In August, 1790, President George Washington (1732-1799) wrote a letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Rhode Island was the destination for the first Jewish immigrants to America in the 1650’s. At the time that Washington was President, there were about 300 members of the Temple.
General Washington felt a special connection to the synagogue and had visited the Jewish congregation during the Revolution. He further promised that the newly formed government of the United States would treat Jews no differently than other Americans.
The center of the Jewish community in Newport, Touro Synagogue was completed in 1762 and is now America’s oldest synagogue.
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind (humankind) 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 were 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 famous letter, and its promise to give “bigotry no sanction,” has historical significance in both the American and global contexts. In the late eighteenth century, persecution of Jewish communities was the norm in most European countries. Virtually no other leader could have guaranteed the “enlarged and liberal policy” towards towards Jews promised by Washington.
The letter was also significant because it expanded the American definition of “religious toleration” to include non- Christians. For even the most open-minded colonial settlers, religious toleration meant only a respect for the differences between different versions of Christianity. Their understanding of toleration rarely extended to Native American religions, Judaism, or other non-Christian denominations.
like Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, which was written about a decade later, Washington’s letter to Newport’s Jewish community became a key document in the evolution of modern American concepts of religious tolerance.