In a letter on display starting this week, George Washington conveys his commitment to one of America’s founding principles while speaking to the Jewish community.
At the center of “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom” — an exhibit opening June 29 at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia — is a letter written by Washington in August 1790 to Congregation Jeshuat Israel in Newport, R.I., now called the Touro Synagogue, in which Washington expresses his revolutionary views on religious freedom.
The privately owned letter, which for many years was on view at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., will appear in the first special exhibition mounted in the Philadelphia museum’s new building.
Washington visited Newport in 1790 after the state of Rhode Island had finally ratified the Constitution. As was the custom at the time, Washington received celebratory addresses read by members of the community, one of them by Moses Seixas, leader of Jeshuat Israel.
“Seixas outlined the hopes of his community and all Jews for the design of the new nation and that the freedoms being developed — beginning in the Declaration of Independence and continuing with the Constitution and Bill of Rights (which were in circulation but not ratified) would be applied and applied broadly,” said Josh Perelman, deputy director for exhibitions, programs and collections at the Philadelphia museum.
Washington’s understanding of religious freedom stood in stark contrast to the experience of Jews in late 18th-century Europe, where states vacillated between persecuting Jews for their religious identity and granting them limited acceptance. But Washington’s ideas, as encapsulated in his letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, were quite different.
“Washington’s response was short but was one of most profound and moving expressions of freedom of religion in this country that I have ever read,” says Perelman. — jointmedia news