Jonathan Sarna: Solving the Mystery of Washington’s Famous Letter

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

Source: Jewish Daily Forward, 6-15-11

It started as a mystery.

During a lecture in England last December, Jonathan Sarna, America’s foremost scholar of American Jewish history, said he did not know the whereabouts of one of American Jewry’s most important documents: George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation, in Newport, R.I.

Upon this yellowed piece of 18th-century rag paper, composed in 1790, is a short but powerful statement from the first president of the United States reassuring one of the original colonial congregations that his nascent government guaranteed religious liberty for all.

“For, happily,” Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

More than a vital piece of American Jewish history, the letter is one of the primary documents guaranteeing religious tolerance in America, its famous words still quoted by community leaders and politicians whenever they want to underline America’s commitment to religious liberty.

But where is the letter?

After months of searching, the Forward has found the elusive letter in an art storage facility in a squat, nondescript building in an industrial park in Maryland, a stone’s throw from the home of the Washington Redskins, at FedExField. The letter is owned by the Morris Morgenstern Foundation and has been on loan to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum for more than 50 years….READ MORE

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