Amending Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport

There’s so much I have written that I’ve forgotten. In the small hours of last night, sleepless because of my medication but also energized by it, I came upon (by “chance,” hah!) stored in a folder in my computer, this article draft that was written in 2002 but apparently never posted. I’ve fixed it up a bit and here it is.

These are the key passages of President George Washington’s noble and inspiring, though, as I will demonstrate, philosophically flawed letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, August, 1790:

“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were 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 factions, 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.”

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” [George Washington, A Collection, p. 548]

I’m sure there’s a whole library analyzing this much celebrated letter. But starting without that background, it seems to me that Washington was saying that the Jews enjoy the full rights of citizenship by virtue of their inherent natural rights as men, that they are in no way second class citizens or limited in their rights, that they do not enjoy their rights at the sufferance of the Christian majority, but that they are much a part of America as the Christian majority. Their only obligation is to support the government.

So here we have a marvelously appropriate example of how the liberal principles of the American Founding, which we have criticized as being too abstract (All men are created equal, all have equal rights, the substantive culture and religion of the society are left entirely in the background), began to be applied in practice. In fact, this letter provides strong support for the thesis that the absence of concreteness in the Founding documents meant that the explicit, abstract part of the Founding would continue to gain in authority while the actual, though at best, only implicitly stated cultural specificity of the nation would fade away, since, just a year after the commencement of the government under the Constitution, any reference to America’s Christian character is entirely absent from Washington’s letter. America is defined solely by natural rights, not by any culture or religion.

We also can see at work an example of the efficacious “stupidity” that Jim Kalb once pointed out is a necessary part of the American system. What Mr. Kalb meant was that the lack of correspondence between, on one side, the actual country with its actual existential requirements, and, on the other side, the abstract language of our civic religion, requires our statesman not to think logically about the real meaning of the civil religion or to seek to apply it with any consistency, because if they did so, society would be unable to function. Thus Washington can’t really mean what he seems to be saying here about everyone’s inherent natural rights. For example, if he had been addressing a community of ten thousand Shi’ite Muslims rather than a community of a couple of thousand highly assimilated, Western European Jews, I doubt very much that he would have spoken to them in this manner, inviting them to enjoy the full liberty of America. In other language, the explicitly universal language is applied with an implicit consciousness of concrete particularity. It is only applied to groups and persons that actually share a sufficient degree of concrete assimilability with the majority culture. So, the implicit particularity of the American society is still at work here. Washington could safely apply the “universal” natural rights to the Jews in America in 1790, because he knew that they were—in practical fact—a safe and unthreatening part of the American community. But that all-important concrete fact is not mentioned in the letter, which only refers to abstract universal rights of all men.

Washington, with the best of intentions and with political skill, was implying something that he could not possibly have really meant to apply in all circumstances and to all possible groups who could possibly come to these shores. Yet, over the course of time, those principles have been applied to every possible group, spelling the gradual emptying out of any cultural particularity in our concept of the American nation, destroying the very liberties that have been so promiscuously granted, and leaving us helpless before the forces of cultural diversity, group rights, and anti-whiteness.

How, then, should the letter have been written, or rather rewritten, if we as traditionalist conservatives could travel back in time and advise Washington in 1790?

Here are some possibilities.

The letter should include some reference to the fact that the American system with its freedoms only exists because its people share a common morality, which in turn is based on a common religion. It should say that the very survival of the society depends upon that common morality continuing in effect. It should say that people who follow other religions, but who share the common morality that comes from the majority religion, can still be full members of the society. But that, as members of a religious minority, their enjoyment of the full rights of citizens requires that they recognize the majority character of the majority religion and not challenge it, just as the majority will not challenge or threaten the minority religion, with each safe and secure under his vine and fig tree.

In other words, the document would have stated the substantive essence that was actually at work in forming the American society, not just the abstract universal principles to which America subscribed.

Obviously, such a revised, less inclusive letter would not have made liberals’ hearts go pitter-patter, as Washington’s letter has done for the last two hundred years. But it would have represented a much more realistic statement of the nature of American society and provided a more viable basis for its long-term flourishing and survival than the pure abstract liberalism the actual letter contains. The revised letter would have protected America from the ideological extremes to which liberalism has inevitably exposed us.

It also would have provided a clear standard and a principled basis for admitting or not admitting various groups to legal residence or citizenship. If a million Muslims showed up in Fairfax County, Virginia, a president could say, you do not share the common morality and ways of our country, therefore we do not give you permission to reside in this country, let alone extend the rights of citizenship to you.

My proposed amendments would not have required abandoning the natural rights language, but modifying it, as follows: Since men can enjoy their inherent natural rights, including liberty, only in an actual society that has the effectual ability to preserve and practice those rights, therefore one of the conditions of the exercise of natural rights is that individuals by their actual beliefs and conduct, are functionally capable of being fully loyal citizens, so that the exercise of their liberty will not threaten the whole.

This does not mean that people have no rights apart from particularity. There are human rights of life, liberty and property that everyone possesses regardless of citizenship. But liberty in the full sense of the word, meaning liberty of action and expression, can only be practiced by actual men in an actual society which guarantees liberty to its members on the basis that they will not abuse that liberty or harm the basic foundations of the society. And the pure liberalism of Washington’s noble but—as we now understand—profoundly flawed letter virtually ensured that the basic foundations of America would be, over time, harmed and even ultimately destroyed, as they now have been.

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A related VFR post , from 2007, is “The anti-Coulter campaign, and the place of Jews in America.”
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Allen W. writes:

As an American and a Jew, I completely appreciate and concur with your analysis.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 09, 2013 10:44 AM | Send

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