SETH LIPSKY: WHY NO MONUMENT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM?
America would ‘give to bigotry no sanction,’ George Washington wrote in 1790.
The annual reading of George Washington’s letter to the Jews—which took place this weekend at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I.—will echo with extra significance this year, as a campaign is now under way to make the original letter available for public viewing.
The campaign was launched earlier this year by the Jewish Daily Forward after the newspaper discovered that Washington’s letter—in which he vowed that the new American government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”—is locked away in storage by an owner who is loath to share access with the rest of his countrymen.Neither the Forward nor anyone else is suggesting that the owner, who bought the letter in 1949, is not within his rights. The letter is, after all, private property. But it is also a national treasure, containing one of the greatest statements on religious liberty of all time. And the campaign to give it a public home—so it can be leaned over and read as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are—comes at a time when the free exercise of religion is increasingly constrained around the world.
The Pew Research Center found this month that between mid-2006 and mid-2009, restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose in 23 of the world’s 198 countries, affecting roughly a third of the world’s population. It’s a trend that spans the globe, from Asia through Europe and into the Middle East.
That America stands apart can be attributed, at least in part, to the signal Washington sent to the Jews of Newport in the summer of 1790. It was more than a year before ratification of the First Amendment, and the letter stands as a masterpiece of Washington’s craftsmanship in the formulation of freedom.
Washington was replying to a greeting sent to him by Moses Seixas, warden of Newport’s Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, on the eve of the new president’s visit to the city. Newport’s 300 Jews had generally been well-treated in the pre-revolutionary era, but only up to a point. In a famous case, two of the community’s members, Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer, were barred from becoming naturalized citizens of Rhode Island because of their religion. So the community looked with great hope to the new government and to President Washington.
Seixas, who referred to his co-religionists as the “children of the Stock of Abraham,” wrote of his community’s gratitude to be able to behold “a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington’s response didn’t disappoint. In 337 words it echoed Seixas’s language and then some, expressing the hope that the Jews “who dwell in this land” would “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Washington closed with an invocation: “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.” It is a hope that has been resoundingly redeemed in America.
A Forward reporter, Paul Berger, traced ownership of the letter to the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, a private foundation named for a businessman, now deceased, whose charitable contributions appear to have been broad and generous. The foundation had lent the letter to B’nai B’rith International for its museum of Jewish artifacts, in Washington, D.C., but the social-welfare organization sold the building that housed the museum and curtailed its exhibitions in 2002.
According to the Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, such institutions as the Library of Congress and the new National Museum of American Jewish History asked to display the letter, but “B’nai B’rith resisted, citing the Morgenstern Foundation’s reluctance to let it go.”
Writing in the Providence Journal, Ms. Eisner argued that even though the text of the letter can be easily found in books and online, and copies hang in various public museums and libraries, the absence of the original “leaves history to speak in only a whisper.” She quotes Ron Chernow, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Washington, as saying original documents “take us out of the realm of myth and put us into the world of historical events, real people and situations.” About Washington’s letter, Mr. Chernow says “It’s the most eloquent statement perhaps in our history of religious tolerance.”
A former officer of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Ms. Eisner has written of how affected she was by watching people gaze at a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that was on display at the center. One can wish the Forward well in its campaign to win public display of Washington’s historic letter.
Mr. Lipsky was editor of the Forward from 1990 to 2000.
Comments are closed.