George Washington would have been 284 years old today. Facing History’s recent book, Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, on his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, looks at the United States’ first president’s views on religious freedom, and is a powerful resource for exploring these essential civic lessons within U.S. history.
In 1790, many of America's states excluded Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and others from civic participation. In Rhode Island, Moses Seixas, the warden of the small Jewish congregation in Newport, was selected to offer greetings to Washington. Jews could not vote but Seixas boldly addressed the first President about their lack of rights.
In the nation’s early days, the role of religion was unclear in the nascent U.S. democracy. This is what made Washington’s response to Seixas so forward thinking:
“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 natural rights. 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's vision of religious pluralism balances respect for differences with lawful behavior and the responsibilities of citizenship. In that sense, it is a beautiful articulation of the formula the United States has used to create a space for religious diversity within a secular state. Mere toleration is not enough.
During this year’s election season in the United States, questions from students and adults will arise about how to navigate discussions of religion. But if we let Washington’s moral compass of respect guide the conversation, we might be pleasantly surprised at the common ground we can find.