In 1790, during his first visit to Rhode Island as President of the United States, George Washington wrote a letter to a Jewish community in Newport to reassure those who had fled religious tyranny that life in their new nation would be different. Washington’s 340-word letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport promised that the country would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Two hundred and thirty years later, in the wake of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Harvard Law School Professor and former Dean Martha Minow participated in the 70th public rereading of Washington’s letter at Newport’s Touro Synagogue, at an annual event organized by the Touro Synagogue Foundation and Congregation Jeshuat Israel.
In her keynote address on Aug. 20, Minow told present-day synagogue members that the spirit and standard of Washington’s letter need to be remembered and reclaimed. She urged citizens to be upstanders, not bystanders, when they see or hear of religious, racial or other forms of intolerance. “Pick your target of oppression and defend it,” she said. “Muslims, African-Americans, Trump supporters, colleges…We need to stand up to injustice and demand that leaders do the same.”
As part of the commemorative event, religious leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths and several elected officials also delivered speeches. Stephen B. Kay, a director of Goldman Sachs & Co. and a descendant of prominent 19th century Newport Jews, read Washington’s letter aloud.
The letter, written more than a year before ratification of the Bill of Rights, is thought to be the first official commitment of the new federal government to the free exercise of religion, which Washington regarded as an ‘inherent natural right.’
“America’s Founding Father Would Be Outraged By Trump” (HuffPost, August 20, 2017)
“After Charlottesville, Washington’s letter to Truro congregation resonates” (Providence Journal, August 20, 2017)
George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport