Facing History and Ourselves Welcomes You to Give Bigotry No Sanction
Welcome to Give Bigotry No Sanction—The George Washington Letter Project: Exploring Religious Freedom and Democracy.
George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island is a landmark in the history of religious freedom in America, and part of a founding moment in U.S. history when the country was negotiating how a democracy accommodates differences among its people.
In America and globally, recent debates about immigration and national identity overlap with those about faith and citizenship. In the changing global landscape, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, as well as people who belong to no religion, find themselves living alongside neighbors whose beliefs and practices are often quite different than their own. With this new diversity, there is a growing need worldwide to discuss religious freedom—and its limits—in secular, democratic societies. These are not easy conversations, and the tone of recent debates about religious difference suggests that we need to get better at talking about these issues, or else risk further polarization.
Facing History and Ourselves has launched this online discussion as part of a three-year project that explores the history and legacy of George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790). We hope this site can create a lively space to explore these vital questions about religious freedom, democracy, and our evolving civic identity. The Washington letter, and the letter which preceded it (written by the congregation’s leader Moses Seixas), will serve as a spring board to a wider discussion about the evolution of religious liberties and pluralism.
The letters from which we borrow the title of the project mark a revolutionary moment in the history of religious freedoms in the U.S. Written a few years after the United States came into being, the documents address how fear of religious persecution remained a force in the lives of Jews and other minorities in the recently-independent colonies.
In the exchange, Washington reassures the Jewish community of Newport that his government will “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He goes further, to define the difference between freedom and tolerance: “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 national rights.”
Here, as many read it, the President reaches beyond the limits of "mere" toleration, and instead suggests that in the new nation members of each religion will be able to practice their individual faiths by right, and not through the permission, or indulgence, of the majority. “All,” Washington stipulates, “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” By anchoring the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs in natural rights, Washington in effect defines religious freedom as a right that precedes any constitution or laws, in the same way that the Declaration of Independence had defined “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in 1776.
When we invoke the exchange between Washington and Moses Seixas, we're talking about the richness of a particular cultural setting: the colonial United States, and the challenges faced by a unique community, the Jewish congregation of Newport. But much more broadly, we're also thinking about a level of meaning that spans from that history to the present, and from one community's faith and freedoms to those of many communities.
But these letters aren’t our sole focus. We will use this conversation to deepen our understanding of how democracies have dealt with differences in the past. We'll examine the lessons this history can teach us about our own interaction with people of other cultures, religions, and ethnicities. And we'll help build the type of civic dialogue we believe educates and strengthens a democratic society.
Throughout this project, we intend to explore the evolution of religious freedoms, the emergence of the separation of church and state, and the on-going debates about secularity in our globalized world. Building on scholars’ posts and published work, we will study how Washington’s idea of freedom of conscience translates into other social spheres, and how it informs democratic principles such as the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression.
Because of the wide implications of Washington’s original formulation of religious liberties, we will also seek to investigate how the debates about these liberties are intertwined with contemporary issues of ethnic and racial integration (or exclusion).
This investigation connects the current project with Facing History and Ourselves’ on-going Civic Dilemmas initiative. In that project, we studied the dilemmas faced by European societies as they struggle to re-imagine their own civic identities and integrate newly-visible communities whose backgrounds, though not necessarily their religious practice, are grounded in Islam.
Beyond the North American context, we seek to use this dialogue to inform our discussion of Europe’s struggle to define its democratic values, and its response to minorities that claim an equal place, yet seek to preserve essential parts of their ethnic or religious legacy. Ultimately, the goal is to study what rights and freedoms make every democracy stronger, vibrant, and more inclusive.
This initiative is intended for all audiences interested in democratic and religious liberties in our diverse world. We encourage educators, students and the general public to participate in what we hope would be a stimulating, civil, and informed exploration.
Director of Content, Research and Development
Facing History and Ourselves
For more than 30 years, Facing History and Ourselves has believed that education is the key to combating bigotry and nurturing democracy.
We work with educators throughout their careers to improve their effectiveness in the classroom, as well as their students' academic performance and civic learning. Through a rigorous investigation of the events that led to the Holocaust, as well as other recent examples of genocide and mass violence, students in a Facing History class learn to combat prejudice with compassion, indifference with participation, and myth and misinformation with knowledge.
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