In 1790, Newport, R.I., was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in America. Its Touro Synagogue had been established in 1763.
The city, with its history of welcoming people of differing religious beliefs, was home to as many as 30 Jewish families by the time of the American Revolution, and they were among the city’s leading merchants.
The arrival of the war was hard on many of these families, who were forced, along with other Newporters, to flee the city when the British occupied it. And by 1790, the city was still rebuilding its trade.
Washington declined to visit Rhode Island when he toured New England in 1789 because it refused to approve the federal Constitution. In 1790, when Rhode Island finally approved it, Washington wanted to visit to say thank you and support his Federalist allies who had worked hard to win over the state.
On August 17, 1790, he arrived in Newport Harbor with the anchored ships showing their colors, church bells ringing and cannons firing. The clergy of the town lead Washington on a procession, and he had a full night of celebration.
On August 18, Washington received a series of letters from leading citizens, including the local clergy and Moses Seixas, a leader in the Touro Synagogue. With the Bill of Rights yet to be added to the constitution, the question of religious freedom was hotly debated.
For Jews, who were facing anti-Semitism in areas of Europe, the question of religious freedom was an important one.
The letter from the Touro Synagogue made special note of thanking God for keeping Washington safe and allowing him to complete his mission of creating a nation with “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.”
Washington’s reply, carried a strong statement in support of extending religious freedoms to non-Christians.
“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 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.”