The American holiday Presidents’ Day occurs on the third Monday in February. This holiday is known to honor the birth of the first US president George Washington and the 16th president Abraham Lincoln. These presidents had revolutionary ideas when it came to freedoms and the rights of each individual.
President Washington often expressed these ideals in personal correspondence. None more affecting than the letter he wrote to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island not long after the American Revolutionary War.
In 1790 the first president of the United States of America wrote a letter which articulated and embodied the religious liberty the new nation sought to deliver and protect. Today with the rise of anti-Semitism around the world and daily barrage of distressing news of fanaticism, this letter is not only still relevant, but important.
It began when Moses Seixas, the warden of the Touro Synagogue, wrote a letter to George Washington expressing his esteem for the president, his blessing for God’s protection and the congregation’s optimism that in the new nation everyone would have the same rights, freedoms and protection from persecution.
They hoped that perhaps for the first time in history Jews would have the same freedoms of all other citizens: to own property wherever they chose, follow any vocation, hold public office and reside in any community.
George Washington’s response, written in his own hand, was enlightened and extraordinary.
George Washington wrote about a vision of a nation in which there is religious liberty for all people, equal and protected under the nation’s laws. Washington writes:
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 were 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.
In his letter Washington states that religious freedom is not just the responsibility of the government, but of the citizens as well. The government affords religious liberty, but it is up to each citizen to show others tolerance.
Thus on this US holiday honoring George Washington let us meditate on what each of us can do. We all can actively speak out about anti-Semitism, show our support for Israel, and not practice any form of bigotry ourselves.
Washington closes his letter incorporating the words of Micah 4:
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.