Beyond Toleration: The Enduring Message Of Washington’s Letter To The Touro Synagogue

President George Washington received an interesting letter 220 years ago today.

Washington was visiting Newport, R.I., and Moses Seixas, an official at the Touro Synagogue, wrote to welcome our first chief executive to the city and to solicit his views on religious liberty.

Washington’s reply, dated Aug. 21, 1790, isn’t as well known as some other historic documents from the founding period, and that’s a shame. Every American should read it.

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation,” Washington wrote. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. 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.”

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank cites the Washington missive in relation to the ongoing controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” Milbank contrasts Washington’s eloquence with some of the bigoted and inane things that have been said about the proposed Islamic community center by today’s political leaders.

Milbank certainly makes a valuable point. But for me, the importance of Washington’s Touro Synagogue letter has always been twofold. His message transcends any contemporary controversies; it is a powerful statement of religious liberty that belongs to the ages.

First, Washington makes it clear that mere “toleration” is not enough. There was a time when religious majorities believed that their willingness to tolerate members of other faiths (as opposed to killing, exiling or imprisoning them) was a great step forward. It was, but Washington recognizes that much more is needed for society to be truly free. All persons have an inherent right to liberty of conscience and the benefits of citizenship regardless of their beliefs about religion.

Secondly, Washington’s reply repudiates the wrong-headed idea that the United States is an officially Christian nation. (Glenn Beck, David Barton, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, et al, please take note.)

Remember, the Jews of Newport wrote to Washington one year before the Bill of Rights was ratified. They had good cause to be concerned about their status in the new nation, given the problems they had experienced in Europe.

Washington set their minds at ease. All alike possess the same rights, he noted, and bigotry would never receive state support. Nowhere in Washington’s letter do we find any credence for the idea that America would be officially Christian but that Jews would be “tolerated” in the practice of their faith. Washington’s letter specifically rejects that idea.

Employing a nice turn of phrase, Washington added, “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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The Touro letter echoes sentiments Washington expressed in a 1783 letter to some Irish immigrants. In that missive, he observed, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Washington’s message of religious freedom still speaks to us after more than 200 years. I wish all of our political leaders would adopt his “enlarged and liberal” vision.