Thursday, May 17, 2012

All Possess Alike Liberty of Conscience

On June 29, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia opens an exhibit (running until Sept. 30) featuring President George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island (full text below), which has not been displayed in public for many years.  The letter was revolutionary in its peculiarly American approach toward the word "tolerance" which differed from how it was used in many other parts of the world then, and even now, in many places. 

In the summer of 1790, President Washington undertook a lengthy visit to New England during which he visited Newport.  On August 17, 1790 Moses Seixas, warden of the town's Hebrew Congregation sent a letter (full text below) to the President, welcoming him to Newport on behalf of "the children of the stock of Abraham", expressing their happiness in having the "invaluable rights of free Citizens" and going on to write:
 
"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"


The President's letter of the next day, echoes the warden's phrasing but adds its own distinctive sentiments.

"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 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."
Much of the historical commentary on the letter focuses on its affirmation of religious freedom, and the passage that the Government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance", but its importance is deeper, and more profound, in its conception of American founding principles.  It is found in this sentence which does not have a counterpart in the Sexias letter:

"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."

The passage expresses two concepts:

First, the American version of "tolerance" is not something bestowed by a dominant group, or individual, upon other groups, because that kind of tolerance is revocable upon the discretion of the dominant group or individual.  Bestowed "tolerance" remains the concept used in many other societies but in Washington's sense "tolerance" is that which we owe to each other as equals.  In other "tolerant" societies of the time, the Jewish Community would be considered supplicants; in Washington's they are equals.

Second, the source of what we owe to each other as equals are our "inherent natural rights".  These rights are not created by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  It's the other way around - these rights predate those documents and are a source for the text and ideas behind them.  Specifically, the Constitution is not a document describing the rights of citizens - those inherent natural rights are so broad as to exceed any attempt to catalogue them in a document.  Rather, the Constitution is a delineation of the specific powers delegated by the citizens, who hold those inherent rights, to the government in order for it to perform certain designated functions.

It was the 25 year old James Madison who first pointed out how these concepts worked together in May 1776, during the debate on Virginia's new state constitution.  The draft constitution contained a Declaration of Rights, including a clause on religious liberty drafted by George Mason, providing that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion".  Madison objected to the use of the word "toleration" because it implied toleration was a gift from government rather than an inherent natural right.  Mason agreed and the draft was amended to read "all men are entitled to the full and free exercise" of religion.

As for Washington, his views on the subject were not something newly formulated in 1790.  In 1775, shortly after the Continental Congress named him to be commander of its military forces, he approved a plan to invade Canada.  The civilian population of Canada, which the British had taken from France only twelve years prior, was almost exclusively Catholic, a religion detested by most American Protestants at that time.  On September 14, 1775, Washington sent instructions to Benedict Arnold, commanding the American expedition about to start its epic campaign through the backwoods of Maine to Quebec.  He directed Arnold to respect the religious beliefs of the Canadians.  This, in and of itself, was not remarkable - doing so was wise strategy when the Americans were trying to get the Canadians to join them in the revolt against Britain.  It was the way Washington expresses himself that is striking:

"While we are Contending for own own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men and to him only in this Case they are answerable" 

Both letters are worth a full read as they express their sentiments using the wonderful phrasing characteristic of that time, a writing style that only a generation later had fallen out of favor.  I particularly like Washington's closing lines:

" . . . 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."

Moses' closing words aren't too bad either:

 "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."



Letter of President George Washington 

[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]

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 a 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 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.

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.

Go: Washington


Letter of Moses Seixas

Sir:

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

2 comments:

  1. Great read...refreshingly insightful, inpirational, introspective. Good job with it, Mark! DM

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  2. Really insightful, as always, Mark. This was a particularly interesting read as I'm in Moscow, and have spent a lot of time while here thinking about how our government has sustained, probably due to the Washington version of tolerance/equality. We think there are big political swings in the US, but one party hasn't (yet) pulled tanks onto a bridge over the Potomac and started firing indiscriminate warning shots at government buildings. My peers here, and their parnets, have lived through dramatic social, political, and economic change -- and will continue to do so, likely, as oil prices fluctuate/fall. We have had no such opportunity to test our resilience.
    Thanks...
    -G.

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