Over the last several years, I have usually talked about Lincoln on Presidents’ Day. So, here’s to little equal time to our nation’s first president, George Washington.
It’s interesting to note that unlike others running for office, Washington never went looking for the job. In fact, in August 1788, he was quite content in the role of retired gentleman farmer on his estate in Mount Vernon. It was Alexander Hamilton – a senior aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War – who wrote to Washington. “I take it for granted, Sir, you have concluded to comply with what will no doubt be the general call of your country in relation to the new government.”
“My great and sole desire,” Washington wrote in response to Hamilton, “is to live and die, in peace and retirement on my own farm.”
Eventually, however, Washington acceded to numerous requests from many that the newly formed government needed a leader well known and respected.
In 1789, Washington arrived in New York, then the seat of government, and was sworn in as the nation’s first chief executive. Washington disdained the original title of “His Majesty,” and preferred “Mr. President.”
One year later, the newly installed U.S. president wrote a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island – the destination of the first Jewish immigrants to America. Despite his eloquent rhetoric, Washington’s purpose was two-fold: to respond to the head of the congregation who had written a letter congratulating Washington on his election; and to state unequivocally that the United States government would treat Jews no differently than other Americans.
“Gentlemen,” he began…
“While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
“The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.
“If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
“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 were 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – G. Washington”
Washington had written a somewhat similar letter to the Hebrew congregation in Savannah, Georgia. However, absent from that earlier letter was a phrase that would be referenced and repeated: “…the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”
Seven years earlier, however, Washington expressed his feelings about tolerance in an address to Irish immigrants – words that merit revisiting today:
“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”