written by Marci Reaven, Vice President for History Exhibitions
In April 1789, when George Washington swore to uphold the Constitution as the first president of the United States, only 11 of the 13 states had voted to join the new union. North Carolina did not ratify the Constitution until that fall, and it took until the following spring for Rhode Island to do the same. In the summer of 1790, with this successful ratification and the campaign to pass the Bill of Rights on his mind, Washington arranged to visit tiny Rhode Island. His party included Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and New York Governor George Clinton. They sailed from the nation’s capital—then New York City—and arrived in Newport on August 17.
A grand welcome took place the following morning. Distinguished citizens read aloud from letters of appreciation to the president. One came from Moses Seixas who spoke on behalf of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. Seixas made brief reference to the longstanding discrimination that had prevented the Jewish people from becoming free citizens. But mainly he praised this new government for “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.” He also thanked God “for all of the blessings of civil and religious liberty” that the Jews would now benefit from under the Constitution.
The president’s reply to Newport’s Hebrew Congregation came in writing just a few days later. Washington drew liberally from Seixas’ words, and his response affirmed both his own and the Constitution’s support for religious freedom:
“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… . 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
Interestingly, part of the reason the first Congress proposed constitutional amendments that would safeguard rights such as freedom of religion was to woo the holdout states of North Carolina and Rhode Island. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Washington’s famous quote and letters to him from several Jewish congregations are featured among rare documents, portraits, drawings, maps, and ritual objects in The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World, on view at New-York Historical. Part of the exhibition examines the controversial arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654 and the unprecedented political freedoms they gained in late 18th-century New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston as our nation itself was being developed and established.
Visit The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World, on view through March 12. The exhibit is based primarily upon loans from the Princeton University Jewish American Collection, gift of Mr. Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953.