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Synagogue Letter Fr Washington

Synagogue treasures letter from Washington

By Daniel Barbarisi
The Providence Journal

August 23, 2002

To the unfamiliar eye, it's a battered old letter, a piece of mail noteworthy for its famous signature.

But this correspondence is more than just proof to the old refrain that "George Washington visited here," which, by the way, he did. It's also one of the most important documents in American history, a simple letter making the not-so-simple guarantee that the new nation would be a place of religious freedom, where no creed would be persecuted.

Last Sunday, nearly 200 people were packed among the Corinthian columns of America's oldest synagogue in Newport, R.I., to hear the annual reading of the letter, discuss its message and ponder its additional relevance in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"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," Washington wrote.

The letter was read by author and Revson philanthropic foundation head Eli Evans. It has been read at the Touro Synagogue every year since 1948, and all involved agreed that its message is more important now than ever.

"The words take on new meaning as America prepares for the one-year memorial to the destruction of dreams and lives in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Washington letter shines like a beacon showing us the way," Evans said.

With terrorist violence so closely tied to religious hatred, documents such as the letter and the religious tolerance it represents must be lauded that much louder, and the message of freedom and acceptance spread at every opportunity, said U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.

The idea contained in the letter was celebrated, to be sure. But time was also taken to look at the letter as a piece of writing, and as a window into history, to see what it can reveal about Washington as a man and a leader.

His syntax was studied, and commended. But to Zechariah Chafee, there representing his brother U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., the most telling part of the letter is that it shatters the image of Washington as the hands-off patriarch with no interest in shaping the laws and civil liberties of the new nation. History has generally reserved those honors for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, relegating Washington to the role of a doctrinal figurehead.

"And yet, in this letter, we hear the words of a champion of civil rights," he said.

Washington visited the synagogue in April 1790, when campaigning with Jefferson for passage of the Bill of Rights. Months later, the newly inaugurated president received a letter from the congregation, wondering whether the new republic would tolerate religious minorities now that the revolution had run its course.

In response, Washington sent the letter that historians have trumpeted as his affirmation that America would be a place of religious freedom.

Copyright Ā 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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