By Meg O’Neil
After 10 years of being in storage, the famed 1790 letter from George Washington addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” is set to go on public display this summer in Philadelphia.
Considered by historians to be the most significant statement on religious freedom ever penned by an American president, the Washington Letter will be shown at the National Museum of American Jewish History for three months, starting June 29. The letter will be the centerpiece of an exhibit dedicated to the roots of religious freedom in America.
Newport’s Jewish history dates back to 1658 when 15 Jewish families arrived in the Point neighborhood from Barbados, where they heard about the colony’s promise of religious tolerance.
One hundred years later, Rhode Island played a key role in the signing of the United States Constitution.
Despite needing only nine of the original 13 colonies to vote to ratify the Constitution, Washington wanted a unanimous vote. Rhode Island was the final holdout. As part of the negotiation process, Washington promised that if Rhode Island signed the Constitution, he and his entourage would make a visit. The state signed in May of 1790.
Upon his arrival in Newport, in August of 1790, Washington exchanged letters with Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Jeshuat Israel – more commonly known today as Touro Synagogue.
The 340-word letter from Washington promised “the children of the stock of Abraham” that the newly formed government of the United States of America would give, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” His words were considered at the time to support religious freedom.
While Seixas’ letter to Washington has been on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Washington Letter has been held in private hands of the Morris Morgenstern Foundation since 2002. It is believed that Morgenstern purchased the letter from Howard Milkman Jr., a direct descendant of Seixas, around 1950. Since then, several institutions have tried to gain access to the letter to no avail.
Of the current exhibit, Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s Co-President Bea Ross said: “We’re delighted that the letter is going to be on display. The letter says everything that’s important to us, and expresses everything we stand for as Americans.”
The letter is said to be in excellent condition despite being laminated, standard practice in conservation in the 1950s. The museum’s exhibit is titled: “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom,” and features additional documents, including several of Washington’s letters to other religious groups, one of the first public printings of the Constitution, and a draft of Thomas Jefferson’s “An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.”