In 1790, one of the oldest Jewish communities in America lived in Newport, R.I. It had established the Touro Synagogue 27 years earlier. Anti-Semitism flourished in Europe, and many Newport Jews had ancestors who fled the Spanish Inquisition. When President George Washington came to visit in 1790, they wanted assurances that what happened in Europe wouldn’t happen in America.
They got it — in a letter read and re-read to this day.
The Touro Synagogue
The city had a history of welcoming people of differing religious beliefs. By the time of the American Revolution, Newport had as many as 30 Jewish families, including some of the city’s leading merchants.
Isaac Touro, born in the Netherlands, served as the synagogue’s first hazzan, or minister. Grateful for England’s protection and loyal to the Crown, he stayed in Newport when the British captured it in 1776. Three years later he moved with the British to New York, where he had to depend on charity. Two of his sons acquired great wealth, and one saved the Bunker Hill Monument.
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 visited to say “thank you.” He also wanted to support his Federalist allies who had worked hard to win over the state.
On August 17, 1790, he arrived in Newport Harbor to a hero’s welcome. Anchored ships showed their colors, church bells rang and cannons fired. The clergy led Washington on a procession, and gave him a full night of celebration.
Then on August 18, Washington received a series of letters from leading citizens. They included one from Moses Seixas, a leader in the Touro Synagogue. The timing had significance, as the Bill of Rights had yet to be added to the Constitution. Religious freedom was then hotly debated.
The letter from the Touro Synagogue thanked God for keeping Washington safe. It also thanked God for letting him create a nation with “a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” That government, the letter continued, afforded liberties of conscience to all and deemed everyone equal.
Washington’s reply strongly supported religious freedoms for 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,” he wrote.
The letter pleased him for its favorable opinion of his administration and “fervent wishes” for his “felicity,” he wrote.
“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,” he wrote. “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,” he then concluded.
The Touro Synagogue, now a National Historic Site, still opens for services and tours. The congregation recites the letter annually at the synagogue.
This story was updated in 2021.