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A July 4th Reflection.

They are far afield from the actual Declaration of Independence—whose approval by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, established this day as that of our Nation’s birth—but it may be good for the soul to reflect rather on other documents. The contemporary missives of George Washington in particular provide a powerful affirmation that America, and the objective of its ever-perfecting experiment, demand celebration.

It was a time of eloquent missives: Washington’s election as President—he was sworn in at New York City’s Federal Hall on April 30, 1789—set off a cascade of congratulatory letters from associations and religious groups, offering flowery felicitations and expressive well-wishings.

The custom required replies.

What his admirers received from Washington—in particular, his replies to three separate groups of American Jews—were timeless and moving decrees of the American essence, succinct and gorgeous articulations of the unalienable expectations to be had in this unique land. Marked by artful expressions of the Creator, Washington’s letters to “Hebrew Congregations” repeated the confident assessment: that what was being experienced was a genesis of decency and palpable goodness, foretelling a future of “a great and happy people.” What gave all of this promise-making credence was that it came from the Great Man himself—a man of war whose pen proved as mighty as his sword.

The most famous of this correspondence trio comes with an interesting story. Because Rhode Island had yet to ratify the Constitution (it therefore had no role in the election of 1788), the tiny crypto-state was avoided by Washington during his 1789 New England tour. But when Rhode Island’s ratification happened in May of 1790, Washington—desiring to leave the nation’s capital, New York City—decided to sail that August up the Long Island Sound to visit Newport. The trip triggered events, speeches, dinners . . . and a letter to the President from the city’s Jewish citizens, who worshipped at what is now known as Touro Synagogue (built in 1763, it remains the nation’s oldest temple). Signed by Moses Seixas, Warden of the Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Newport, the missive (dated August 17, 1790) is a thing of beauty, itself a captivating expression of America being a place of transcendence on the notion of religious tolerance:

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits—and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.

With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men—beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

The President replied the next day, in his famed Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, which echoed the tone and themes of the original note, and which concluded by evoking one of Washington’s favorite biblical passages, from the Book of Micah:

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 was by 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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

This was not Washington’s first exchange of correspondence with an American Hebrew congregation. Earlier in 1789, far-flung flocks, from South Carolina to New England, had contemplated a joint letter of congratulations and broad comity—but time, circumstances of protocol, and the inability to corral all quickly (by 18th century's implausible standards) into approving a unified note hamstrung the advocates. Undeterred, Congregation Mickve Israel of Savannah, GA, chose to act independently, with its leader, Levi Sheftall, writing to the new President. It is another remarkable piece of prose, expressing relief, joy, and an embrace of the essence and potential of the Republic:

We have long been anxious of congratulating you on your appointment by unanimous approbation to the Presidential dignity of this country, and of testifying our unbounded confidence in your integrity and unblemished virtue: Yet, however exalted the station you now fill, it is still not equal to the merit of your heroic services through an arduous and dangerous conflict, which has embosomed you in the hearts of her citizens.

Our eccentric situation added to a diffidence founded on the most profound respect has thus long prevented our address, yet the delay has realised anticipation, given us an opportunity of presenting our grateful acknowledgements for the benedictions of Heaven through the energy of federal influence, and the equity of your administration.

Your unexampled liberality and extensive philanthropy have dispelled that cloud of bigotry and superstition which has long, as a veil, shaded religion—unrivetted the fetters of enthusiasm—enfranchised us with all the privileges and immunities of free citizens, and initiated us into the grand mass of legislative mechanism. By example you have taught us to endure the ravages of war with manly fortitude, and to enjoy the blessings of peace with reverence to the Deity, and benignity and love to our fellow-creatures.

May the great Author of worlds grant you all happiness—an uninterrupted series of health—addition of years to the number of your days and a continuance of guardianship to that freedom, which, under the auspices of Heaven, your magnanimity and wisdom have given these States.

In his response, dated June 14, 1790, Washington thanked the Georgians for the kind words, and then met their prose with his own remarkable eloquence (“the same wonder-working Deity”), distilling the promise of the new Nation, and pervading it with the sweet music of the Old Testament:

I rejoice that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent than it formerly was among the enlightened nations of the earth; and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive. Happily the people of the United States of America have, in many instances, exhibited examples worthy of imitation—The salutary influence of which will doubtless extend much farther, if gratefully enjoying those blessings of peace which (under favor of Heaven) have been obtained by fortitude in war, they shall conduct themselves with reverence to the Deity, and charity towards their fellow-creatures.

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Although twice beaten to the congratulatory punch, the Jewish congregations in New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, and Charleston were determined to address the President in a joint letter—the logistical challenges of circulating versions and edits were surmounted finally as the winter of 1790 approached. Less literary than the letters from the Newport and Savannah congregations, the joint letter was delivered to Washington in Philadelphia that December. It read in part:

The wonders which the Lord of Hosts hath worked in the days of our Forefathers, have taught us to observe the greatness of his wisdom and his might, throughout the events of the late glorious revolution; and while we humble ourselves at his footstool in thanksgiving and praise for the blessing of his deliverance; we acknowledge you the Leader of the American Armies as his chosen and beloved servant; But not to your Sword alone is our present happiness to be ascribed; That indeed opend the way to the reign of Freedom, but never was it perfectly secure, till your hand gave birth to the Foederal Constitution, and you renounced the joys of retirement to Seal by your administration in Peace, what you had achieved in war.

To “the eternal God who is thy refuge,” we Commit in our prayer the care of thy precious Life, and when full of years Thou shall be gatherd unto the People “thy righteousness shall go before thee,” and we shall remember amidst our regret, that the Lord hath set apart the Godly for himself; whilst thy name and thy Virtues will remain an indelible memorial on our minds”

Washington replied immediately, his prose respectful but absent the Old Testament evocations of his other letters:

The liberality of sentiment toward each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this Country, stands unparalleled in the history of Nations. The affection of such people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation; and the repeated proofs which my fellow Citizens have given of their attachment to me, and approbation of my doings form the purest source of my temporal felicity. The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgments.

The Power and Goodness of the Almighty were strongly Manifested in the events of our late glorious revolution; and his kind interposition in our behalf has been no less visible in the establishment of our present equal government. In war he directed the Sword; and in peace he has ruled in our Councils. My agency in both has been guided by the best intentions, and a sense of the duty which I owe my Country: and as my exertions have hitherto been amply rewarded by the Approbation of my fellow Citizens, I shall endeavour to deserve a continuance of it by my future conduct.

May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregations.

To say Washington’s letters hold up over time is an understatement—they were destined for posterity before the ink dried on the presidential parchment. Indeed, of all the contemporary writings and speeches, of Federalist Papers and Declarations and pronouncements by colonial Congresses that through many exertions sought to express pitch-perfect this emerging nation whose birthday we today celebrate, it may be his letters to the Hebrew Congregations that best capture succinctly the essence of America, that stir the soul—even to the new reader of 21st century—about the real possibility that the pursuit of happiness might end in happiness, and that make the case that this particular nation born on these distant shores was graced by Divine Providence. America was, in a sense, a new Chosen People, of a secondary nature, with abundant signs pointing to the intervention in history of a Creator.

It is fitting that George Washington’s memorable assurances of the promise of America, keenly echoing the Old Testament—reminding us, as he did in other writings, that the nation offered a unique comfort, whereby every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid—would be made, at the formal commencement of our constitutional Republic, to the confirmed Chosen People, who, having wandered over history and oceans, had arrived at a new shore—imperfect but beautiful nonetheless—that would prove hospitable to the Stock of Abraham, and to all the sons and daughters of God.

Happy Birthday, America!

1 thought on “The Founding Father, and the Children of Abraham”

  1. LaVerl Wilhelm says:

    I have longed to remain in a society that allows “freedom” for all parts of its governed citizens.
    So, to me, the story description that sums it all up is summarized by an unknown policeman who taught my ideal in just one sentence.
    It seems that a new immigrant hops off his ship and face-slugs a man that had been standing on the sidewalk.
    The policeman quickly arrests him and the immigrant appeals the arrest by saying, “I thought this was a free country where you could do anything you wanted.”
    Now came the answer that I love: “Sir, your freedom ends right where his nose begins”.
    The wise balance of this dilemma is what KEEPS us free!

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