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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Washington's "Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island"

Nearly thirty years have passed since I visited Touro Synagogue; I was packed full of life at the time, younger, nearly nine months pregnant with my first child. This morning I heard (hat tip to Fr. Dane Boston) part of George Washington's letter to the Jewish congregation at Touro and found it beautiful and moving. Touro still holds its precious letter from George Washington, in which he embraces all in liberty and hopes that we citizens will walk in light and be useful, "with none to make him afraid." It is a fine thing for us to read today. We all know why; today Pittsburgh is near us all, and the Tree of Life Synagogue still stands in its midst. The taste of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is on our tongues. We have once again (again!) lost a portion of our brothers and sisters to evil acts.

Yet the ideal, perfect Tree of Life still flourishes--the tree that is rooted to so many true and good and beautiful concepts, that has sprung up as multi-layered symbol and a source of flowing life in many cultures. Tree of Life is a not uncommon name for synagogues because, root and branch, it is tied to Eden, to God, to the beginning and to the end, to the Torah, to rabbinic writings, and to that lovely, hard-won substance, wisdom.

Here is the letter, worthy of being a leaf on the marvelous Tree.

* * *
 Source, photographs on this page:                    


While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

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.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

* * *

In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. -- Revelation 22:2 (KJV)


  1. "... the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance... "

    I'm guessing, but one of the hardest things you and like-minded friends must presently bear is that the administration has no sense of history. That there is no inclination to dwell briefly on the country's honourable - and magnificent - roots. No hint in George's rolling prose that the country's greatness depended solely on a few trade deals where the USA came out on top. Rather the understated humility of making "all of us in our several vocations useful here" plus the unrestrained hope that for the children of Abraham "there should be none to make (them) afraid.".

    Snooty Europeans used to say disparagingly that the USA "had no history" as if mere centuries ensured wisdom, tolerance and all the other virtues. In fact the USA has all the history it needs, compressed into 400 years. And I as a wandering editor favour compression. But I also re-watch my BBC DVDs of the complete Shakespeare and regard The Bostonians as a masterpiece. There are occasions when I enjoy running my fingers over the velvet pile of words like these and now is one of them. Well chosen.

    1. Yes, it is a good choice, isn't it? No credit to me! Washington is such an admirable figure (though currently he's another being struck off his pedestal.)

      You know, I'm far more worried that most young people seem to have no knowledge of history--or that their knowledge is skewed by passing through current trendy filters or some sort of strict tribalism. Have you seen those videos where an interviewer asks basic history questions on college campuses? Horrors!

      Americans writers were certainly obsessed with the idea of "no history" early on. But it presents its own weird solutions, like Charles Brockden Brown visualizing the wilderness as a Gothic setting...

      Of course, all of our roots run across the sea--even those of native Americans--if you go back in time. So perhaps we simply have double measures of usable history, if we care to learn enough.

  2. Longfellow seems to have found the synagogue closed down in 1852: .

    1. I didn't remember that poem, though no doubt I had read it before... I had a fascination with Longfellow for a time. I wonder if he was simply there on a quiet day, or if it was indeed closed for a time. I like to think that I wandered where he once passed.

  3. Touro, which I visited in 78, ought to be a must visit destination for every person of faith in America.
    Best wishes from old friend with new address.

    1. Hi, Tim--

      Shall pop by tomorrow and see what you are up to now... The resurrecting blogger...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.