On Monday’s date 225 years ago, there took place one of those singular moments in history when a moving event during the American Founding intersected with a cherished moment in the story of Freemasonry. On August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island during a nationwide public relations tour of the new country to confirm the bonds among the newly united states, and to show off its first president who, for all his exploits as commanding general during the Revolution, really had not seen most of the country.
The visit is memorialized in ways that include two exchanges of letters with Washington. The first was between the small congregation of Jewish residents of Newport; the second was between the Freemasons of the town. Both pairs of letters communicated messages of good will and brotherhood, and both would be remembered by posterity for their significance to the new nation’s fledgling commitment to guaranteeing religious liberty.
Mr. Moses Seixas, one of the leaders of the synagogue, representing approximately 300 Jews in Newport, writes:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits, and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword—shielded Your head in the day of battle, and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.
|Courtesy Library of Congress|
For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men, beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life. And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, 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.
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island,
August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden
President Washington replies:
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in 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 a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
It is “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” that is most remembered from these letters, partially because it is communicated by both writers, but I think mostly because it powerfully summarizes what is at stake. The Jews of Newport were denied citizenship. The First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty still was in its embryonic stage in the summer of 1790, as the Bill of Rights would not be ratified for another sixteen months. But what is more significant to me is what Washington writes additionally: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Again, before the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first president assures a tiny and disenfranchised religious minority that the right of conscience is not a political option to be elected or rejected by a majority, but is part of what makes the new United States distinct among nations. And I believe there is within it an echo of the first Masonic grand lodge’s book of jurisprudence—Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723—that enjoins Freemasons from concerning themselves with each others’ religious convictions, instead urging all Masons to build on the common ground of a shared faith in deity, regardless of how various specific theologies can differ beyond that primary spark of belief.
(Thomas Jefferson’s letter of January 1, 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut arguably is the more famous presidential assurance to a religious congregation of their right to worship. It is here that Jefferson writes of “building a wall of separation between Church and State”—an idea that goes beyond the First Amendment’s prohibitions of a U.S. government-founded church and government interference with religious practices, and that colors many citizens’ understanding of religious freedom to this day.)
Returning to Freemasonry, it was on August 17, 1790 that King David’s Lodge—originally a lodge of Jewish Masons founded in New York City on February 17, 1769—sent a welcoming note to President Washington, the fraternity’s most famous and beloved brother. Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, was Worshipful Master of King David’s Lodge also, and it is he from whom we hear again:
We the Master, Wardens, and Brethren, of King David’s Lodge, in Newport, Rhode Island with Joyful hearts embrace this Opportunity, to greet you as a Brother and to hail you welcome to Rhode Island. We exult in the thought that as Masonry has always been patronised by the wise, the good, and the great; so hath it stood and ever will stand as its fixtures are on the immutable pillars of faith, hope, and Charity.
With unspeakable pleasure we Gratulate you as filling the Presidential Chair with the applause of a numerous and enlightened people, whilst, at the same time, we felicitate ourselves in the honour done the Brotherhood by your many exemplary Virtues and emanations of Goodness proceeding from a heart worthy of possessing the Antient Mysteries of our craft; being persuaded that the wisdom and Grace with which heaven has endowed you, will ever square all your thoughts, words, and actions by the eternal Laws of honour, equity, and truth, so as to promote the advancement of all good works; your own happiness, and that of mankind.
Permit us then Illustrious Brother cordially to Salute you with Three times Three and to add your fervent supplications that the Sovereign Architect of the Universe may always encompass you with his holy protection.
Mentions of Masonic thought and practice abound in this brief note, which should surprise no one, but what catches my eye is the writer’s seamless blending of Masonic phrasing with concern for civic integrity. Washington was not the president of Freemasonry; he was chief executive of the new federal government. (An attempt years earlier to elect him Grand Master of Masons for the entire country was unsuccessful, Masonic governance thought best to be kept local, not unlike the Federal system of civil government formed later by the U.S. Constitution.) Again:
Virtues and emanations of Goodness proceeding from a heart worthy of possessing the Antient Mysteries of our craft; being persuaded that the wisdom and Grace with which heaven has endowed you, will ever square all your thoughts, words, and actions by the eternal Laws of honour, equity, and truth, so as to promote the advancement of all good works; your own happiness, and that of mankind.
Reading this in 2015, the heart pines.
The Masonic Brother’s reply to the lodge bears the same date, suggesting the two notes were delivered by messenger:
I receive the welcome which you give me to Rhode-Island with pleasure—and I acknowledge my obligations for the flattering expressions of regard contained in your address with grateful sincerity.
Being persuaded that a just application of the principles, on which the masonic fraternity is founded, must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity, I shall always be happy to advance the interests of the Society, and to be considered by them a deserving Brother.
My best wishes, Gentlemen, are offered for your individual happiness.