227 years ago today, the Yeshuat Israel, one of the first Jewish congregations in America, received a letter from the nations’ first President. What Washington told them – and us – must never be forgotten.
On the morning of August 17th, 1790 George Washington arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Governor George Clinton of New York, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Blair of Virginia, and U.S. Congressman William Loughton Smith of South Carolina.
The President had visited the New England states the previous fall “to acquire knowledge of the face of the Country the growth and Agriculture thereof and the temper and disposition of the Inhabitants towards the new government.” He deliberately bypassed Rhode Island, which had refused to call a state convention to ratify the federal Constitution at that time. He decided to make a public trip to the state only after May 1790 when Rhode Island ratified the Constitution. Such a special visit would not only focus the goodwill that Rhode Islanders felt toward him as the hero of the Revolution, it would lend his personal prestige to the state’s leaders.
Washington, Jefferson, and the others had a second agenda as well. Twelve amendments to the Constitution had been proposed in the Congress. The third amendment addressed the issue of freedom of religion and of the press. Congress passed and sent all twelve amendments to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. State legislatures were required to consider the amendments one by one and ratify them individually. Over a period of months, the state legislatures sent the amendments back to Congress, ratifying some and disapproving others. On December 15, 1791, Virginia approved ten of the twelve proposed amendments and became the tenth and last state required to do so before the amendments became law. The first two proposed amendments had been rejected by three-quarters of all the states and could not be adopted. Therefore, the original Third Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of a state religion and ensuring freedom of the press, became the newly ratified First Amendment. Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia were still debating the amendments in August of 1790 when the President visited Newport.