FTA: The original of Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island is small in size, but its impact on American life is immense. In 340 well-chosen words, the Letter reassures those who had fled religious tyranny that life in their new nation would be different, that religious “toleration” would give way to religious liberty, and that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief. Quoting the Bible’s Old Testament, Washington writes,
“every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
For happily the Government of the United States 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.1
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.
When he wrote this particular letter in August of 1790, the new President must have been aware of the effect it would have on the fledgling nation. He could not have known the extent of its influence today. The history behind Washington’s Letter not only gives us an understanding of the values of the early colonists and our Founding Fathers, but also insight into two fundamental tenets of American democracy: the separation of church and state, and the right of individuals to believe in and practice their religion.
Read more here.