Props to the Forward for tracking down the whereabouts of the original of George Washington’s justly celebrated letter to the Jews of Newport, written after receiving a welcome from their leader Moses Seixas during his visit to Rhode Island with Thomas Jefferson in August of 1790. Not so much to the International B’nai B’rith, which has squirreled the document away in an obscure Maryland art storage facility and refuses to permit it to be displayed by the Library of Congress or the new National Museum of American Jewish History.
The Forward describes the letter as “one of the primary documents guaranteeing religious tolerance in America” but that fails to capture its significance–and not only because Washington, though president, had no power to guarantee religious tolerance. What the letter does is testify to the secular Enlightenment ideal of citizenship that is embodied both in the Constitution’s proscription of religious tests for office and in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the Bill of Rights, which Rhode Island had in June become the ninth state to ratify.
Washington borrowed some of Seixas’ language but his own contributions (made with the help of his traveling companion?) to the key paragraph (indicated below in italics) are crucial:
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 were 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
Washington’s point, made as he was pushing the ratification process towards its successful conclusion, was that the United States (unlike England, for example) was not about a Christian majority permitting non-Christians to worship as they pleased; all citizens were on the same footing, regardless of their religious convictions. Religious toleration was irrelevant because no “class of people” had any power over the natural right of conscience of any other class of people.
These days, Washington’s original understanding of the First Amendment is under assault from originalist Christian ideologues like Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association, which is managing Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer rally in Houston August 6. In an anti-Muslim screed back in March, Fisher contends that what the First Amendment was about “was simply prohibiting Congress from picking one denomination and making
it the official church of the United States, and about protecting all
Christian denominations from the intrusion of the federal government. There was no mention of Islam, no reference to Islam, no effort to protect the free exercise of the Islamic faith.”
Yes, the First Amendment does not mention or refer to Islam, just as it does not mention or refer to Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or any other religion. But there can be no question that Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport could just as well have been written to a community of Muslims, had there been one to write to. Under the circumstances, the letter ought to be receiving all the attention it can get–such as by putting it on display in the National Archives as an authoritative midrash on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Brights. International B’nai B’rith, let the letter go!