In the long history of humankind it is rare to find someone whose heroic stature remains relatively untarnished.  This lesson points to the foresight and strong moral compass of the hero of the Revolution and the first President of the United States, George Washington.   It also points to the political courage of the Jews of New Port.  Seizing their opportunity in history, they asserted their concerns, laying down a challenge for the new nation and the new President to live up to the nascent ideals of the Revolutionary War.

Postcard of Touro Synagogue
Postcard of the Touro Synagogue

In your study of American history and in your daily lives, pay more attention to how questions of religion, government, and their interaction are being addressed by today’s leaders.  It might be useful, given your study of Washington’s reply to the Newport Congregation to ask yourselves, “What would George Washington think?”  As early as 1790, he was aware that “liberty of conscience” was a fundamental, inalienable, natural right and that it was not for the government to dictate what its citizens were to believe.  Furthermore, he saw that what would make an American community was not necessarily our similarities but the courage to stretch beyond Old World notions and broaden the scope of the political umbrella in the United States.  

Finally, it is important to note that Washington’s letter, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” did not hold the force of law.  In 1791,  the Bill of Rights enshrined the separation of church and state.  However, even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the individual states were slow to join the ranks of New York and Virginia in striking down explicit requirements of Protestantism and testimonies of faith in the New Testament as effective bars to Jewish Americans as state office holders.  Also excluded were Catholics, Muslims, and any other inhabitants who did not adhere to Protestant teachings.   These politically discriminatory state restrictions remained in effect in South Carolina and Pennsylvania until 1790; in Delaware until 1792; in Vermont until 1793; in Georgia until 1798; in Connecticut until 1818; in Massachusetts until 1821; and in Maryland until 1826.

In this way, it can be seen that the achievement of a nation that lived up to the ideals of  the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, was not achieved in the immediate or even distant aftermath of their signing and ratification.  However, these documents and their promise provided a beacon of light that guided the national debate and journey toward a fuller, truer approximation of those ideals over time.  George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island should be honored as a “primary source document,” that has served a similar role.  It is not only a testimony to the early ideals of the Revolution and the founding Fathers but also a beacon both to guide and to challenge us, as we navigate our national future.