Memory and History, Jews and the 4th

George Washington’s letter to the Newport Synagogue is justly celebrated as one of the first official descriptions of what Free Exercise and Non-establishment meant in the United States, although the Bill of Rights wouldn’t become officially part of the Constitution for over a year.  What’s less well-known is the letter of congratulation written by Moses Seixas to Washington, as the new President visited Newport as part of a tour of the country.  Here are the two letters:

From Moses Seixas to George Washington, August 17, 1790

To the President of the United States of America.

Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

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 heretofore 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 basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel 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 honour, 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 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

From George Washington

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in 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 was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. 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 in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his short book, Zachor, makes the claim that Jews, up until the Enlightenment and its rationalist influences, had essentially given up recording history, instead seeing events through a shared cultural memory.  While history happens to someone else, your memories can only be of things that happened to you.  As a result, almost all Jewish recordings of contemporary events are in a voice that either echoes Biblical events, or analogizes to Biblical personages.  Instances where local kings intervene to prevent massacres are recorded in scrolls that mimic Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), for example.  This has the effect of providing a context for everything, but it also prevented Jews from seeing anything as actually new.

Western civilization, on the other hand, studies history as events that may have happened to others, but from which we can learn.  That historical accounts are not treated as entertaining stories, but as a description of how we got where we are, doesn’t change the fact that they’re written with the distance of time.

These two views of history are on full display in the two letters.  Seixas makes no fewer than four scriptural analogies.  The whole tone of his letter is one that is trying to shoehorn current events into ancient paradigms.  Washington’s letter is more familiar to our way of thinking.  His history – with which he was personally fully conversant – is implied, rather than stated, and his Biblical reference is a blessing, not an event.

Washington was President of a Constitutional Convention filled with men who studied the Greeks, the Romans, and other republics in-between, and put their lessons to use in designing our own government.  Seixas was struggling to describe his awe that he had the privilege to live in a time when a new concept of citizenship had been born and put into practice.

And yet, each realizes that this country is something new under the sun.  It’s not just that bigotry gets no sanction, it’s that “tolerance,” which implies that (in this case) the Jews have their rights by sufferance of the majority, isn’t the operative principle here.  Full citizenship and participation in the government are completely unconditional on one’s faith or religion.

Which is why, as Jews, we ought to celebrate Independence Day with a special fervor and gratitude, and why we have a special obligation to help preserve that order,

, , ,

Comments are closed.