To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance

To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No assistance

Lecture delivered by Sons of the Revolution in the State of Florida President Saul M. Montes-Bradley II at the Mechina Yeshiva in South Miami Beach on August 17th, 2005

Originally published in Flintlock & Powderhorn, Vol. 23, No 3, October 2005 [1]

The times immediately following the Revolutionary War were not easy for anyone in the fledgling republic. Economic difficulties added to political uncertainty to create a period of great anxiety. Among those wary of the changes taking place were the members of the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. One of the first communities to answer Roger Williams’ call to a new colony based on the utmost principles of tolerance, the fifteen families who arrived between 1654 and 1658 from Recife or perhaps Aruba and New Amsterdam, constituted the congregation of Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, the oldest Jewish Congregation in the US. In 1738, Peter Harrison, the same architect who would later design Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts—among other notable colonial buildings—donated his work for the design and construction of the Touro Synagogue as a new home for the congregation. The building still stands as the oldest continuously occupied synagogue in the nation, sporting several distinct architectural characteristics including a hidden room under the altar, a practice that harkens to the days when the Inquisition made such accommodations a necessity. Its status today as a National Historic Site belies the difficulties faced by its occupants in the years following the Declaration of Independence. The largest Jewish community in Revolutionary times, it was divided and impoverished like its Christian neighbors, facing the exodus of its loyalist members, the failure of the farms and businesses of those who remained behind and unpaid years of service to the cause of the Revolution. The uncertainties of the period of the Articles of Confederation only added to their chagrin. Finally, in 1789, a Constitution was approved and, of particular importance to the subjects of our study today, a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of conscience and a separation of Church and State. Nevertheless, with caution dictated by experience, and taking advantage of newly elected President Washington’s visit to Newport, the Warden of the Newport Congregation wrote a letter to express the congregation’s anxiety and its desire that the new republic be based on toleration not unlike that promised by Williams:

Sir: Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merit, and to join with our fellow-citizens in welcoming you to New Port. With pleasure we reflect on those days— those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword,—shielded Your head in the day of battle: —and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States. Deprived as we hitherto have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events—behold a government erected by the majesty of the people—a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine. This so ample and extensive Federal Union, whose base is philanthropy, mutual confidence and public virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the great God, who rules in the armies of the heavens and among the inhabitants of the earth, doing whatever seemeth to Him good. For all the blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of days, the great Preserver of men, beseeching Him that the angels who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life; and when, like Joshua, full of days and full of honors, you are gathered to your fathers, may you be admitted into the heavenly paradise to partake of the water of life and the tree of immortality. Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, August 17, 1790. Moses Seixas, Warden

Full of Jewish imagery and praise for the President, the letter is also a reminder of why the members of the congregation had joined the revolutionary effort, and it expressed in unequivocal terms their desire that the new government live up to its promise of civil and religious freedom. President Washington’s answer is singularly telling not only for what it says, but for how he says it. Unlike previous replies of the same kind (i.e. to the Jewish Congregation of Savannah, Georgia) Washington makes the words of Warden Seixas’ his own and delivers a reply that clearly establishes his views on religious freedom and his promise that it would be forcibly defended, giving “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” while resorting to Jewish imagery as if it were his own. The message is as compelling today as it was in 1790 and just as relevant:

“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

One can hardly imagine the relief and happiness these words from Washington bestowed upon the members of the old congregation of Yeshuat Israel. There it was, in terms that afforded no doubt, the promise of a continuance of the peace and prosperity they had enjoyed since the time their forebears answered the call of Roger Williams—and that remains unfettered to this day. Washington’s correspondence with the Newport Congregation was published in numerous newspapers in the 1790s, spreading a message of tolerance and establishing the free and equal status of all beliefs in the new nation. Alas, not all states were as quick to respond, but even as Maryland prepared to give political rights to its Jewish population in 1824, Governor Worthington resorted to the arguments made by President Washington in this correspondence as sufficient. In the months following Washington’s reply, many more congregations sent him congratulatory addresses, like the following from Manuel Josephson, president of Philadelphia’s Mikve Israel, on behalf of the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, written on December 13th, 1790:

“Sir, It is reserved for you to unite in affection for your character and person every political and religious denomination of men; and in this will the Hebrew congregations aforesaid yield to no class of their fellow- citizens. …The wonders which the Lord of Hosts hath worked in the days of our Forefathers, have taught us, to observe the greatness of His wisdom and His might throughout the events of the late glorious revolution; and while we humble ourselves at His footstool in thanksgiving and praise for the blessing of His deliverance; we acknowledge you, the Leader of American Armies, as his chosen and beloved servant; But not to your sword alone is present happiness to be ascribed; that, indeed, opened the way to the reign of Freedom, but never was it perfectly secure, till your hand gave birth to the Federal Constitution, and you renounced the joys of retirement to seal by your administration in Peace what you had achieved in war. To the eternal God, who is thy refuge, we commit in our prayers the care of thy precious life; and when, full of years, thou shalt be gathered unto thy people, thy righteousness shall go before thee, and we shall remember, amidst our regret, “that the Lord hath set apart the godly for himself,” whilst thy name and thy virtues will remain an indelible memorial on our minds.” Manuel Josephson.

Today, we mark two hundred and fifteen years since Washington’s reply to Warden Seixas, and three hundred and fifty-one since the settlement of the first families of the Yeshuat Israel congregation in Newport.

Think of this, for it is no mean fact. And as you think of this, rejoice and applaud yourselves for continuing to give mankind “examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation,” and that we “all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In the course of the life of many in this room, we will mark four hundred years of continued Peace and Prosperity for the Jewish congregation at Newport. Four Hundred years! There is no other example anywhere at any time in history of a Jewish congregation being free from persecution for four Centuries. Not one. Let me repeat that. There is no other example anywhere nor at any time in history of a Jewish community living free from persecution for nearly four Centuries. None, that is, except that afforded by the land of Roger Williams and George Washington. May we always prove worthy of their efforts, their love of freedom and their noble inheritance. So may it be God’s will.

 

[1] http://www.bradleyfoundation.org/SR/Flintlock/FL23-3.pdf

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