Americans were furious at the size of our debt, and our mismanaged economy, and the growing size of the federal government. There was deep unease over the drift of our foreign policy. Our allies were disappointing, and our enemies downright scary. Some were calling for a return to the principles of the original Tea Party, and a chance to assert control over Washington. But in this case, that meant the man, not the city. It was August 1790, a little over a year into the presidency of George Washington.
All of these modern thoughts were in the air in that not so modern time, and no state was expressing its unhappiness with the federal government more audibly than Rhode Island. That is why the first presidential visit here in 1790 was so important. George Washington was on a mission. He wanted to thank Rhode Island for joining the United States of America -- which we had barely agreed to do. The convention vote was 34-32. And he wanted to restate an essential truth -- that we will inevitably have our differences, but they pale in significance to the larger good we are working on together, as a single, if flawed, community. His exchange of letters with the warden of this sanctuary offers a message of uplift that still resonates in these troubled political times.
Always resentful of federal authority, Rhode Islanders had a lot of trouble accepting the new Constitution, which promised less power for small states, and fewer chances for Rhode Island to be Rhode Island, a loud voice emanating from a tiny body. Indeed, the new Constitution might be interpreted as an attempt to suppress Rhode Island, for no state had done more to vote against big government than we did under the original Articles of Confederation. In many ways, we were the founders' worst nightmare, a walking and talking argument against the possibility of sober republican government. If a new bill enlarged government, we voted against it, and that was enough to kill it. If it in any way undermined the Rhode Island way of life, poof, it was gone. The nays always had it, even if there was one nay to twelve ayes. And that was just fine with Rhode Island. That was exactly why we had fought so hard in the Revolution -- to prevent indiscriminate power from a large and distant government.
But there were other reasons that Rhode Island wanted to join the United States. For years we had been defending our borders against invasion, primarily from our neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It would be troubling to be in an adversarial relationship with them, and with the enormous country of which they were now a part. And there was something impressive about the United States of America, beyond its size. Here was the first government ever dedicated to the idea that citizens had rights. It was a stirring new vision, one that Rhode Island had played no small part in shaping. For no state had done more to work out the knotty problem of religious toleration, and the related issue of freedom of speech. The brand new first amendment to the Constitution guaranteed precisely the rights to freedom of worship and of speech that Rhode Islanders had always embraced. If the new government was not perfect, at least it had Rhode Islandized itself in that one respect. In fact, Jefferson read Roger Williams as he was drafting the great charters of religious freedom that were inscribed into our national DNA from the beginning.
Deep down, we Rhode Islanders knew, that no matter how much we opposed big government, we believed in America even more. So we did a basic American thing. We compromised. We gritted our teeth, and approved the Constitution, and accepted reduced power in the federal government, in return for membership in a great republic, dedicated to human rights, democracy, and the idea that an imperfect government is better than no government at all.
With all of that history fully in mind, George Washington came to Rhode Island in August 1790, to say thank you. There were many public events, but what has endured from that visit is a remarkable exchange of letters that will link him forever with this sacred American space. The first, a letter from the Warden of Touro Synagogue, Moses Seixas, paid the respects of this congregation to the president. The second was the president's response. Washington was far from the greatest writer of the founders, but there was a force and clarity to this general's thinking that still moves us. He perhaps never wrote a lovelier letter than this one. Obviously he was inspired by the first letter, and he borrowed some of its evocative language about the children of the stock of Abraham. But he was clearly impressed by the idea behind Touro Synagogue, that we are a nation of many nations.
Today we celebrate the idea as well as the physical reality of Touro. It is certainly "the consecrated spot," as Emma Lazarus called it in a poem of 1867, and as we know, this is the oldest synagogue in the United States. But it has always been more than just a house of worship. At the time of our Revolution, it was also an important public space, which opened its doors to political meetings. And if Newport's Jewish community was modest in size, Touro represented something much larger -- that differences were accepted and encouraged here in Rhode Island. The founders of New England had likened themselves to Israelites in their flight from oppression, toward a howling wilderness that seemed straight out of the Old Testament. But they were astonished when actual Jews began to arrive, beginning in 1658, the year that fifteen families came to Newport, from obscure origins in Amsterdam and Curacao. By the time this synagogue was built, Jews had been in Rhode Island for over a century, adding no small labor to the wider community that was under construction.
To this day, it is a little difficult to place the Touro Synagogue. To the untrained eye, it seems like a typical colonial building -- indeed, it was designed by one of the best colonial architects of them all, Peter Harrison, who gave us King's Chapel in Boston, Christ Church in Cambridge, and the Redwood Library up the street. But it is still remarkable for reminding us that all religions could flourish in the stony protestant soil of New England. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to Newport in the middle of the 19th century, he lamented that the Jewish community had disappeared. Today we celebrate that Longfellow was a decent poet, but a terrible prognosticator. Touro Synagogue is alive and well, and we bless the "Father of Mercies" that it is so.
All Rhode Islanders should feel pride that religious toleration is now strived for around the world as a human right. That so many expansive ideas emanated from such a small space is a tribute to the breadth of vision that led Roger Williams to create this colony of conscience 375 years ago. Williams studied Hebrew, among many other languages, and studied Judaism throughout his life of insatiable curiosity. He wondered if the Indians he found here were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. And so it should not surprise us that Williams explicitly mentioned the children of the stock of Abraham when he insisted on their right to full membership in the version of America he was building here. In his letter to the Town of Providence in 1655, he wrote, "there goes many a ship to sea," and those ships are like society at large, holding "both Papists and Protestants, Jews, and Turks." To protect what he called "Liberty of Conscience," they must be given the freedom to worship as they will.
But there was more to it than just freedom. Washington would also have appreciated one of Roger Williams' best thoughts, expressed in that same letter. That a functioning society depends not only on freedom of worship and speech, but on the willingness of different people to understand that their preferred course of action will not always prevail. That we must accept certain obligations to the community at large. That when we are defeated in an argument, it is not a reason to resort to anger, but a call to strengthen our argument for the next time. That we do not want Americans to only identify themselves by what political party or faction they belong to, but by their membership in our nation of many nations.
In 1790, at the same time that Washington came here, the first stirrings of our party system were in the air, to Washington's distress. He did not want a bifurcated nation in which two parties were endlessly scheming for advantage, always at each other's throats. Like Williams, he wanted a united community, a single America.
So today we celebrate George Washington's letter to Touro for its openness of spirit, and its specific implications for Jewish Americans. But we also need it, for its timely reminder to set aside our differences and restore civility to our public life. We can disagree on religious and political matters without denying each other's birthrights as Americans. We can disagree on mundane topics such as taxes, debt ceilings, or pensions, without denying the right of our opponents to exist. We can disagree with our elected officials, without attacking the ability of our government to meet its obligations. And by remembering, as Rhode Island did in 1790, that we all have to make compromises now and then.
That this place of worship has survived so long seems to me more than coincidental. It is a tribute to the durability of faith, and to the open air of Narragansett Bay that welcomed a foreign congregation here. But it is also a tribute to common sense, and our discovery over time, that we work better when we work together. Everything George Washington did in 1790 set a precedent, as he knew well. That he came all the way to Rhode Island, and wrote his immortal lines to this synagogue, spoke volumes at the time -- and it speaks just as loudly. today.