George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island

Summary

Though Colonial America was more tolerant of religious diversity than Europe, it had not yet become a beacon of religious liberty. The absence of liberty weighed on the minds of people like Moses Seixas, Warden of the Jeshuat Israel Synagogue in Rhode Island.

On behalf of his congregation, Seixas sent a letter to George Washington expressing gratitude and delight that Constitution would give “to bigotry no sanction, [and] to persecution no assistance.” In his reply, Washington reinforced the confidence Seixas’ placed in the Constitution by stating: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

This marked a transition away from toleration (government granting the privilege to worship) and towards religious liberty (religious belief or non-belief being an inalienable right of the individual). Months after Washington’s visit, the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, declaring that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

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