(a reworking of a previous THC post)
Moses Seixas was a man with a plan in the summer of 1790. Forty six years old, the son of Portugese Jews who emigrated to Rhode Island, Moses was warden of Newport’s Tauro Synagogue. President George Washington was making his first visit to Rhode Island, and Moses was determined to use the occasion to obtain express acknowledgement of the enfranchisement of American Jews under the new Constitution.
Washington’s visit also had a plan behind it. The prior year, he had undertaken a lengthy visit to the northern states, as part of his strategy of drawing the new nation together and creating more popular acceptance of the new Federal government (he would tour the southern states in 1791). Rhode Island was not part of that tour, because it had yet to ratify the Constitution. The recalcitrant state, under pressure from the new federal government and neighboring states, along with the promise of a visit from Washington and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, became the last of the original 13 states to ratify on May 29, 1790.
Sexias was to get what he wanted from his letter, but the President’s response expressed additional thoughts that are worth reflecting upon today.
On August 17, Moses sent a letter 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 adding:
“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 responded the following day, echoing 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 give 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 commentary on the letter, particularly by liberal historians, focuses on the passage that the Government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance“, but its importance is deeper in its link to America’s founding principles. It is found in two sentences which do not have a counterpart in the Sexias letter. The first:
“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” was the concept used in most other societies in that age (and still used in many countries) 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 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. This approach is now embodied in our Constitution.
As for Washington, his views were not something newly formulated in 1790. In 1775, shortly after the Continental Congress named him 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”The second significant sentence:
For happily the Government of the United states, which give 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.”In this passage, the President emphasizes the duty of every American is to be a good citizen by supporting the new Constitution. Thought Washington does not refer specifically to the Constitution, he had freely expressed that this was the underlying purpose of his visits (eventually to all 13 states), and he seized every opportunity to promote it. The Constitution, not a common religion, nor anything else, was to be bind all citizens together.
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.”You can find the full text of the Seixas letter here, and Washington’s full response here.
As a final note, it is often overlooked that Moses Seixas wrote a second letter to President Washington on August 17, 1790. This letter was on behalf of King David’s Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, of which Seixas was Grand Master, and contained greetings from one member of a fraternal order to another member.