• Washington’s Promise to Minorities and its Meaning for our Center

     

    Washington’s Promise to Minorities and its Meaning for our Center

    by Frank Miller-Small

    It’s now no more that tolerance is spoken of as it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights…

    … the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…

    Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be no one to make him afraid.

    — excerpted from George Washington’s letter to
    the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790

    Our country’s rising tide of intolerance toward minorities caused me to wonder about our founders’ values and, if knowing that, might help our Center foster greater tolerance.  I wanted to know if, as some claim, we were intended to be a white Christian nation, relegating minorities to an inferior status.  Or, did our founders envision an egalitarian, multi-cultural America, with different groups living in harmony with each other?  Were Americans, perhaps, of mixed opinions on this issue? My search for answers led me to an insightful collection of essays entitled, “Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry.”

    This book, written mostly by well- credentialed scholars, educators, and legal experts, explores the significance of our first president’s important, yet relatively little known, 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. It further examines subsequent American responses to the intent of the letter.   To better comprehend the letter’s meaning at the time, the volume begins by providing an historical perspective, which I’ll briefly summarize below.

    At the letter’s writing, Rhode Island, founded by Puritan dissident Roger Williams in the mid-17th century, had long granted religious freedom to minorities, much to the disdain of the other colonies.  Concerned that its rights would be trampled upon, Rhode Island delayed ratifying statehood until the Bill of Rights (1791) promised religious liberty.

    Washington celebrated the new country’s unity by visiting Newport, and, while there, several religious groups gave welcoming speeches, the most memorable by Moses Seixas, president of the Hebrew Congregation. Several days later, Washington penned his famous letter, responding to the Jewish hope that America would treat them with greater tolerance than had been their long experience. Washington’s letter, highlights of which are quoted above, assured the Jews that all minorities would have equal freedom of religion under the law.  Moreover, the government, in our current idiom, would provide protection from “hate crimes” and other forms of prejudice. These promises, from a head of a national government, were revolutionary, unprecedented in the Western World.

    However, they didn’t arise in a vacuum. The amazing success of Rhode Island’s religious freedom experiment provided the main inspiration and model.  Enlightenment ideas and the ideals and recent victories of Madison and Jefferson to wean Virginia away from a state-supported Anglican Church also lent support.

    The intention of the letter and the way it was interpreted went well beyond promising religious freedom to the Jews.  Widely circulated, read and discussed, it gave hope of toleration to all minorities.  More than merely a legal doctrine, this letter presented a vision of a moral, idealistic, harmonious national community.

    Although embraced by minorities, many intellectuals, some leaders, and other sympathizers, the struggle for the fulfillment of this vision had just begun.  Several states continued to use tax support to promote the Christian religion.  Many states had religious tests for public office.  Remarkably, the main reason for eventual Church-State separation derived from the plethora of competing Protestant sects, each fearing the other’s government control, and the last government established Church persisted until 1833, in Massachusetts.  It took several more decades to attain full legal toleration of all religions at the state level.

    America’s initial ambivalence toward minorities, shown by the disparity between the letter’s lofty ideals and the states’ stubborn opposition to them, set the stage for subsequent ambivalent development.  This ambivalence began even with the founders’ original vision which contained some striking contradictions. Washington’s statements and the year-later Bill of Rights didn’t mention the rights of women, ethnic or racial minorities, or slaves.  Moreover, the negative ramifications of this ambivalence played out throughout most of US history, where Jews and other minorities were, at best, merely tolerated by the White Protestant majority.

    This conflict between ideals and realities exposes one of the central American moral paradoxes.  Although there has been and continues to be tremendous discrimination toward many minority groups, this co-exists with the ever-present and potent promise of an inclusive America.  This promise has roused the voices of toleration for many compassionate documents  and court decisions as well as fueled minority rights struggles by individuals and groups, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Marriage Equality Act.

    Armed with the knowledge of the paradoxical nature of Washington’s original vision and its aftermath, we can use this to help our Center broaden the circle of tolerance. We can use Washington’s promise as a springboard to conversations about our present state of minority rights.  We can hold up the examples of the choices American upstanders, such as George Washington and Martin Luther King, made to promote greater minority inclusion as courageous role models. We can employ the circumstances surrounding upstander and opposition choices to initiate and work through difficult and complex conversations about inclusion.

    We can relate these difficult conversations to the important idea, implied in Washington’s letter, that democracy can only work if people cooperate, and this can only happen if people feel free from prejudicial fear. Ideally, as John Dewey said, schools should be the training ground for democracy, the place where young people learn peaceful, cooperative living and its connection to the democratic process.  Unfortunately, many schools don’t have the time, interest, or capability to do this.

    Our Center fills this important void.  We make the democratic connection and provide the unique opportunity to have the aforementioned difficult conversations, helping students recognize and resolve differences by working through them in a civil way.  During this process, as Adam Strom, Facing History educator says, we help them “… separate fact from rumor by breaking own stereotypes and countering myth and misinformation.”  This is what our Center does so well and one reason why our Center is so much needed, particularly, in these troubled times.

    If we can integrate the lessons borne of the American struggle toward inclusion with the lessons of tolerance learned from the Holocaust, this dual focus will brighten our torch to illuminate the dark places in our midst.

    To charge our energies for this challenge, we can summon the words of African –American poet, Langston Hughes, to resound in our ears:

    O, yes I say it plain

    America never was America to me,

    And yet I swear this oath –

    America will be!

    May his faith be ours, and may it inspire us, as we go back to the trenches, to carry forth the spirit of Washington’s letter, despite the strong headwinds, and continue our vital work.

     

     

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