Whitehouse Recites Historic Correspondence Between Newport's Touro Synagogue and President George Washington
MR. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, My home state of Rhode Island has the distinction of being home to the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States, the Touro Synagogue in historic Newport. This synagogue was founded in seventeen hundred and sixty three. Today, the synagogue stands as a handsome landmark, designed by the famous colonial architect Peter Harrison. A reminder of historic days past for a community that this year, 2008, will celebrate the 350th anniversary of the first Jewish settlement in Rhode Island. And a living expression today of our Jewish community's faith. But during the infancy of our young nation, Touro Synagogue played a major political role in defining what religious freedom would come to mean to Americans.
In 1790, the congregation at Touro Synagogue wrote to President George Washington, then in only his second year in office, when he visited Newport on a political tour to rally support for an American Bill of Rights. The Warden of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, sought Washington's assurance that religious freedom would be guaranteed to Jews throughout the country.
In those first tumultuous years of our republic there was much uncertainty as to the guaranteed rights of individuals. Our Declaration of Independence had declared certain unalienable rights to be self-evident, but our Constitution did not yet include our Bill of Rights. There was no guarantee of an American's right to freely exercise his or her religion, as we have today in the First Amendment. President Washington's public letter to the Touro congregation, coming from a political leader whose word was gold, left no doubt that the United States Government would defend the religious freedoms of all people, including those whose beliefs were different from the common ones, and it assured that this government would have no part in stifling the beliefs of any who chose to worship as their conscience and traditions directed.
It was, at the time, a revolutionary promise from a revolutionary man, and I am pleased to read the full text of this historic correspondence.
To the President of the United States of America.
Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits ~~ and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days ~~ those days of difficulty, & danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, ~~ shielded Your head in the day of battle: ~~ and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.
[This was before the Civil War, so it was "these States" and not "the United States."]
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 [You will see in Washington's reply that the wily fox knew a good phrase when he saw one]~~ but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: ~~ deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: ~~ This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.
For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the
great preserver of Men ~ beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: ~~ And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour; you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island
August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden
[And then came the President's reply.]
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.
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 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.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. 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 every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
I yield the floor.