President George Washington’s famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” of August 18, 1790, is a response to a letter of the previous day penned by Moses Seixas on behalf of Congregation Yeshuat Israel. Seixas’s letter gives thanks to God for the religious liberty afforded at last by a government “erected by the Majesty of the People” and an “equal and benign administration.” This, after centuries of persecution and oppression of the descendants of Abraham by governments worldwide.
In his reply, Washington assures the Congregation that its’ newly-found religious freedom is neither the result of mere tolerance nor of governmental benignity. Rather, it is the result of a growing recognition that freedom of conscience is an “inherent,” inalienable natural right granted by the Author of Nature, the “father of all mercies” who alone possesses the power to enlighten and lead us to everlasting happiness. Here Washington not only makes it plain that religious liberty cannot be an advantage conferred by government, but it cannot be conferred by the Constitution either, for the Bill of Rights was not yet adopted, though it had been proposed.
After Washington’s letter, the Bill of Rights was ratified and the First Amendment has since protected religious liberty, though in many ways that undoubtedly would have been surprising to Washington himself. On the other hand, the natural law/natural rights tradition that Washington insisted is the real foundation of religious (and other) liberties has been severely undermined by such modern developments as the rise of secularism, progressivism, and legal positivism. These ideological developments call into question once again the fundamental issue raised by Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation: Can religious liberty (not mere tolerance) and other key constitutional principles flourish, in the long run, absent their natural law/natural rights foundation?
Ever the cautious politician, Washington suggests in his letter that the “advantages with which we are now favored” can yet be lost without the “just administration of a good Government.” Without the “wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored,” we may fail to become “a great and happy people.” What will be required for this greatness and happiness is “the just administration of a good Government.”
Elsewhere (see especially Washington’s “Farewell Address”), Washington will elaborate the requirements of the good government he has in mind. Among these requirements will be found that faction, public debt, and excessive consolidation of power must be avoided. He will also warn that the Constitution may be altered only by an explicit act of the whole people (not by usurpation by courts or other agencies of government), that the dependence of morality upon religion must be acknowledged and nurtured (thus acknowledging the central role of religion in public discourse), and that the “spirit of innovation” upon the fundamental principles of the Constitution must be resisted. It is reasonable to assume that the presupposition of natural rights announced in Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation is among those fundamental principles.
Our Constitution is much to be celebrated, as is the governing system that it set in motion. Nonetheless, Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation serves as a powerful reminder that there are principles and powers even deeper that those that any written instrument can express, principles and powers that are at the root of all good constitutions, and which must therefore be acknowledged if the full force of the Founders‘ achievement is to be realized.
All that said, I shall rest content, for the time being, to leave for others the decision of whether and to what extent our nation has measured up to George Washington’s call for the “just administration of a good Government,” to his warning against the “spirit of innovation” upon the principles of the Constitution, and especially, to his insistence that we persevere in the determination to regard our most fundamental rights and liberties not as grants of governments, constitutions, or bills of rights, but as gifts of God.
Read George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3695
Robert Lowry Clinton holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from Texas Tech University and a Ph.D. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review and God and Man in the Law: The Foundations of Anglo-American Constitutionalism (both published by the University Press of Kansas), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters. He is a Fellow of the Center of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, and was a Fellow of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University in 2007-08. Dr. Clinton’s main fields of study are in Supreme Court history, constitutional jurisprudence, social and political philosophy, and political theology.