Religion

When George Washington Met Moses

Statue of George Washington stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
How George Washington championed freedom for Jews, Catholics, and other religious minorities

In 1790, the United States of America was a new nation, but Moses Seixas was already living what would come to be called the American Dream. The son of Sephardic Jews who had migrated from Lisbon, Portugal, to Newport, R.I., Seixas took advantage of the opportunities his state and nation offered to civic-minded entrepreneurs of all faiths. He would become a leading town merchant and cofounder of the Bank of Rhode Island. He would also become the warden — or lay leader — of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, which had built a beautiful synagogue with a domed ceiling and Greek-style ionic columns at the center of town. (The synagogue, later called the Touro Synagogue, still stands at the center of Newport’s downtown.)

Though Seixas and other Jews of Newport had achieved prosperity, they were worried that their freedom to worship and participate in civic life wouldn’t last. Given what had happened to Jews throughout the old world, they had reason to worry. Jews had been kicked out of various European countries through the centuries, “expelled from England as early as 1290, forced to leave Spain in 1492, and kicked out of Portugal four years later.”

But Moses Seixas and many Jews in the new United States, numbering only around 2,000 in a total U.S. population of 2.5 million when the American Revolution began, found hope in the words of George Washington and the Founding Fathers on religious liberty and equality under the law. And when he learned that Washington would be visiting Newport — as part of a visit to Rhode Island in celebration of its becoming the final original state to ratify the U.S. Constitution — Seixas saw it as an opportunity to ask Washington to confirm explicitly that the Founders’ promises applied to Jews.

Soon after Washington arrived in Newport in August 1790, Seixas presented him with a letter from the members of Congregation Jeshuat Israel. Accounts differ as to how Seixas delivered the letter. An entry on Founders Online, a digital repository of letters maintained by the National Archives and University of Virginia, speculates that “Seixas probably presented it to GW on the morning of 18 Aug. 1790 when the town and Christian clergy of Newport also delivered addresses to the president.” Yet articles in the authoritative Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia say Washington actually visited the synagogue during that trip.

What is undisputed, however, are the powerful messages of religious freedom and equality under the law from the Jewish congregation’s letter and Washington’s swift response. The letter dated August 17 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.” The letter implicitly asks Washington to affirm that the views of the promise of the new nation held by Seixas and the congregation were correct.

Washington did indeed affirm this in a letter replying to the congregation dated one day later. And in that letter, Washington promised even more than the religious liberties the Jewish congregation had asked for: that Jews would be full citizens of the new republic. Echoing some of Seixas’s phrasing, Washington replied, “For happily the Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington was quick to add, though, that the U.S. Constitution goes beyond mere religious toleration and explicitly grants religious freedom and full citizenship to people of every creed. “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,” he wrote in the letter to the synagogue.

Washington then made an allusion to the passage of Micah 4:4 of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, which reads, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Washington stated emphatically to the Jewish congregation that in the new nation, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Scholars of religious freedom have called Washington’s letter to Seixas and the congregation a milestone in human rights. For the first time, members of religious minorities were granted full partnership in the nation they inhabited as a matter of policy, as stated by the nation’s leader. The late political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, longtime professor at Claremont McKenna College and distinguished fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote that Washington’s letter meant that Jews would be “full citizens for the first time, not merely in American history, but since the end of their own polity in the ancient world, more than two thousand years before.”

Jaffa continued, “From no one else could such a statement about Jews have carried the authority it did carry, when it came from Washington. No one could repudiate these words, once they had come from Washington, without making himself contemptible.” (Hat tip on the passage from Jaffa to John G. West of the Discovery Institute.)

Jews, however, were not the only religious minority to whom Washington would provide much-needed aid and comfort. In Great Britain and most of her American colonies, Catholics couldn’t hold public office or serve on juries. And in George Washington’s Virginia, Catholics couldn’t even pray publicly during the colonial days.

But to Catholics, as to Jews, Washington personified the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom through his words and deeds. In his career in the military as well as in his innovative business ventures — the later topic of which I write about in my new book, George Washington, Entrepreneur — Washington became close friends with members of the Catholic faith.

Among those friends was John Fitzgerald, an Irish-Catholic immigrant. Fitzgerald had emigrated to the colonies in 1769, settling first in Philadelphia but moving to the port city of Alexandria, Va., near Mount Vernon. There he became a merchant of various items, and Washington was one of his customers. When the Revolution started, Fitzgerald volunteered his services, and Washington appointed him aide-de-camp.

After the war, Fitzgerald went back to being a merchant in Alexandria, but with significantly more prestige, thanks in large part to his friendship with Washington. In 1786, Fitzgerald was elected mayor of Alexandria even though Catholics were a tiny minority in Virginia and had been subject to official persecution until only a few years earlier. Washington boosted Fitzgerald’s status further by making him a director of the Potomac Company, formed by Washington and others to improve navigation on the Potomac River. Fitzgerald became president of the company in the 1790s, and in 1793 Washington appointed him collector of customs for the Port of Alexandria. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 after serving as president, Fitzgerald advised him to build a whiskey distillery there, which turned out to be one of Washington’s most profitable enterprises (and which was rebuilt on Mount Vernon grounds in 2007).

Fitzgerald used his newfound prominence to cofound the first Catholic church in Virginia, the St. Mary’s congregation in Alexandria. It has long been church lore that Washington gave one of the initial contributions to get St. Mary’s off the ground, and there is now strong — if not conclusive — evidence for Washington’s generous gesture. Kitty Guy, a historian of the congregation, points to diary entries from Washington showing that he attended the St. Patrick’s Day dinner at Fitzgerald’s home in 1788 at which fundraising for construction of the church was discussed and also that he gave a contribution to a church — unnamed in the diary — on the same day. Given this documentation — and that the story has been passed on at the church through the generations — it is a “reasonable conclusion” that Washington gave a contribution equivalent to $1,200 in today’s money to St. Mary’s, Guy says in an interview.

Today, St. Mary’s and the Jeshuat Israel congregation of the Touro Synagogue stand as monuments to Washington’s vision of religious freedom. And unlike Washington’s own Christ Church in Alexandria, which has shamefully pulled down a plaque honoring Washington in the name of fostering “inclusiveness,” these congregations celebrate their ties to our Founding Father.

Documenting its historic roots, St Mary’s successfully applied to the Vatican for a “basilica” designation, which was granted in 2018. And every year, the Touro Synagogue hosts prominent speakers — including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan — to read Washington’s 1790 letter to Seixas and the congregation. These congregations do not claim Washington ever reached perfection, but they know that he did much more than almost anyone to create and maintain — in the words of the Constitution — “a more perfect union” that is a light unto the world.

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