In the picturesque city of Newport, Rhode Island stands an historic edifice, the Touro Synagogue, which testifies eloquently to the early settlement of Jews in America. It is an unpretentious building, set back from the street, yet it is so typically colonial that it attracts the attention and admiration of all passers by. For over two centuries, the small synagogue has stood as a testimonial that in the United States of America men may seek eternal truths in their own particular ways without hindrance from a civil government that embraces them all.
I first visited the Newport landmark in 1997 and was immediately reminded of the enormous price paid by the early settlers of our great nation in the pursuit of the principles of religious liberty.
In the spring of 1658, fifteen Spanish Portuguese Jewish families arrived in Newport. These Jewish immigrants sought to start a new life in a land where they could live as free men and women and practice the religion of their fathers without hindrance or fear. They believed this to be possible in the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations because of the assurance of freedom of religion and liberty of conscience promised by Governor Roger Williams to all who came within its borders.
Roger Williams, founder of the colony that became Rhode Island, believed in religious liberty. His own banishment from Puritan Massachusetts had convinced him that religious intolerance was a threat to civil peace and a barrier against the search for truth. So he used his influence in Rhode Island to shape a new kind of civil government, one devoid of power over spiritual matters. The legal cornerstone of this experiment was proclaimed in the colony’s Code of Laws of 1647. He sought the freedom that would “allow all men to walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God.”
George Washington, along with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, visited Newport on August 17, 1790. Washington spoke to the leading citizens and representatives of the many religious denominations present in the city, including the Jews. Moses Seixas, one of the officials of Yeshuat Israel, presented the president with a letter and words of gratitude, asking him to ensure the Jews’ continued freedom. In the letter he wrote: “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now 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 every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
In reply Washington sent the famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” which has since become the classical expression of religious liberty in America.
The following is the remarkable content of Washington’s address to the Hebrew congregation in Newport in the year 1790:
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 passed is rendered 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 a 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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, 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.
A facsimile of this historic document is exhibited on the west wall of the synagogue. The original letter is on exhibition in the B’nai B’rith Building in Washington, D. C.
The words “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” were not original with Washington. They were contained in the letter that Moses Seixas addressed to him. Washington was obviously so impressed by them because they seemed to express very forcibly the ideals which he espoused for America, that he incorporated them in his letter of response. Highly significant were these words from the President of the new nation, a nation feeling its own way in a new world.
Adoption of the Bill of Rights was more than a year in the future when Washington penned these perceptive phrases. And though the First Amendment would guarantee religious liberty in the strictly legal sense, Washington went further. His was a doctrine of brotherly love and of mutual respect.
This was a very important moment in the history of Jewish religious freedom in America. Jews were assured the freedom to practice their culture and faith, creating a safe haven for the Jews of the world. I thought about Washington’s moving affirmation to this little congregation of Sephardim, Jews of Spain and Portugal. Some, called Marranos, had become Christian converts to escape persecution. Others had been driven from the Iberian Peninsula elsewhere to Europe or in South America and the West Indies. How their hopes must have been rekindled by this classic declaration of religious liberty by George Washington.
Since it was designated a National Historic Site by the United States Government in 1946, thousands of visitors from all parts of the United States and from many foreign countries have visited Newport to see this beautiful edifice which represents the religious heritage of Jews in America in colonial times.
The Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest symbols of liberty in America, is not just a museum, a reminder of a distant era, but is still in active use today. And each year the synagogue holds a public reading of the George Washington letter as a celebration and pronouncement of religious liberty.
On a quiet street in Newport, Rhode Island, a principle has triumphed.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union and author of “The Book of David: David Horowitz: Dean of United Nations Press Corps and Founder: United Israel World Union.”