George Washington, Elena Kagan, and the town of Greece, New York: the First Amendment and religious minorities.

AuthorLipez, Kermit V.

    1. The President's Trip to Newport

      George Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, following the ratification of the Constitution by nine of the thirteen original states. When Rhode Island became the thirteenth state to ratify the Constitution in May of 1790, Washington planned a trip to Newport to celebrate the completion of this new union. (1) Knowing that his trip would be publicized by newspapers throughout the states, Washington also hoped to use that publicity to win final ratification of the Bill of Rights. Ratification was important for many reasons, including the perceived need for what became the First Amendment's Establishment and Free-Exercise Clauses. (2)

      Religious discrimination was still a problem in the United States in the summer of 1790. Several of the states had only recently dismantled their established churches. (3) In Rhode Island, the most religiously tolerant of the new states, only white Protestant males could vote and hold public office. (4) Thus, religious minorities in the United States, aware of Washington's commitment to freedom of conscience and religion, greeted his selection as President enthusiastically, and some leaders of these minorities had sent congratulatory letters to him. (5) By the summer of 1790, Washington had responded to these letters, affirming his commitment to religious liberty. (6) Newport's small Jewish community hoped for similar reassurance when Washington and his party, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, arrived in Newport by ship on the morning of August 17, 1790.

      Newport's Jewish community had been the largest in the colonies when its twenty-five families founded the Touro Synagogue in 1763.7 Most members of that community supported the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War, and hence many had fled the British occupation of Newport in 1776.8 Since many of them had not yet returned after the British retreat in 1779, the Jewish community of Newport at the time of Washington's visit consisted of only six families. Their leader was Moses Seixas, a banker, the grand master of Rhode Island's Masons, and the president of the Touro synagogue. (9)

    2. The Washington-Seixas Correspondence

      Immediately after breakfast on the morning of August 18, 1790, prominent citizens of Newport, in the style of the day, read four open letters to the President and his traveling party. One letter was on behalf of the town. The second was a joint statement from the Christian clergy. The third was a greeting from the Masonic order read by Moses Seixas. (10) And then Seixas read a letter on behalf of the community of Jews.

      Seixas began with a greeting to Washington that sounds odd to our ears: "Sir, permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits--and to join with your fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport." (11) After thanking God for shielding Washington "in the day of battle," Seixas proceeded to his central point--a plea for a national government that would treat all of its citizens equally:

      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 everyone, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great Governmental Machine. (12) Moved by Seixas's letter, Washington replied a few days after returning to New York, using some of Seixas's own language to confirm his commitment to equality of citizenship for all religious groups:

      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.... 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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. (13) Washington's letter is notable in a number of ways. He insists that tolerance is not enough, pointing out that religious minorities do not enjoy freedom of conscience at the sufferance of others. (14) He acknowledges that it is instead a natural right that the government--giving to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance--must always protect. And he invokes imagery from the messianic vision of the Old Testament prophet Micah to describe all Americans, no matter their religious beliefs, sitting in safety under their own vines and fig trees, content, tranquil, and self-sufficient. (15)

      At first glance, however, there is one discordant note in Washington's letter--the suggestion that "the children of the stock of Abraham" will merit the protection of the government, and the good will of the other inhabitants, only if they "demean themselves as good citizens." Scholars have determined, however, that Washington did not single out Jews for this conditional embrace. Instead, he had a general concern that the unwillingness of some citizens to accept the responsibilities of citizenship--payment of taxes being a prime example--threatened the new social order and the preservation of liberties won through the bloodshed of the Revolutionary War. (16) In short, Washington held people of every faith to the same standard of good citizenship. (17)

      Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport has been recognized as one of the most important presidential statements about religious freedom in American history. (18) Its spirit of inclusion, insistence on equality of citizenship under the protection of the government, and disavowal of bigotry and persecution have reassured generations of religious minorities in this country of their secure place in our society.


    Justice Elena Kagan spoke at the Touro Synagogue (19) in Newport on August 18, 2013, at a ceremony commemorating the day on which Moses Seixas read his open letter to President Washington. Recalling then that Jews in Israel had asked her what it was like to live as a Jew in the diaspora, she said:

    I have never thought about...

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