An important document in American history — George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island — has been languishing in storage for years, and a US Jewish newspaper has launched a campaign to get it out into the open for public viewing.
The Washington letter assured the Jewish community in Newport, which numbered about 200 at the time, that they had freedom of religion. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” the first US President wrote 14 years after the U.S. declared independence from Britain.
“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.”
The historic letter is owned by the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, started by a Jewish entrepreneur who loved the letter so much he sometimes slept with it under his bed, The Forward reported this summer. It has been on loan for decades to B’nai B’rith International, which displayed the document for more than 40 years at its former headquarters in Washington. But The Forward discovered that B’nai B’rith sent the letter to a Maryland storage facility when the organization moved to smaller quarters in 2002.
“We have in the last few years approached the foundation about the possibility of its being displayed in two or three very likely places where Jewish history and American history come together,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice-president of B’nai B’rith International. One ideal venue, he said, was the Library of Congress. But he said the foundation has not been responsive so far.
A call to the Morgenstern Foundation for comment was not returned.
Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, said she is using the “bully pulpit” of the editorial page to push the foundation to liberate the letter from its current obscure home. “ I think that even though the words of this document are public, there is nothing like the real thing.”
Eisner said that the letter is a “national treasure” that can help US citizens learn their history. “I’d like to believe it would help more Americans to understand our pluralistic roots,” she said.
A photograph of the letter is on display at the John L. Loeb Visitors Center in Newport, near Touro Synagogue, founded in the 17th century, whose congregation initiated the correspondence with Washington. Keith Stokes, past chair of the Touro Synagogue Foundation, said the situation was “frustrating.”
“In America some of our most cherished early documents are on display,” he said. “An item of this magnitude just has to be shared with the people.”