The 337-word document sent to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island 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, particularly because it’s not an official document, like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but personally from the president,” museum director Ivy Barsky told the Times.
The exhibit, titled “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom,” opens on the July Fourth weekend and runs through September. It includes Washington’s correspondence to Quaker communities and other Jewish congregations, as well as a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington circa 1800.
A number of prominent libraries and museums have requested to display the document, including the Library of Congress and the National Archives, but have 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 and gave title to a personal charity, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation in Ventura.
In 1957 the organization loaned the letter to a museum in Washington, D.C., where it was on display until 2002.
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 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,” Barsky said.
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