Note: I know I said I was taking the week off, but then I felt like I needed to write this and share it. So, it’s Tuesday. It is my blog and I make the rules 🙂
Newport, Rhode Island encapsulates much that is great about our country and, at the very same time, much that isn’t. The duality that defines our history plays out there.
Today: Newport is beautiful. The views of the ocean, with ships of every size and shape dotting the water, are spectacular. Families enjoy themselves at the beach or strolling the streets, looking at the over-abundance of charming shops and restaurants. Old and young amble the cobblestone streets. A surprising number of folks speaking languages other than English. Though predominantly white, there were many people of color.
Today: As we walked by, a homeless man was sweeping the sidewalk that he claimed as his own. He had his meager things set up against the low decorative wall that separated the park from the street. It is hard to miss the income inequality so evident in Newport. The huge mansions, the extraordinary wealth of some – how much is enough? The conspicuous consumption, in contrast to those sleeping on a bench.
We took a trolley tour of Newport. The tour guide did not ignore the fact that the original wealth of Newport was built, at least in part, on the slave trade. She also acknowledged the role of Native Americans in assisting the colonists. It is a complicated history, filled with the duality that is our country’s history. Rhode Island was also the colony founded on religious freedom, but it profited from the slave trade and from piracy. These contradictory strands are not easy to reconcile.
We took a tour of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest temple in the United States (though I would’ve sworn that they said the same of the synagogue in Savannah). The synagogue’s founders were descendants of those who had escaped the Inquisition. I had not remembered a pretty significant event associated with the Touro Synagogue (Gary recalled learning about it, though I’m not sure if it was in Hebrew school or in American History), but learning of it made quite an impression on me, so I would like to recount it here (the photos below are of the exterior and interior of the synagogue).
After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, George Washington came to visit. He stopped in Newport before heading on to Providence and was greeted very enthusiastically. The leader of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, presented him with a letter. Here is the letter (I know it is written in a style that is difficult, but I think it is worth the effort):
Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits – and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days – those days of difficulty, and danger when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate of these States.
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: – deeming every one, of which Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine: – This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.
For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under and equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men – beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: – And, when like Joshua full of days, and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.
Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort Rhode Island August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden
We visited the synagogue just two days after the 227th anniversary of the letter. George Washington was quite moved by this expression of support and wrote a letter in response:
While I receive with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.
The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily 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.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
I think that the two letters are pretty damn impressive. In Newport, they read Washington’s letter publicly every year on its anniversary. Though we did not attend, it was read on Sunday, August 20th outside on the grounds of the synagogue.
I recognize that Washington may not have been including women, African-Americans or Native Americans when he used the term ‘people;’ he was, after all, a man of his time. I am also not a believer in God as credited in these letters. But the ideas, of moving beyond tolerance and allowing all citizens the freedom of their conscience are still revolutionary and the letters remind me of that. These ideas are still relevant and timely in 2017.
When I was a child we learned American history in public school. I remember learning how different groups contributed to the founding of our country. A prominent person from each group (Crispus Attucks – African-Americans, Haym Solomon – Jewish-American, Baron Von Steuben – Prussian-American, Lafayette – French-American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – Polish-American) was studied to show that the success of the Revolution was based on the contributions of many different groups. I felt proud of that history. I believed in the ideals of the Revolution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. My understanding of ‘all’ was more inclusive than our forefathers (and my understanding continued to expand as I became more educated), but I loved the idea of America. I felt pride when the national anthem was played, especially during the Olympic Games!
Something changed as I grew older. The pride I felt was tempered by the realization that we were not fulfilling our ideals, we were falling short of our promise. I have been especially discouraged since the election of Trump. Reading these letters, though, even in the context of their time and understanding the limitations, reminded me of our potential. They remind me of the ideals at the heart of our country. This is something to be proud of and to aspire to fulfill.
While I don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism (because it implies superiority), I do believe in our potential. Perhaps there is a parallel between Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and American exceptionalism. I was always uncomfortable with being labeled chosen, that idea could be translated as arrogance or supremacy. Instead, maybe being ‘chosen’ or ‘exceptional’ can be thought of as a responsibility to fulfill, not as a birthright; an ideal to work towards, not an entitlement.
I come back from Newport reminded of the roots of our country, both good and bad. I hope we all can agree on the merit and meaning of the values that were at the heart of our founding. I hope we find our way forward with a shared understanding of the potential of this country.