Synagogue Letter Fr Washington
Synagogue treasures letter from Washington
By Daniel Barbarisi
August 23, 2002
To the unfamiliar eye, it's a
battered old letter, a piece of mail noteworthy for its famous
But this correspondence is more than just proof to the old
refrain that "George Washington visited here," which, by the way, he did. It's
also one of the most important documents in American history, a simple letter
making the not-so-simple guarantee that the new nation would be a place of
religious freedom, where no creed would be persecuted.
nearly 200 people were packed among the Corinthian columns of America's oldest
synagogue in Newport, R.I., to hear the annual reading of the letter, discuss
its message and ponder its additional relevance in light of the Sept. 11
"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," Washington
The letter was read by author and Revson philanthropic foundation
head Eli Evans. It has been read at the Touro Synagogue every year since 1948,
and all involved agreed that its message is more important now than
"The words take on new meaning as America prepares for the one-year
memorial to the destruction of dreams and lives in the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon. The Washington letter shines like a beacon showing us the way,"
With terrorist violence so closely tied to religious hatred,
documents such as the letter and the religious tolerance it represents must be
lauded that much louder, and the message of freedom and acceptance spread at
every opportunity, said U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.
contained in the letter was celebrated, to be sure. But time was also taken to
look at the letter as a piece of writing, and as a window into history, to see
what it can reveal about Washington as a man and a leader.
His syntax was
studied, and commended. But to Zechariah Chafee, there representing his brother
U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., the most telling part of the letter is that it
shatters the image of Washington as the hands-off patriarch with no interest in
shaping the laws and civil liberties of the new nation. History has generally
reserved those honors for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, relegating
Washington to the role of a doctrinal figurehead.
"And yet, in this
letter, we hear the words of a champion of civil rights," he
Washington visited the synagogue in April 1790, when campaigning
with Jefferson for passage of the Bill of Rights. Months later, the newly
inaugurated president received a letter from the congregation, wondering whether
the new republic would tolerate religious minorities now that the revolution had
run its course.
In response, Washington sent the letter that historians
have trumpeted as his affirmation that America would be a place of religious
Copyright Ā 2002, South Florida
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel