Born on March 28, 1744, Moses Seixas was a first generation Jewish-American whose parents migrated from Lisbon, Portugal, to Newport, Rhode Island. Seixas rose to prominence as warden of Newport's Touro Synagogue of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Rhode Island, and co-founder of the Bank of Rhode Island. Seixas is best remembered for the congratulatory letter he penned on behalf of his congregation to then recently inaugurated President George Washington in 1790. Written just months after Rhode Island became the last state to ratify the United States Constitution, Seixas sought assurances that the enumerated rights of freedom of religion and enfranchisement would apply to American Jews in the new republic.
Although Washington received similar letters from other religious groups, Seixas’ letter was among the first to assert that America was founded on the principle of religious liberty. In July 1790, Seixas explained to the New York Kaal Kadosh Seerit Israel Congregation that he preferred to address Washington individually, as opposed to in a joint letter, as the synagogues in New York, Richmond, Philadelphia, and Charleston would do later that year.1 Seixas desired to write his own letter to the president to ensure that "the Enfranchisement which is secured to . . . Jews by the Federal Constitution" was upheld.2
In August 1790, President Washington visited Rhode Island with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and others. This trip followed the president's 1789 New England tour, which did not include Rhode Island as it had yet to ratify the Constitution. On August 18, Washington's stop at the Touro Synagogue, with its impressive domed ceiling and alloyed candelabra, afforded Seixas an opportunity to read his letter to the synagogue's revered guests.
Dated the day prior, August 17, Seixas' letter stated—rather than requested—that Jews would be entitled to the same privileges as an American of any other religious denomination. Having been previously "deprived . . . of the invaluable rights of free Citizens," Seixas endeavored to elevate the status of American Jews.3 Using the Revolutionary principle of liberty to buttress his message, Seixas asserted that the American republic was "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."4
On August 18, President Washington replied to Seixas. The president’s response differentiated between religious toleration and religious liberty, as it specifically applied to the American Jewry. Washington wrote that Americans "have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy – a policy worthy of imitation . . . 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."5
Washington's reply set a significant precedent that separated a more passive practice of tolerance, from the more potent one of liberty. Even the most liberal European states such as the Netherlands had policies that merely tolerated non-Protestants. In alluding to the Bible's Old Testament, Washington unequivocally called for religious equality for Jews stating that "the Children of the Stock of Abraham . . . shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree."6
Notably, Washington imitated Seixas’ phrasing in his reply in writing that the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." The president’s reply made loyalty to country, as opposed to Protestant allegiance, the prerequisite for religious equality.7
Seixas wrote a second letter to Washington, also dated August 17, 1790, as a representative of King David's Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. As a fellow mason, Seixas wrote to Washington not from the perspective of a person of a persecuted society, but as a member of the fraternal order to which both men belonged.8
Belief in God is a chief tenet of membership in the Masons, and its centrality was evident in both Seixas’ letter and Washington’s reply, despite the comparatively more secular tone than their other correspondence. Seixas wrote that “the Sovereign Architect of the Universe” should protect Washington during his presidency. Unlike Seixas' other letter, his reference to God was nondenominational, as he did not explicitly refer to the God of Israel or David.9 Washington's undated second response to Seixas, was reprinted in newspapers as early as September 18, 1790.10 The president declared that he would maintain and promote the fraternity's virtues during his administration. Washington also echoed the classical belief of supporting "private virtue and public prosperity."11
Seixas remained a civic and religious leader in Newport throughout the decade following his correspondence with Washington. On June 22, 1802, Seixas was reelected Grand Master at the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Rhode Island’s annual meeting, after having been the Deputy Grand Master of the lodge for the previous two years. Seixas ran the evening’s toasts, emphasizing the order’s emphasis on equality, obedience to the law, the right to engage in commerce, and belief in God.12 Seixas died on November 29, 1809 at the age of sixty-six. A December 2, 1809 Newport Mercury obituary remembered him as "a Jew" with an "unblemished reputation . . . without bigotry, zealous and uniform in the profession of his faith."13
George Washington University
1. "Items Relating to Correspondence of Jews with George Washington, Moses Seixas to Kaal Kadosh Seerit Israel Congregation in New York," in American Jewish Historical Quarterly 27 (New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1920): 219.
5. "From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 6, 1 July 1790?–?30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, 284–6.
6. "From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790," Founders Online, National Archives.
7. "To George Washington from St. John's Masonic Lodge, Newport, R.I., 1785," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 3, 19 May 1785–31 March 1786, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994, 485–7.
10. "From George Washington to the Masons of King David’s Lodge, Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 6, 1 July 1790?–?30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, 287–8.
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