By SARAH VOWELL AUG. 12, 2016
George Washington’s triumphal entry into New York City, Nov. 25, 1783.CreditE.P. and L. Restein/Universal History Archive, via Getty Images
Every August, the oldest synagogue in the United States celebrates the fact that George Washington hated tolerance.
In 1790, a couple of months after Rhode Island became the last state to ratify the Constitution, Moses Seixas of Touro Synagogue in Newport wrote his president a nice note about what a relief it was to live in a republic “deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Washington replied to Seixas and his brethren, “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.” Tolerance, he meant, was small, petty and obsolete because they lived in a big new country where citizens stood side by side. For the United States government, he wrote, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He added, “Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Pause here for a century or two until “every one” actually includes everyone. While we wait, it’s worth remembering that colonial Rhode Island had attracted so many Jews, Quakers, Baptists and other denominations because non-Puritans were persecuted in neighboring Massachusetts. And that in 1774, the First Continental Congress almost fell apart in its first five minutes because a couple of Episcopalians refused to pray with a bunch of shifty Quakers and Congregationalists.
So it was a civil rights landmark when the first American president publicly invited non-Christians to join him on equal footing on the First Amendment’s front porch. Now, after Khizr Khan appeared on national television offering to lend Donald J. Trump a paperback Constitution he had pulled out of his jacket, thereby turning the pocket Constitution into an Amazon best seller, next Sunday’s annual reading of Washington’s letter at Touro Synagogue is sure to crackle with newsy excitement.
A few months before Washington wrote to the Touro Jews, he confided to a British historian: “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.” Because he was all too aware of inventing the presidency, the letter addressed to the Rhode Island synagogue is also addressed to us. As the first president, which is to say the first executive with the job of preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution, he was making a blunt statement on what he believed that Constitution was supposed to be about.