readings on the 4th of july: Washington’s letter to the hebrew congregation in Newport

by sam on 07/4/2011

I haven’t done this in a few years, having moved this blog towards less political stuff and towards more pictures of cats and farm animals, but I was thinking about Washington’s letter recently, in light of all of the recent (and not so recent) claims as to the idea that our Founding Fathers (who were not a monolithic group by any means) were somehow founding the US as a ‘Christian Nation’. The idea is completely ridiculous on its face, what with the plain text of the First Amendment, but sometimes a refresher with actual evidence is nice. So here is a letter that George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.

Gentlemen,

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 figtree, 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

Sure, there are a load of inherent contradictions, not the least of which involving the fact that there were plenty of people (slaves, women) who were not citizens at all, and obviously were not thought of as equal. But again, the ideals of the founders, even if not always lived up to, were a road map toward a more perfect and equal society, and we still struggle and strive to reach that ideal today.

I particularly like his dis of “tolerance” – that to tolerate something’s existence necessarily implies the majority group giving permission for the minority group to exist, when the minority group doesn’t ‘need’ to be tolerated because it has the inherent right to exist in the first place.

Happy Independence Day everyone.

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