American Jews are celebrating their three-hundred and fiftieth anniversary here. The first Jewish community in North America was established in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654. In 1658 fifteen Jewish families arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. By 1759 their numbers and resources had increased sufficiently that they undertook the construction of what has become America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue of Newport.
In 1790 Rhode Island became the thirteenth state to ratify the Constitution and complete the Union. To mark the occasion, President Washington made a ceremonial visit to Newport when Congress recessed in August. Newport welcomed Washington with open arms. In Newport on August 18, according to James Thomas Flexner, Washington “completely fatigued the company” by walking, fortified by the wine and punch served in four different houses along his route, briskly from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon.
In anticipation of Washington’s visit to Newport, the congregation prepared a letter welcoming Washington for presentation to him at a public event on the morning of August 18. The letter was authorized by the congregation’s board and signed by its president, Moses Seixas. It is Washington’s magnificent letter responding to Seixas’s that is known as a testament to religious freedom and that has become famous as one of the classic statements of religious toleration in America.
The congregation’s letter to Washington is not so well known. Ironically, however, the most famous line in Washington’s letter is an echo of the congregation’s letter to Washington. By far the most striking feature of the congregation’s letter is its expression of sheer gratitude to Washington for the religious freedom afforded by the United States (pre-First Amendment). Here is the congregation’s letter:
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 our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days ~~ those days of difficulty, and 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.
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 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
The letter remains a timely reminder of the rarity of religious freedom and equal rights, of the gratitude their protection should occasion, and of the measures necessary to safeguard them from the contemporary adherents of “the Babylonish empire.” The congregation’s beatiful letter is called to mind by Dennis Prager’s Los Angeles Times column noting his celebration of Hannukah at a White House party attended by President and Mrs. Bush this past week: “Born-again president, White House Hannukah.” Like a true descendant of Seixas, Prager invokes twin patriarchs in his column — Abraham and George Washington.
In his “Elegy in Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Auden concludes: “In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.” In this column Dennis Prager not only teaches the free man how to praise, he also renews the vows that bind us to our beloved country.