On this date 257 years ago the Touro Synagogue was dedicated in Newport, R.I. Touro is the second-oldest Jewish congregation in North America -- Shearith Israel in New York City was the first -- and its leaders would engage George Washington (and, later, Thomas Jefferson) in a dialogue that helped forge a new nation's commitment to religious freedom.
It's a story I've written about previously, but it bears retelling.
George Washington wasn't stumping for votes in the summer of 1789 when he visited Rhode Island, and he certainly wasn't doing political fundraising. It was the first year of his presidency and, having been elected more or less unanimously (he received 100% of the Electoral College votes), his trip was a goodwill tour of the new country he was chosen to lead.
Newport had been hard-pressed during the Revolutionary War. After it was occupied by the British, many prominent patriots fled the city, including most of the Jewish families that had settled there a generation earlier. On the occasion of President Washington's visit on Aug. 17, 1789, Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew congregation in Newport, wrote an epistle to the arriving hero on behalf of "the children of the stock of Abraham."
Seixas prefaced his address, which was published in local newspapers, by mentioning the historic persecutions of Jews and the haven they had found in the newly consecrated United States of America.
"Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens," he wrote, "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."
Seixas ended with a prayer asking God to send the same angel who led the Jews of Biblical times through the wilderness to watch over George Washington "through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life." He added his hope that "when, like Joshua, full of days, and full of honor, 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."
Inspired by Moses Seixas' eloquent description of religious liberty in America, the new president echoed it in a return letter.
"The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation," proclaimed America's first president. "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."
Washington also included a kind of benediction for America's Jews -- for people of all faiths, really -- and did so in a manner that managed to be secular while also invoking Old Testament imagery.
"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," he wrote, "while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.