Give George Washington his due

John L. Loeb, Jr. (Ambassador to Denmark, 1981-1983)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Loeb’s February 16, 2015 special to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Let’s give his birthday back to George Washington. Is there some timely reason? Yes.

Since 1879, Washington’s Birthday, Feb. 22, has been celebrated as a federal holiday – although, in 1968, as part of a grand plan to create three-day “holiday weekends,” it was pegged to the third Monday of the month. Officially, it is still “George Washington’s Birthday,” but for most people, it has become an amorphous “Presidents’ Day.” More of that in a moment.

Recent events remind us of a facet of Washington’s genius that is not at all familiar but – in some ways – transcendent. Events? I mean, of course, the widespread growth of religious intolerance, along with a rekindling of historical hatreds and suspicions, especially in Europe, where, for example, apprehensive Jews are leaving France to settle in Israel.

 A bit of relevant history: The Constitution of the United States went into effect in June 1788, after ratification by nine of the 13 original states. One at a time, the others came aboard, with Rhode Island the last to do so, in May 1790. Why did “Rogue Island” wait so long?
Founded by the religious dissident Roger Williams, Rhode Island was the first political entity in modern history not to establish an official religion. Today, we call that “separation of church and state.”

It was only after Congress passed the Bill of Rights, in September 1789, with the promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” that the Rhode Island legislature elected to enter the Union – although it was close, 34 votes to 32.

To express his gratitude, Washington paid a visit to Newport. He was welcomed by adoring crowds, and the political elite hosted an extravagant dinner in his honor, where the guests hoisted 13 toasts, one for each state.

He also met with members of the Newport religious community. One, Moses Seixas, was the lay leader of the Jewish congregation that worshipped in what is now the oldest existing synagogue in America (the Touro Synagogue). Seixas delivered a letter of admiring welcome, which celebrated the fact that his people were moving beyond a history of religious persecution.

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” Seixas wrote, “we now . . . behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People . . . deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”

Seixas praised Washington for leading the nation to that new plateau.

In Washington’s acknowledgment, known today as the “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” dated Aug. 18, 1790, he defined religious faith as the “inherent natural right” of everyone and elaborated:

“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.”

Washington closed with a benediction drawn from the Book of Micah 4:4: “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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Can anyone today say it any better? Let us scratch the misnomer “Presidents’ Day,” which, if it honors all, celebrates none with a focus on nothing, and revive “Washington’s Birthday” as the perfect occasion to recognize and acknowledge religious inclusiveness … in America at least, and let’s hope – someday – throughout the rest of the world.
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