Washington’s famous letter on religious liberty under lock-and-key

I’ve read SO many times over the years about George Washington’s famously eloquent letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island.

The 1790 letter is famous for spelling out what religious liberty in the U.S. would mean: “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.”

In 1781, Washington had visited Newport and a meeting was held at the synagogue.

The Forward today put out a fascinating article about the letter’s whereabouts.

It turns out that the letter is held under lock-and-key, removed from public view, at an industrial park in Maryland.

Apparently, a fellow named Morris Morgenstern who grew up on the Lower East Side and became a successful financier and philanthropist, purchased the letter around 1949. A foundation in his name loaned the letter to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which lets few people see it.

Very strange.

Paul Berger from the Forward got to see it. But it wasn’t easy.

The letter is now said to be worth between $5 and $10 million.

The Newport congregation, called Touro Synagogue, was founded in 1658 by the first Jewish arrivals to North America. Touro is still going strong today and will host an annual reading of Washington’s letter on Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. (reservations required).

You can read the whole letter here.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.