Philadelphia Jewish museum to display George Washington letter

362670_DM1Lett28-c. A letter from George Washington to the Hebrew congregation in Newport RI in 1790 serves as centerpiece of a National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit on religious tolerance and freedom in revolutionary America.
362670_DM1Lett28-c. A letter from George Washington to the Hebrew congregation in Newport RI in 1790 serves as centerpiece of a National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit on religious tolerance and freedom in revolutionary America.
Posted: June 29, 2012

One of the most significant documents in the history of Jews in the New World will go on display Friday at the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of the museum's first special exhibition, To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom.

"What was at the forefront of 18th-century debate," said Josh Perelman, the museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions, "is still relevant today, a time when religion is a topic of wide civic discussion, a time when there is a Mormon presidential candidate."

The document in question, which has been out of the public eye for a decade, is a letter written by President George Washington in August 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I. The nation's first president was responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the congregation, written on behalf of Newport's Jews after the first presidential visit to the state.

"The letter Washington writes back is, to my mind, one of the most powerful and, I would say, important statements made by an American president about religious freedom," said Perelman. "It is eloquent. It is elegant. And the words today resonate for our contemporary moment as much as they did for the residents of the late 18th century."

" … The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation," Washington wrote. "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. …

“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. …"

The letter is signed "G. Washington."

Owned by the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, it was last on display at B'nai B'rith International's headquarters in Washington, D.C. When those offices closed in 2002, the letter was placed in storage. Several months ago, Perelman said, the foundation agreed to lend it to the Jewish history museum.

"It's completely consistent with our new strategic plan, and the idea that this is a museum that is ambitious and bold," said Ivy L. Barsky, the museum's director and incoming chief executive. "The letter itself is an incredible example of boldness and leadership."

To Bigotry No Sanction will be on view through Sept. 30. It is the first temporary special exhibition for the museum, which opened in November 2010 on Independence Mall at Fifth and Market Streets, but Barsky says it certainly will not be the last. In fact, she said, such shows will now become a regular feature of the museum's programming. Already in the works is one about German Jewish refugee scholars who came to the United States during the Nazi era and wound up teaching at historically black Southern colleges. Further down the road, she said, is one on Jews and baseball.

Displayed along with the Washington document is the letter from Seixas that prompted the president's assertion that the new nation would adhere to principles of religious freedom. In fact, with the two side by side, it is possible to see what inspired Washington's most rhetorically powerful turns of phrase; Seixas had used them first:

"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… ."

The museum places this extraordinary exchange in the larger context of post-Independence America. A Pennsylvania copy of the first proposed amendments to the Constitution is on display, as is a broadside copy of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (proposed in 1779), considered by scholars the wellspring of American notions of religious liberty.

Also displayed are a copy from the first public printing of the Constitution, and correspondence between Washington and other Jewish communities, including those in Philadelphia and New York City. There are letters Washington wrote to Lutherans, Methodists, Quakers, Catholics — assuring all that the new federal government was committed to its founding principles.

Jefferson plays a "strong supporting role" in the exhibition, Perelman said. In addition to an early copy of Jefferson's influential Virginia Act, the exhibition contains correspondence between Jefferson and Mordecai Manuel Noah, diplomat, utopian, editor, and, in Perelman's words, "probably the most famous Jew of his day."

In the letter, Jefferson admits to American imperfection.

"More remains to be done," he tells Noah in 1818, "for altho' we are free by law, we are not so in practice."

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @SPSalisbury.


The Washington Letter

Friday through Sept. 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 South Independence Mall East. Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. Tickets: $11-$12; free on July 4. Information: 215-923-3811 or www.nmajh.org.

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