August 18 marks the anniversary of one of the most important milestones in American Jewish History: George Washington’s letter to the Newport Synagogue. This letter was of world-historical importance, marking the first time that a head of state anywhere in the world recognized Jews as citizens. Despite the letter’s enduring fame, few know the hidden history that lies behind it. The lecture will reveal the surprising story of the most important document in American-Jewish history.
As George Washington assumed the powers of the presidency, Jews were unsure of their standing in the new republic. It remained unclear whether the nation would fulfill or forget the promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Amid this uncertain context, Jews engaged in a heated debate over if and how to engage the new administration. Washington’s unexpected visit to a war-ravaged Rhode Island prompted the Jews of Newport to issue their own address to Washington. His momentous response, perhaps even more than the First Amendment itself, created the foundations of free exercise in the United States.
In our modern age, as the scourge of antisemitism resurfaces with new vigor, the Newport letter and its vital call for religious freedom remain as relevant as ever.