To Bigotry, No Sanction
George Washington’s letter to Newport’s Jews lives on as one of the most powerful and inspiring lessons about religious freedom in American history.
Although small in size, the 340-word letter offers a powerful promise to all Americans—each of us has the right to believe, or not believe, in any religious faith as we chose, so long as we observe it in peaceable ways and give the government of the United States our “effectual support.”
At the heart of the Loeb Visitors Center’s second floor sits an interactive exhibit featuring the 1790 exchange of letters between Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation and George Washington. Our first president’s reply to Seixas is one of the most important documents in American history.
Exhibit Featuring George Washingon’s Letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport
Story Behind the Letter
In 1790, President Washington paid a good-will visit to Rhode Island. Joining him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton and other government leaders.
On the second morning of their visit, representatives from Newport’s local government and various religious groups gathered to present messages of welcome to the President. Among them was the leader of the town’s Jewish congregation, Moses Seixas. The message he read to Washington on behalf of the Hebrew Congregation expressed the hope that the new American government would grant all of its citizens respect and tolerance regardless of religious beliefs and background.
Several days later President Washington wrote back his now-famous letter, assuring the Hebrew Congregation that the government of the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington looked forward to a time when “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This biblical reference was Washington’s way of pledging that religious minorities would be safe in their homes and houses of worship.
Washington’s letter was declarative, assertive, crisp and poetic. Its clear and strong message about the importance of religious freedom has echoed through the centuries. The nation’s first president promised all Americans not just tolerance, but full liberty of conscience regardless of religious belief. He was paving the way for the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which would be added to the Constitution a year later on December 15, 1791.
Influence of the Letter After 1790
Washington’s letter is a cornerstone document in the annals of religious freedom. Supreme Court justices have cited it in at least three religious liberty cases. Congress has passed resolutions extolling the letter. It was cited numerous times during the debate over construction of a mosque in the proposed Park51 Muslim community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. President Obama cited it during Jewish American Heritage Month, 2013.
Washington’s letter went on exhibition at the Library of Congress to mark the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America, and is presented on-line by that institution as one of the greatest documents in American history. Through 2023, it will be displayed for four months per year at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, PA. Historian Jonathan Sarna has described it as the most important document in American Jewish history.
The Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights versus Legacy of Established Religions
The Government’s role in issues of religion was a particular sticking point in the debate over ratification of the Bill of Rights. In Europe, state-sponsored or “established” religions were the norm. Citizens could be taxed to support the established church and its clergy, even if they did not believe in that religion. Most of the English colonies other than Rhode Island also had established churches.
When the rebelling colonies formed the fledgling United States, each state retained much of its own sovereignty. All but Rhode Island and New York continued to favor their established churches, and a few states taxed their citizens to support them. In some states, the rights of minority Christians such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics and Quakers were restricted. In all of them, non-Christians were denied the rights of full citizenship, such as holding public office. Even in religiously liberal Rhode Island, Jews were not allowed to vote, although their status as merchants and economic producers protected them from overt social or economic discrimination.
The United States Constitution
The first clauses in the First Amendment declare that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While this was true for the federal government, the words did little to erase religious favoritism at the state level. While the first phrase has been interpreted as preventing the national government from declaring a national religion, the words “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” were equally intended to prevent the federal government from forcing any state that had an establishment to abolish it.
For the most part, the founders were willing to accept this compromise. At the time, the great majority of Americans were Protestants, but divided among many denominations and sects so that none could claim an advantage. For the new nation to operate as a whole rather than as thirteen autonomous states, differences of religion, culture and economic status would have to be balanced. Compromise and accommodation—toleration of difference—would have to prevail.