On October 26, 1960, just days before Election Day, the two candidates for president issued statements commemorating the 170th anniversary of George Washington’s letter on religious pluralism to the Jews of Newport, R.I. The Republican, Vice President Richard Nixon, delivered his remarks in person, quoting from the letter’s definition of “toleration” and noting with pride that “after 170 years this letter still inspires us.” The Democrat, John F. Kennedy, could not attend and sent Eleanor Roosevelt to represent him. She referenced a different excerpt of the letter, its most famous, extolling the fact that America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The 221st anniversary will be celebrated this August in Newport with a public reading of the letter; the governor of Rhode Island is scheduled to attend. But the honored guests won’t read from the original letter, because no one can read from the original letter. As the Forward has reported, it is locked up in an arts storage facility in suburban Maryland, and the private foundation that owns the iconic document has refused to allow it to be publicly shown and refused to say why.
Perhaps the Morris Morgenstern Foundation might change its mind if it realizes how many public officials, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, alive and no longer with us, have been inspired by the powerful expression of religious liberty contained in the brief missive penned as our nation was in its infancy. Several of Kennedy and Nixon’s successors in the White House drew on its language, to wit:
Ronald Reagan, March 23, 1982, in remarks in New York City to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. And again on October 3, 1986, in a statement issued just a few hours before Rosh Hashanah.
George H.W. Bush, March 14, 1989, in a speech to the Anti-Defamation League in which he quoted from the letter to support the ADL’s work defending religious freedom.
George W. Bush, September 10, 2002, at a press conference at the Afghan Embassy to denounce prejudice and hatred of Muslims on the day before the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Vice presidents have also turned to the letter as evidence of a core American value. Walter Mondale employed the famous phrase September 6, 1984, in a speech to the international convention of B’nai B’rith. So did Dan Quayle, in an address to the Simon Wiesenthal Conference on March 5, 1990, in which, referencing his boss (the first President Bush), he told the group that “he is determined to build a better world, a world to paraphrase the first president, the first George, to build a nation which gives bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.”
There’s more, and the context is important.
Ed Koch, former congressman and mayor of New York City, writing August 17, 2010, compared President Obama’s support of the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero to Washington’s letter, predicting that Obama’s eloquence “will be remembered by later generations of Americans with the same high regard.”
A few weeks later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton quoted directly from the letter in her remarks at an official dinner celebrating the breaking of the Ramadan fast. “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation,” she said on September 7, 2010.
And just a few months ago, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi used Washington’s language to anchor her statement in honor of American Jewish Heritage Month.
Now, we can imagine an argument that goes something like this: Why push the Morgenstern Foundation to publicly share the letter if its contents are already referenced so relentlessly — not only in a Jewish context, but also among Muslims, Christians, peoples of all faiths? Why bother to liberate the letter if its words and sentiments are already firmly in the public domain?
Here’s why. Authenticity matters. Viewing the original document in its entirety is a far more powerful act than reciting its words from a distance, especially when — as happened more than once in the history recounted here — the words were paraphrased or repeated without complete fealty to the text. There is something mystifying and, indeed, arrogant about one private entity holding on to an essential piece of American history that should be shared with all.
So, in the name of Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan, we call upon Bush (father and son), Mondale, Quayle, Koch, Clinton and Pelosi to join the cause to liberate the letter. You know how significant and special this document is. The rest of America should know, too.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.