OTD in History... August 17, 1790, President Washington promises equality to the Newport Jewish community

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA MLIS

Early American Jewry vied for the approval of President George Washington before they had any suspicion that their Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, might have been Jewish. Historian Andrew Porwancher argues in his new book “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton” that Hamilton could have been Jewish primarily because he was educated in a Jewish school in the Caribbean and his father might have been Jewish with the name Levin. Porwancher’s book was released on August 17. On that day in history, 231 years later, on August 17, 1790, Washington made a stop in Newport, Rhode Island. Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s leadership greeted the president as he rode by, and they handed him a letter. Washington’s response guaranteed the American Jewish community religious freedom and equality in the new nation and shaped the small religious minority’s relationship with the American Government. Porwancher argues that since Hamilton might have been Jewish, his actions and the relationship he formed with the American Jewish population continued Washington’s trust with his famous promise of equality to the Newport Jewish community.

After the American Revolution, Jews primarily settled in six cities and had congregations in them. The oldest was Shearith Israel in New York, Jeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Beth Elohim in Charleston, South, Mikveh Israel in Savannah, Georgia, and Beth Shalome in Richmond. [1] In Savannah, Mikveh Israel was the last of these congregations to be established; Savannah became a Jewish center later and surged during the war. The community established their congregation in 1789. According to historian Fritz Hirschfeld, the six congregations “spoke individually and collectively for their respective members, addressed George Washington after he was elected president of the United States in 1789, voicing concern for the status of the Jews in the new nation.” [2]

After his inauguration, Washington received congratulatory messages from communities and religious groups across the new nation. Both the Protestant denominations, Catholic and Jewish communities, wrote to Washington to “remind him that they too should be considered part of the polity and asked him to keep in mind the religious diversity of the nation he would soon guide.” [3] Washington used his responses to assure these communities that he “deplored religious intolerance and bigotry and to proclaim his own devotion and that of his administration to the principles of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.” [4]

Washington tried to convince all the religious groups about the benefits of the separation of religion and state. To the Protestant Christian denominations, he asked them to respect other religious groups, including Catholics and Jews “with justice and liberty.” To the religious minorities, he promised them that religious freedom and equality would be honored and respected. Washington received twenty-two addresses of congratulations; three of them came from the six Jewish congregations. Washington’s responses were the first time he addressed the Jewish population and the country’s promise of freedom and equality towards them. Washington’s letters especially the one to Newport has been considered “of great historic interest as well as importance.” [5] Historian Morris Schappes notes, “For a century and a half these declarations have been used to confound the enemy in the ceaseless struggle against those who would subvert American ideals through the propagation of anti-Semitism and other doctrines of bigotry.” [6]

Before his presidency, Washington had little contact with Jews, most of them during the war in his capacity of Commanding General of the Continental Army. Washington’s first significant contact with colonial Jews was with David Franks during the French-Indian War. Franks obtained supplies for Washington’s army in Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, Washington helped Major David Salisbury Frank clear his name after being in traitor General Benedict Arnold’s staff. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Washington “dined” with Mark Prager.

Fritz Hirschfeld’s book George Washington and the Jews is the only book to examine Washington’s relationship with Jews before his letter promising religious freedom to Newport’s Jews. Hirschfeld argues, “Participation of the Jews in the War of Independence… shows how their individual courage and enterprise supported Washington’s own goals and objectives. Although the linkage is not always direct, there is sufficient weight of circumstantial evidence to prove that a real relationship did exist between George Washington and the Jews.” [7]

In 1790, President George Washington toured the new nation, as he toured communities handed Washington letters, to which he responded. On August 17, 1790, Washington made his stop in Newport, Rhode Island. Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s leadership came out to greet the president as he rode by, and they handed him a letter. Diner notes, “The letter sent to Washington by the Jews of Newport has been the most quoted and most enduring document in American Jewish history.” [8] While Faber called it “the most important exchange of letters in American Jewish history between a president and the Jewish population.” [9]

The Newport congregation gained preeminence and a place in American history when on August 17, 1790; President George Washington visited Rhode Island when the states were in the middle of ratifying the constitution.[10] Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Jeshuat Israel, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, wrote the letter and presented it to Washington. Diner indicates, “While they made no specific requests of him or of the nation whose helm he stood ready to take, their letter implied a hope that the new government would protect them as it did all its citizens. Their letter expressed uncertainty about their future status in the nation they had helped to create.” [11]

“Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport.

With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword — shielded Your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but 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:

This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.” [12]

When Washington replied to the leaders of the “New Port” congregation, he echoed their words. Washington promised the Newport Jewish community that the new country would ensure religious freedom and tolerance. President Washington told Newport Jews what the new “good government” will offer them. Washington wrote, “For happily, the Government of the United States 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.”[13] The “children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land” will do well so long as they “demean themselves as good citizens.”

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

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. 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 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.

“It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. 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. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.” [14]

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. 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 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.” [15]

The congregations from the six communities Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah, were supposed to address President Washington jointly. In 1789, the leader of Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia, Manuel Josephson, suggested the community sent a united congratulatory message to the new president. Josephson was a German immigrant, and he served as a sutler for Britain during the French and Indian War. In 1762 until the outbreak of the American Revolution, Josephson served as the President of Shearith Israel. Afterward, Josephson fled to Philadelphia with the majority of Jewish Patriots. Josephson rose to be a communal leader in Philadelphia, and in 1785 he became the president of Mikveh Israel.

The congregations could not agree on the address to the president, and Newport was reluctant to join the larger Jewish congregations in the letter. Newport was reluctant to address the president before other groups in the state, “As we are so small in number, it would be treating the Legislature and other bodies in this state, with a great degree in indelicacy, for us to address the President… previous to any of them.” [16]

The congregations all ended up sending similar letters to the president. The Jewish community in Savannah was the first, followed by Newport. Hirshfeld recounts, “Instead, of a single, strong, unifying message to the president at the beginning of his term in office, the six American congregations each went its own way.” [17] The Savannah Jewish community decided not to wait, and on May 6, 1790, they sent their letter to President Washington. Levi Sheftall, the president of the Hebrew Congregation Mikve Israel, wrote the letter to Washington.

“Sir, We have long been anxious of congratulating you on your appointment by unanimous approbation to the Presidential dignity of this country, and of testifying our unbounded confidence in your integrity and unblemished virtue: Yet, however exalted the station you now fill, it is still not equal to the merit of your exalted service through an arduous and dangerous conflict, which has embosomed you in the hearts of her citizens.

Our eccentric situation added to a diffidence founded on the most profound respect has thus long prevented our address, yet the delay has realised anticipation, given us an opportunity of presenting our grateful acknowledgement for the benedictions of Heaven through the energy of Federal influence and the equity of your administration.

Your unexampled liberality and extensive philanthropy have dispelled that cloud of bigotry and superstition, which has long, as a veil, shaded religion — unrivetted the fetters of enthusiasm — enfranchised us with all the privileges and immunities of free citizens, and initiated us into the grand mass of legislative mechanism. By example, you have taught us to endure the ravages of war with manly fortitude and to enjoy the blessings of peace with reverence to the Deity, and benignity, and love to our fellow-creatures.

My the great Author of worlds grant you all happiness — an uninterrupted series of health — addition of years to the number of your days and a continuation of guardianship to that freedom, under the auspices of Heaven, your magnanimity and wisdom have given these States. [18]

President Washington responded in a letter considered by historians as “gracious and flowing diction.” [19]

I thank you, with great sincerity, for your congratulations on my appointment to the office which I have the honor to hold by the unanimous choice of my fellow-citizens; and especially for the expressions, which you are pleased to use in testifying the confidence that is reposed in me by your congregation.

As the delay, which has naturally intervened between my election and your address, has afforded an opportunity for appreciating the merits of the federal government, and for communicating your sentiments of its administration, I have rather to express my satisfaction than regret, at a circumstance, which demonstrates (upon experiment) your attachment to the former, as well as approbation of the latter.

I rejoice, that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent than it formerly was among the enlightened nations of the earth and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive. Happily, the people of the United States of America have, in many instances, exhibited examples worthy of imitation, the salutary influence of which will doubtless extend much farther, if, gratefully enjoying those blessings of peace, which, under the favor of Heaven, have been obtained by fortitude in war, they shall conduct themselves with reverence to the Deity, and charity towards their fellow-creatures.

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, and planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Shearith Israel did not give up in the quest to address the president as a group. On June 20, 1790, the New York Congregation, including president Solomon Simson and the trustees represented by Isaac Moses, sent a letter to the remaining four congregations asking them to collaborate on a letter.

“We are desirous of addressing the President of the United States in one general address, comprehending all the Congregations professing our Holy religion in America, as we are led to understand that mode will be less irksome to the president then troubling him to reply to every individual address.” give “us permission to Include you in the Address… transmit us a draft in what manner you would be desirous of having the address worded, that thereby we may collect the different Ideas of the Congregations, in whose behalf we may address.” [20]

Shearith Israel remained upset with the Savannah congregation, writing, “We do not by any means, conceive ourselves well treated by the Georgians, who have officiously come forward without any previous notice . . . as nothing of that nature could have been required of them, unless done on a general plan.” [21] This time the Newport congregation agreed to participate but remained skeptical at upstaging the Christians in the state. On July 2, 1790, Moses Seixas replied for Newport, stating, “Notwithstanding our reluctance of becoming the primary addressers from this state.” [22] However, Newport did not want to write their own letter for consideration, deferring to Shearith Israel to make the decisions. The Newport Congregation wrote, “Your sentiments will be properly express’d & unequivocally, relative to the Enfranchisement which is secured to us Jews by the Federal Constitution.” [23]

Beth Elohim in Charleston agreed to a joint address but submitted a draft for Shearith Israel to consider. The congregation praised Washington and compared the president to “Moses, Joshua, Othniel, Gideon, Samuel, David, Maccabeus and holy men of the old, who were raised up by God, for the deliverance of our nation, His people from their oppression.” [24] Despite having the approval of two other congregations, Shearith Israel did not write the address within the month.

In August 1790, President Washington planned to tour Rhode Island. Although Jeshuat Israel was reluctant to appear presumptuous, they decided to write a letter to present to the president on his trip. The Newport Congregation would no longer be the only one in the state to address Washington. The Presidents of the State Legislature and the King David Lodge of Masons were delivering addresses to President Washington. Of all the addresses, the reluctant Newport Congregation would have the one best remembered in history for its content and message and Washington’s response to it.

Moses Seixas personally read the letter to the president, and the President also responded to the congregation. Washington’s words became the personal promise and contract between the new American nation and its small Jewish population that they are guaranteed religious freedom and equality as any other “good citizen” of the country. “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.” No longer were Jews living with toleration; they were equal citizens guaranteed religious freedom.

Shearith Israel, New York’s Jewish congregation, missed out on taking the lead to address the president and only wrote a congratulatory letter in December. They found their opportunity when the government decided to move the capital from New York to Philadelphia, and when Washington arrived, they sent him a joint-congratulatory address. Hirschfeld recounts, “The four remaining congregations — Charleston, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York — after lengthy bickering, finally got their act together and presented their joint address to the president, including an apology for the delay.” [25] The four congregations finally sent the letter to President Washington on December 13, 1790, four months after Newport sent their letter. Matthew Josephson, the President of Mikveh Israel, presented the president’s address, reading it personally to Washington. Josephson read the following address to the president:

“It is reserved for you to unite in affection for your Character And Person, every political and religious denomination of Men; and in this will the Hebrew Congregations aforesaid, yield to no class of their fellow Citizens.

“We have been hitherto prevented by various circumstances peculiar to our situation from adding our congratulations to those which the rest of America have offerd on your elevation to the Chair of the Fœderal governmt. Deign then illustrious Sir, to Accept this our homage.

“The wonders which the Lord of Hosts hath worked in the days of our Forefathers, have taught us to observe the greatness of his wisdom and his might, throughout the events of the late glorious revolution; and while we humble ourselves at his footstool in thanksgiving and praise for the blessing of his deliverance; we acknowledge you the Leader of the American Armies as his chosen and beloved servant; But not to your Sword alone is our present happiness to be ascribed; That indeed opend the way to the reign of Freedom, but never was it perfectly secure, till your hand gave birth to the Foederal Constitution, and you renounced the joys of retirement to Seal by your administration in Peace, what you had achieved in war.

“To ‘the eternal God who is thy refuge’, we Commit in our prayer the care of thy precious Life, and when full of years Thou shall be gatherd unto the People ‘thy righteousness shall go before thee’, and we shall remember amidst our regret, that the Lord hath set apart the Godly for himself; whilst thy name and thy Virtues will remain an indelible memorial on our minds” [26]

According to Hirschfeld, “compared to the Savannah and Newport addresses, this one was tepid — nor did it have any real or meaningful Jewish theme.” [27]

Washington responded:

The liberality of sentiment toward each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this Country, stands unparalleled in the history of Nations. The affection of such people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation; and the repeated proofs which my fellow Citizens have given of their attachment to me, and approbation of my doings form the purest source of my temporal felicity. The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgments.

The Power and Goodness of the Almighty were strongly Manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution; and his kind interposition in our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government. In war he directed the Sword; and in peace he has ruled in our Councils. My agency in both has been guided by the best intentions, and a sense of the duty which I owe my Country: and as my exertions have hitherto been amply rewarded by the Approbation of my fellow Citizens, I shall endeavour to deserve a continuance of it by my future conduct.

May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregations. [28]

The Power and Goodness of the Almighty were strongly Manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution; and his kind interposition in our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government. In war, he directed the Sword, and in peace, he has ruled in our Councils. My agency in both has been guided by the best intentions, and a sense of the duty which I owe my Country: and as my exertions have hitherto been amply rewarded by the Approbation of my fellow Citizens, I shall endeavour to deserve a continuance of it by my future conduct.

May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregations.[29]

Still, despite being less memorable in American and American Jewish history, Washington’s response to the four congregations remained committed to religious freedom for American Jews. Washington’s opening line confirmed his resolve about freedom and equality; “The liberality of sentiment toward each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country, stands unparalleled in the history of Nations.”

The Newport Jewish community was very small when Washington came to Rhode Island in 1790. Faber recounts, “Newport as a whole declined as a result of the conflict and ultimately sank into obscurity as a commercial center. By 1800, therefore, Newport disappeared as a center of Jewish settlement in early America.” [30] The synagogue stopped services in 1792 and closed because there were not enough Jews in Newport left to conduct services. Reiss indicates, “The Jewish population decreased as the economy decreased. By 1789, there were ten Jewish families with 75 members. By 1820, there were only two Jewish families, and the last Jew left for New York in 1822.” [31] Lopez had donated the synagogue’s Torah, and after the congregation closed down the building, the scrolls were sent to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and kept in their Ark. The synagogue reopened 50 years later when the Jewish community grew through immigration.

When Washington replied to the “New Port” congregation leaders, he echoed their words and made a promise to the Jews. This new “good government” will offer, he wrote, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The “children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land” will do well so long as they “demean themselves as good citizens.”

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport,2 from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

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. 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 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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. 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. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.[32]

Rhode Island would take until 1842 to replace its colonial charter with a state constitution.

Famed Shearith Israel Rabbi David deSola Pool called the Newport letter a “historic address.” Boller indicates, “Jeshuat Israel’s exchange with Washington was the best known of the three exchanges.” [33] Boller also acknowledges Washington’s response was “immortal” and “memorable,” “Washington’s statement delighted the Newport congregation and the Jewish congregations elsewhere in the United States. [34] De Sola Pool called Washington’s response “a classic definition of American democracy.”

Historian and Lawyer Harry Simonhoff praised Washington’s statement, claiming it “ranks with the best of Hamilton and Jefferson.”

“Neither philo-semitic nor anti-Semitic the “Father of his country” seeks impartially to secure Jews the rights of human beings. Yet he goes a step further. The probable recollection of Jewish contributions to the war effort causes him to show annoyance at the word toleration when applied to freedom of worship. One cannot but detect compassion, or even anxiety in his letter to the Newport congregation.” [35]

Washington’s response to the third letter from the Jewish community marked President Washington’s last formal interaction with the American Jewish population. Nevertheless, for two hundred and thirty years, the American Jewish community has revered the letters as a sign of the ultimate of acceptance in America and appreciation for their sacrifices in helping America fight for independence. Boller observes, “Historians of American Judaism have uniformly regarded it as a “classic document” in the development of freedom in the United States and have praised not its content but its “beautiful” and “impressive” style as well. Indeed, in an excess of enthusiasm, one writer even insisted that it “bears the unmistakable signs of having been originally composed in Rabbinical Hebrew.” [36]

Hirschfeld writing in his book George Washington and the Jews, indicates, “President Washington’s pronouncement at Newport set a precedent in religious tolerance that had never before been proclaimed by any other national leader. Codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution, his words stand today as a living legacy that guards and protects one of the most precious of all freedoms — the freedom of worship. George Washington is honored as the Father of His Country. For American Jews, he holds an even further special place. His enduring stature still casts its protective cloak over the “Children of the Stock of Abraham,” giving them the security and shelter that they had so vainly sought for so many millennia. This, then, is the story of George Washington and the Jews — a story of sacrifice and suffering, of faith and hope, of mutual respect and appreciation, and ending finally with a warm, emotional, and spiritual message that will never stop resonating.”[37]

Faber explains, “For the Jewish population of early America, this endorsement of their aspirations for incorporation, coming as it did from the Revolution’s hero and the symbolic father of the nation, represented the culmination of their campaign to turn the corner on the view that they belonged permanently to a separate (and not equal) nation. The Jews of Newport had indeed acted shrewdly when they included references to the issue in their letter to the president. [38]

However, some historians do not think Washington’s responses went further enough, among them Hasia Diner, who finds fault with some of Washington’s word choices. Diner acknowledges the significance of Washington’s letter, saying it has been part of “Washington’s legacy.” Diner notes, “For more than two centuries American Jews have quoted this letter, focusing particularly on the phrase ‘to bigotry no sanction,’ to demonstrate that from the beginning Jews in America have enjoyed a modicum of protection from the kind of endemic hatred that poisoned Jewish lives in Europe.”

Diner, however, indicates that Washington put a caveat in that promise of freedom to American Jews as long as they “demean[ed] themselves as good citizens.” Diner says that phrase “implied some conditionality,” Diner recounts, “As long as the Jews do not behave deviantly they could expect ‘to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.’” In quoting Washington’s letter to the Newport congregation, American Jewry’s memory has been selective, ignoring this condition placed in the letter promising freedom.

“While this part of the letter has been less widely invoked, its legacy has also been part of the history of American Jews. For since they could never be completely sure what it meant to “demean themselves as good citizens,” they constantly scrutinized their public behavior. They engaged in an ongoing internal debate about how their actions, whether political or social, would be viewed by the majority population. They examined their communities, scanning for anything that others might define as inappropriate or as evidence that the Jews comported themselves as anything other than “good citizens.” They split themselves into public Jews, behaving one way for general approval, and private Jews who in the comfort of their homes and communal institutions could let down their guard to express themselves more honestly and with less circumspection. The ambiguity expressed in Washington’s letter repeated itself in various ways.” [39]

Washington’s promise to American Jewry convinced most states to lift the political restrictions on Jews and religious minorities. Some states, however, held out deep into the nineteenth century. However, by 1830 most of the states gave in and granted Jews political rights and equality. Still, for the majority of American Jews, Washington’s letter was a promise of equality. At the time of the Newport and Washington correspondence, eleven states did not grant all Jews political rights. Soon afterward, “The last laws that allowed Jews and others to be kept out of political life because of their religion were eliminated.” [40] Later in 1790, South Carolina and Pennsylvania granted Jews political equality. In 1792, Delaware extended these rights, and then Georgia in 1798.

As the century turned, seven states still tied political participation to Christianity. The Jewish communities of these states continued to lobby for their equality. After the Revolution, the Jewish community in Baltimore grew. Maryland had been one of the least tolerant colonies, and that mindset remained as a state. Merchant Reuben Etting lobbied the state legislature repeatedly with petitions that allow Jews to participate in political life. Diner recounts, “In 1826, after a very heated debate, the Maryland state legislature passed the “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to hold political office.” Two states waited until after the Civil War and Reconstruction to give Jews full political rights, “New Hampshire removed its last legal restrictions on Jews in 1877, North Carolina in 1885.” [41] America would become the beacon of hope for Jews living in oppressive countries where anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Semitism were virulent, violent, and a way of life. Throughout the nineteenth, Jews would swell America’s shores from Europe and beyond because it was the only country in the world to allow Jews to be part of their promise that all men were created equal.

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SOURCES

[1] BOLLER, PAUL F. “George Washington and the Jews.” Southwest Review, vol. 47, no. 2, 1962, pp. 120–127. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43467381 121.

[2] Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2005), xix.

[3] Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 57.

[4] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[5] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[6] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[7] Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2005),

[8] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 7.

[9] Eli Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Marc L. Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 39.

[10] http://www.tourosynagogue.org/index.php/history-learning/gw-letter

[11] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 7.

[12] https://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/tsf-intro-menu/slom-scholarship/85-seixas-letter

[13] http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/hebrew/address.html

[14] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790–30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135

[15] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790–30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135

[16] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[17] Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, 139.

[18] https://circle.org/jsource/george-washingtons-letters-to-the-synagogues/

[19] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[20] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[21] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124; “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[22] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[23] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[24] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[25] Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, 139.

[26] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[27] Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, 139.

[28] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[29]

[30] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” 28.

[31] Reiss, The Jews in Colonial America, 54.

[32] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790–30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135

[33] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[34] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 125.

[35] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 125.

[36] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 126.

[37] Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, 16.

[38] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” in Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 38.

[39] Diner, Hasia R. The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 58–59.

[40] Diner, Jews in America, 33.

[41] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 41.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.