George Washington, protector of religious refugees

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George Washington, protector of religious refugees

In 1790, George Washington responded to a letter from the congregation of the Synagogue of Newport Rhode Island, congratulating him on the passing of the Constitution and his role in the founding of the country. Washington had previously chosen not to visit Rhode Island on his tours of the new nation because they had delayed in ratifying the Constitution. After it was signed though, he visited the city and state in an attempt to meet the American people and learn how they viewed the new republic.

The Synagogue was founded in the fledgling country by refugees from Europe, fleeing the “medieval” policies of Europe at the time. After centuries of being run out of countries whenever a ruler’s whims changed, being forced to live in demarcated areas, and being tortured and killed for their beliefs, even the relativiely progressive “tolerance” of the 18th century was not enough. In this system, persecurtion still persisted so they fled to America, a land formed on the principle of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Washinton’s response to their letter thanked them for their kind words and more importantly, set the tone for the progressive policies of the new United States. His words could serve us as a reminder today.

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on 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 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 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.

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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Source: George Washington: A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 1988)