NEWPORT, R.I. (Aug. 22)
The devastation of Sept. 11 is bringing new resonance to a historical document written in the years when America was breathing its first breaths as a free nation.
As New York City plans to commemorate the attack on the World Trade Center with the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, more than 180 people gathered in Newport’s historic Touro Synagogue on Sunday to celebrate another historic document — a letter penned in 1790 by President Washington to members of Newport’s Jewish community declaring religious freedom for all Americans.
The letter has been read publicly at Touro, the oldest synagogue in North America, every year since 1948, and was read this year by Eli Evans, a historian, Jewish author and former speech-writer for President Johnson.
Evans commented on its significance in his keynote address, noting that in reading the biographies of the victims of the Sept. 11 attack we see a spectrum of people representing a multitude of nations and creeds.
We realize now more than ever, he said, just how fundamental the precepts of tolerance and religious acceptance are to the American way of life.
He said the letter’s explicit promise to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” is even more remarkable because it was written in the period before the Bill of Rights was even ratified.
The message of tolerance is evident in many biblical phrases in Washington’s letter, such as when he welcomes the “children of the stock of Abraham . . . [to] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
This message has extra relevance as we near the anniversary of Sept. 11, Evans said.
“As a historian myself, I believe we must look to our history and reply in kind, with a symbolic answer, to the destruction America has suffered — we must stand even more proudly than before for all that our nation and its greatest city now mean to people all over the world.”
In America, Evans said, “Jews, like many other religious minorities, found a far more hospitable environment than they had ever known.”
“Here in America,” he continued, “in a place called Newport, Jews were not a religious sect, merely tolerated by the government and ruling establishment. President George Washington placed Newport at the nexus of ideas when the American experiment began.”
Evans wasn’t the only one impressed by the importance of the message.
“In writing this letter, Newport was the cornerstone of religious freedom in the colonies,” Newport Mayor Richard Sardella said.
He then joked, in the steamy interior of the synagogue, that he wished Washington had written the letter in December.