A Rhode Island message
It was an honor to deliver the following keynote address at the 76th annual reading of the George Washington Letter at Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI.
Good afternoon. It’s wonderful to see so many friends here today, from every part of Rhode Island, and from the extended family of the Touro Synagogue.
Thank you for the opportunity to join you today, as we reflect on the exchange of letters between George Washington and Moses Seixas.
The people who built this synagogue had their sights set very high, on the Holy Land and on heaven itself. Rhode Islanders were already thinking ambitiously in the 1750s and 1760s, well before independence. They pointed their telescopes into the sky, following the planets and stars; they corresponded across the Atlantic, and they argued, as Rhode Islanders always do, for the “liberty of conscience” that is fundamental to our state.
It is a truth written into our earliest documents, and etched into our most beautiful buildings, including, of course, this one.
This is the center - the origin - of religious freedom in America. And if we are today celebrating the fact that a president came here to Rhode Island in 1790, and left us with something precious, in the form of George Washington’s letter to Moses Seixas, we are also celebrating a great gift from Rhode Island to the rest of the United States.
I’ve had the privilege of attending this annual event for many years, and always look forward to it. However, this is my first time attending, and offering remarks, as the President and CEO of Rhode Island’s only community foundation.
The first community foundation was established in the United States in 1914, with our Rhode Island Foundation following in 1916 – nearly 125 years after President Washington’s visit to Newport, and after ratification of the First Amendment. I raise this because community foundations themselves were established as vehicles for justice, as places where people come together to share resources and, in a way, take responsibility for ensuring that the lives of all people in a community are filled with prosperity and as Washington himself would say, “everlasting happiness”.
Community foundations are places that can take the aspirational messages in the letters we reflect on today and make them real.
Just as Washington and Seixas envisioned a better and brighter future for a fledgling nation in their correspondence, the Rhode Island Foundation is in dialogue with our community, seeking to continue to build a Rhode Island that is more just, more equitable, and more free.
In 1790, Washington left Newport with incredible determination - to lead a nation in which all could worship freely. A year later the First Amendment was ratified, with its broad protections for freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. America has been a better country ever since.
Many of us know the experience of peering through the fog at a landmark – say, a lighthouse – trying to see it clearly until the fog finally lifts and it is right there. That is what the First Amendment looked like during the critical years when Rhode Island was trying to decide whether to join the not-very-United States.
During the Revolution, Rhode Islanders had fought valiantly for America’s independence; but in the confusing decade that followed, they hesitated to merge their identity within a vast constellation of larger states, especially in the wake of a new Constitution that gave more power to the federal government, and less to the states, and was relatively silent about rights and freedoms. The argument within Rhode Island became so bitter that at one point, Providence and Newport threatened to secede, before the state’s political leaders came to their senses and voted to ratify the Constitution, barely, by a vote of 34-32. They reached that decision because of their understanding that a Bill of Rights was coming, including an amendment to protect religious freedom, and specifically to prevent “an establishment of religion,” or a state-supported church. A year after Washington’s visit, that bargain was completed with the First Amendment.
So we celebrate many things today; a remarkable exchange of letters, a presidential visit, and a notable turn toward the Rhode Island Way that would resonate throughout American history.
The two letters that we celebrate today should really be understood as a pair that we read together. They are in conversation with each other.
Everything about the exchange was extraordinary, because the country was so new, and so many issues were still undecided. Americans were divided about the economy, state’s rights, taxes, and political parties. Even within Washington’s cabinet, cracks were forming.
So it was urgent that every message bring Americans together. Clearly, George Washington and Moses Seixas understood that they were talking to a wider audience – not only the people who were here in 1790, but to future generations – to us.
And that is why we return to this sacred place each August for a new reading of the letters.
Moses Seixas, the warden of Touro, began the exchange on August 17, claiming to represent “the stock of Abraham” in welcoming Washington to Newport and rejoicing that a government had been created, by “the Majesty of the People,” affording “liberty of conscience” to all, with equal rights for those of “whatever Nation, tongue or language” that might wish to join in.
This was a good, clear Rhode Island message, and we should all note, in the spirit of Rhode Island, that he did not so much ask for these rights, as much as he asserted them.
To his credit, Washington agreed. And in unusually, lyrical language for a former general, he painted a picture of all citizens sharing the same rights, with a “vine and figtree,” … “none to make him afraid,” … and “liberty of conscience” for all. That extended specifically to the children of the stock of Abraham, whom Washington mentioned by name, offering a seal of presidential approval that would never be forgotten.
This beautiful exchange of letters promoted the rights of the Stock of Abraham, and indeed of all nations and languages.
Yet, as we stand here today, with clear understanding of the history of this land throughout the time preceding and following these letters, we must acknowledge they did not address the rights of two groups, in particular, whose rights had been so ignored by state and federal authorities that they were close to nonexistent.
The indigenous Americans who had done so much to welcome Roger Williams to Rhode Island, and even, in a sense, to co-found his peaceful community, were shut out of meaningful citizenship in the decades that followed, thanks to war, disease and injustice.
And many scholars have pointed out that in this state, and in this very city, many defenders of freedom were also quietly abetting, or actively participating in the opposite of freedom – slavery and the slave trade.
African-American Rhode Islanders had contributed courageously to the defense of American freedom, particularly at the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. But it was an endless uphill struggle for them to secure the rights that most Rhode Islanders took for granted, and in the year that we are remembering today, 1790, the slave trade was flourishing.
But over time, slavery’s defenders lost ground, and every articulation of human rights – such as George Washington’s letter to Touro – helped. It was difficult to defend liberty of conscience and slavery in the same breath.
So the tide was turning, even though it would take seventy-five more years before slavery was finally abolished for good in 1865 by the 13th Amendment.
But each act of justice helped make others possible. The First Amendment was a crucial tool for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and it has helped Americans to fight many other injustices as well.
Yet, we must also recognize that interpretations of the First Amendment can sometimes be inconsistent – including in ways that undermine the protection of freedoms expressed through the letters we celebrate here today.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has ruled that “religious freedom” offers a valid reason for a business owner – say, a cake designer or a website developer – to deny service to a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
But that claim, of course, diminishes my sense of belonging to a society that offers equal rights to all. And so do other troubling developments, including an alarming rise in religious and racial hate crimes. Last year saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since 1979.
Clearly, we still have work to do toward the same great end that Washington championed here, of building a country where all Americans feel free to sit under their vine and fig tree, safe from persecution.
Where can we look for help? I see some young people here today. It is my fervent hope that the next generation will follow Washington’s example, reaching out across the aisle, forging friendships, and refusing to let our differences define us. We need to be one country again. That means understanding our responsibilities as well as our rights.
But that too is a Rhode Island message. We look out for each other. We may be a small state. But we’re a small state with an enormous heart. A small state that is also a big family. And whatever we can do to rebuild community, you can count on the Rhode Island Foundation to do its part.
I do know one thing. These acts of reconciliation begin in small circles, and expand locally. That is why I’m so honored and gratified to be here as the new head of the Rhode Island Foundation. There is so much a community foundation can do to strengthen community – again, to bring to life the aspirational messages in the letters we reflect on today. That means celebrating our history and the ties that unite us, and it means investing in our future... in true equity and inclusion for all, in better access to health care and housing, in safeguarding our environment, in economic security, and in educational opportunities that allow all of our children to succeed.
In other words, as Washington would say, we want to “scatter light and not darkness” in the path of our children, and in due time, make them “everlastingly happy.”
Thank you again for the opportunity to be with you today. The doors at the Rhode Island Foundation are always open, and I look forward to hearing from all of you, to talk about how we can begin this new chapter of our history, together.