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George Washington attacks bigotry in letter to Jewish congregation

May 11, 2012|By Jamie Wetherbe
  • The Washington letter will be on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
The Washington letter will be on display at the National Museum of American… (Courtesy of the Morris Morgenstern…)

A letter penned by George Washington that's been locked away for a decade will be the centerpiece of an exhibit dedicated to America's early roots in religious freedom.

The 337-word document sent to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., in August 1790 was addressed to "the children of the stock of Abraham" and poetically quoted the Old Testament, vowing that the new government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where the letter will be displayed, calls the text a defining statement of religious liberty in the new United States.

“I would say the letter is the most important letter Washington ever wrote,” museum director Ivy Barsky told The Times, “particularly because it’s not an official document, like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but personally from the president."

"To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom," which opens on the July Fourth weekend and runs through September, also includes Washington's correspondence to Quaker communities and other Jewish congregations, as well as a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington circa 1800.

Plenty of prominent libraries and museums in the last 10 years have requested to display the document, including the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and been denied by the organization that owns the letter.

“I’ve gotten congratulatory emails from colleagues and institutions across the country that know the importance of this letter and have tried over the years to get access to it,” Barsky said. “The entire cultural and historical community is thrilled for us and for Americans that will have a chance to see this in the flesh.”

In 1949, New York philanthropist Morris Morgenstern purchased the document –- how and for how much is unclear, although some reports put the price tag at a bargain $10,000 -- and gave title to a personal charity, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation in Ventura.

The organization in 1957 loaned the letter to a Washington, D.C., museum, where it was on display until the institution was shuttered in 2002.

The relic sat in an arts storage facility in suburban Maryland, prompting a tug of war between the foundation and the letter’s original recipient, now known as the Touro Synagogue, which believed private ownership of the letter contradicted Washington's original sentiments, according to CNN.

In response to why the foundation selected the National Museum of American Jewish History, Barsky says, “It’s a little bit of a mystery even to me.” 

Richard Morgenstern, the letter's custodian, “gave us a call one day after us making maybe several dozens attempts,” she says. “He was very reluctant in the beginning and was very concerned about the safety of the object … . Honestly, I don’t know -- the planets aligned and he made the decision he did.”

The document will be on display in the most important couple of acres of American history, said Barsky. “The letter [will be] in dialogue and conversation with Independence Hall 30 steps from us and the Liberty Bell and the places where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed.”

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