Testament to Religious Liberty
On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, presented a congratulatory address to President George Washington on the occasion of his visit to their city. Both the address, written by Moses Seixas, and Washington’s response appeared together in several newspapers. They encapsulate Washington’s clearest articulation of his belief in religious freedom and the first presidential affirmation of the free and equal status of Jewish-American citizens.
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship 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. 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.
George Washington, letter to Moses Seixas, August 17, 1790
In 1654, the first group of Jews to arrive in the future U.S. settled in what is now New York. And as early as 1658, Jewish immigrants arrived in Newport seeking religious liberty. Throughout the colonial period, Jews continued to come to North America, settling mainly in seaport towns. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, these immigrants had established several thriving synagogues.
Many British North American colonists were Europeans who left their homes rather than compromise their religious convictions. Yet commitment to the survival of one’s own faith by no means automatically entailed a commitment to the right of others to believe differently. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people of diverse faiths sought to establish their own religious strongholds in America while variously persecuting or supporting the religious rights of those who believed differently. Their struggles prompted the Founding Fathers to reflect on the overarching need for religious tolerance and freedom.
Thomas Jefferson’s hotly debated Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, finally approved by the Virginia legislature in 1786, recognized absolute freedom of belief and set a precedent for separation of church and state that other states later replicated. Its adoption is best understood in the context of intense debate about the place of religion in a free society.
Freedom of religion is upheld by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Drafted by James Madison and adopted in 1791 with the nine other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment asserts, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the Continental Congress had formally endorsed the principle even earlier. In 1776, it resolved to honor the
…wise policy of these states to extend the protection of their laws to all those who should settle among them of whatever nation or religion they might be, and to admit them to a participation of the benefits of civil and religious freedom.
Journals of Congress: Wednesday, August 14, 1776. [Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap?, 1776]. Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Library of Congress, “To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance,” Today in History. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-17