious freedom as a natural right preceding any constitution or laws.
Washington's letter is a clear example of his intent to establish a nation in which the government upholds principles of religious freedom. But it is not an isolated document. He had also written letters to the nation’s Quakers, Catholics and Baptists. And his peers, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, held similar views. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut 12 years later, Jefferson wrote:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” (See our online portfolio for the full text.)
Washington’s letter is particularly important given the contemporary debate over the the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment. Just a year later, the states ratified the amendment understanding that it set a framework for religious freedom. Washington also offered something equally important: a moral vision that balances respect for religious difference with the responsibilities of citizenship.
A Story with Universal Lessons
The story of George Washington and Moses Seixas is that of a particular cultural setting and the challenges faced by a unique religious community. And clearly, despite Washington’s intent, many religious minorities still dream of worshipping in environments that have achieved, at the least, a degree of toleration. But educators can help students achieve a connection between that event and those of the present day.
Facing History and Ourselves and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom believe these important documents—and the lessons they offer about pluralism and democracy—are a great place to begin.
Deborah Conway, a teacher at the Facing History School in New York City, found the documents fascinating—as did her students.
“[The letter] was written so long ago, and yet here was a president expressing his views about religious tolerance,” she says. Her students wrote their own letters to Washington from a modern-day perspective, communicating examples of how Americans still struggle with these issues. The school’s proximity to the planned Islamic center near the Ground Zero memorial, she says, “definitely sparked” much of their discussion.
The goal is for students to experience what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls a “mutual recognition and mutual acceptance of divergent worldviews”—a “kind of tolerance [that] allows religion and democracy to coexist in a pluralistic environment.”
Editor’s note: Different transcriptions of these letters provide differing punctuation, differing capitalization and, in some cases, slightly different wording. We have replaced some outdated usages for clarity while trying to preserve the original tone of the letters.
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