What kind of people were the Sephardic Jews of colonial Rhode Island and the first decades of the American Republic? And what kind of social contract was it that they enacted in the famous exchange of letters with George Washington when he came to visit the new state in August 1790?
 From the look and read of it, the Jews of Newport understood themselves to be a nation with a profound classical past. They were not even “Jews.” At least that’s not how they called themselves. They were rather a “nation,” “tongue” and “language” belonging to “the stock of Abraham,” which, if I’m not wrong, is a quasi-racial designation.  What we call religion is expressed in biblical allusion and religious ideas like providence, was part of that identity. But religion and religious toleration were not, as is usually thought, at the precise forefront of their concern in the famous exchange of letters with George Washington, who himself explicitly rejected the idea of “tolerance” for the very good reasons that we recognize today. Matters of what we today call “private” religious conscience are only raised twice in the letter of the Jews to Washington and once by Washington in his letter to them. Instead, the substance of the exchange revolved around matters of “public” citizenship.  As a part of that citizenship, the Sephardic Jews of colonial America and the first decades of the Republic were bit contributors to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that indelible stain that marks the core history of this civic polity.
The Jews of Rhode Island are a classical people entering into a social contract with a powerful suzerain. That is the message conveyed by those distinctly neoclassical design features at the Touro Synagogue (Congregation Yeshuat Israel) and at the nearby community cemetery. Built in 1763, the building site for Congregation Yeshuat Israel) is well known as the oldest standing synagogue in the United States. The congregation itself dates back to 1658. Of interest here is the design element, which on the one hand is broadly common to the time as a late eighteenth century style, but which on the other hand says something distinctly in particular about this local community. The portico is a classical style with Ionic columns and a closed pediment. Ionic columns also decorate the sanctuary space inside. Consider too the nearby community cemetery. The gate to the cemetery was designed in the mid-nineteenth century in Egyptian revival style. But the original conception of the towering obelisks would not have been “oriental,” but neoclassical, reminiscent no doubt of ancient Rome.
In the August 1790 exchange of letters between Washington and Moses Seixas, the one by the President of the United States has assumed, obviously enough, the lion’s share of attention. But the one by Seixas is arguably more interesting, setting as it does the terms under which the Jewish community understood itself and wanted to present itself on the public stage. The scene of its exchange and the staging of the visit by Washington belong very much to the political genre of a secular social contract that includes the rights of religious conscience in the context of loyal participation in the larger polis. The document speaks to the state before it speaks to religious liberty, while religion decorates the contract in the opening and concluding paragraphs that construct, as it were, the borders of the letter.
Retrospectively couched in terms of “religious tolerance,” this was not actually the case about these two letters. In effect, the exchange of letters rejects the idea of “toleration” as anti-democratic. It is not religion and religious liberty that stand out first and foremost, but rather good government, civic participation and temporal felicity. The Jews of Newport are citizens first, not members of a religious confession. While religious liberty is a value, “religion” is not the main thing. The Jews of Newport belong to a proud racial group or “stock.”
Note the secular self-understanding expressed throughout the letter from Seixas, whose political vision is public-private:
–There is, first of all, the recollection of historical persecution, which is framed in terms of rights of citizenship, not religion and religious faith and worship.
–There is no mention of the word “Jew” in either of the two letters. In a theatrical vein, the Jews refer to themselves and are referred to by the democratic sovereign as “the stock of Abraham.” As noted above, the assumption is that this so-called stock is constituted as a nation and tongue. I do not know how strong the racial overtones to the word “stock” were meant to be at the time, but the word calls definite attention to itself.
–In the first sentence of the last paragraph of the letter by Sexias, the word “civil” (i.e. civil liberty”) precedes the word “religious” (i.e. religious liberty). Religious liberty is mentioned only once along with “liberty of conscience,” which makes for only two explicit references to religion and “religious freedom.”
–The rich biblical allusion and theological motifs are misleading. While the florid expression is undoubtedly genuine, I would argue that its function is decorative. The substance of the letter is civic and democratic, “deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.” Again, there is no mention in this key sentence in the letter regarding anything having to do with faith as private good or right.
–Although government enjoys the providence of the Great God, it is “established” by the “Majesty of the People.” In this, the religious vision, such as it is profoundly secular, subordinate to the political will of the demos.
Here’s the letter from Sexias to Washington in full. I have put in bold the key paragraph:
Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.
With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle: — and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: — This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.
For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.
Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island
Moses Seixas, Warden
August 17th 1790
Now consider in response Washington’s more famous letter, also in terms of a social contract. It has more to do with establishing the authority of a state sovereign and only then with the guarantee by recognized “inherent natural right” of religious liberty per se. Note too the sharp rejection of the concept “tolerance,” namely the rights by which the dominant class in power extends to an inferior and dependent social class. Between politics and religion, it is very clear what comes first as the foundation of which. Washington puts the entire onus of his letter on what good government “requires,” this being civic responsibility and “effectual” support for the government in return for its “protection.” This part of the letter is purely contractual. Politically far more important than religious liberty, a vexed question suggested but not addressed as such by Washington is this. Also interpreted here as a double entendre, without that effectual support from citizens is there any “protection” from government?
Here is the letter from Washington in full. Again, I have put in bold the key paragraph. For the purpose of my argument, the key sentence is the last one in that paragraph.
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island
[Newport, R.I., 18 August 1790]
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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 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.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
What goes unsaid in the community architecture and exchange of letters is that this social contract is also a racial contract. The “stock of Abraham,” committed to civil and religious liberty, is also part of a slave society, invested precisely in the “bigotry” and “persecution” rejected in Washington’s letter, and one in which the Jews of Newport and the other newly free colonies themselves benefited. Of particular note is the participation in that trade by Aaron Lopez, an important member of the community. About the much vexed question about the participation of Sephardic Jews, i.e. Jews from Iberia, including the Jews of Newport in that trade, Seymour Drescher is not alone in concluding that it was “ephemeral,” “localized,” and “limited” (Seymour Drescher, “Jews and New Christians in the Atlantic Slave Trade” in Sarna and Mendelsohn (eds.), Jews and the Civil War: A Reader, p.67).
But what does this mean? Of certain but only relative interest is the point about raw numbers, namely how much or little a part of the slave trade was constituted by Jewish shippers and traders and how much or little of that trade depended upon Jewish participation. Only a racial conspiracy theorist would argue that the Jews were the master class behind the African slave trade. The numbers show Jews were a tiny fraction of the European population in the Americas, and as such only bit players in a trade originally controlled by large European state monopolies (Portuguese, Dutch, and English), and that this trade was concentrated in Sephardic Jewish communities in the New World and perhaps Amsterdam.
Of much greater significance and interest is the social contract established very early on by the representatives of the small Jewish community in this very important American port city, that city being dominant in the African slave trade. This speaks to the structure of Jewish participation in democratic polity that straddled what Drescher calls a “threshold” between slavery and liberty under which Jews enjoyed citizen rights in the so-called New World.
To this larger matter, Drescher writes, “The most significant point, from this perspective, is not that a few Jewish slave dealers changed the course of Atlantic, history, but that Jews in general found their ‘threshold of liberation’ in regions newly dependent upon black slavery. In this scenario, Sephardic Jews and New Christians were pioneers of Jewish resettlement in the early modern world, blazing a path for the liberation of their co-religionists” (Ibid., p.70).
By and large American Jewish life today is dominated by descendants of the first big wave of German Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century and then by the larger immigration of East European Jews at the turn of the twentieth century. While not free from racial prejudice, Ashkenazi Jews were largely free from the stigma of slavery. But the terms and conditions of the social contract were already set in a contract in which one’s own liberty depends upon the enslavement of other people. In the early history of the United States, Jews originally descended from Iberia, a place with its own ideas about race and pure blood (here I am only inferring). They stand out self-conceived as a classical people, a proud racial stock invested in a society committed politically to the securing of prosperity and civic participation in a new nation. Unstated in the letters is the dependence of that nation and that social contract on the racial contract African slave labor. As such, it stamps the political and moral enigmas of Jewish life in the United States.