Along with other municipal leaders around the state, Mayor Allan Fung celebrated George Washington’s birthday on Monday by reading the former president’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I.” to a group of Cranston East juniors and seniors.
“It was very inspiring to read the words of our first president,” Fung said after the presentation. “Our students need to understand the significance of the freedoms they enjoy today as fought for by our founding fathers.”
The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom distributed nearly 30,000 commemorative letter packages to junior and senior high school students throughout Rhode Island. The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the Governor and the Rhode Island Department of Education.
“The letter is as relevant today as it was more than 220 years ago,” said Richard Wiener of the institute.
Wiener traveled from New York to also address the students during the morning presentation.
“Religious freedom was founded right here in Rhode Island with Roger Williams, as Rhode Island was the first colony to have this freedom as part of its charter,” he said. Washington wrote the letter, which is dated Aug. 27, 1790, after a visit to Touro Synagogue in Newport and in response to a letter written by Moses Seixas on behalf of the congregation.
By 1789, the Constitution had still not been ratified by all of the colonies, much less had the First Amendment to the Constitution been adopted. Rhode Island was among those who had not yet ratified, and historians say that could be reason the president did not visit the state during a tour of New England. By 1790, however, Rhode Island was on board and Washington decided to visit. He took along with him Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and New York Governor George Clinton. Among the letters of welcome was the document from Seixas, who was allowed to read his sentiments aloud to the president.
According to the George Washington Institute, Seixas thanked the president for his leadership.
“He expressed the hope that this new country would accord all of its citizens respect and tolerance, whatever their background and religious beliefs,” the institute writes.
Washington responded to that letter, assuring the Hebrew congregation that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
In other words, Washington declared that they would be safe in their homes and houses of worship. He also said this would be a country which “gives to bigotry no sanction.” Washington promised not just tolerance but full liberty of conscience. He was paving the way for the First Amendment, which would be added to the Constitution on Dec. 15, 1791.
“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,” Washington wrote.
The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, founded by Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., built and opened the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue in Newport last summer. The institute's mission is to promote awareness of the historic roots of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Its objectives are to become a teaching resource, particularly for high school students, for understanding these concepts as articulated by the nation's founders. The George Washington letter of 1790 is a significant piece of that education.
Touro Synagogue was designated a national historic site and part of the National Park System by an act of Congress in 1946. And in 2001 The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro as the first religious structure to become part of its collection of historic sites. Touro is the oldest synagogue in America.