11.24.2005

Letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport

The United States, the values upon which it was founded (well, most of the values), and the home it's been for my family for the past 100 years are just a few of the things that I'm thankful for today.

I thought this was appropriate for Thanksgiving.
Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to New Port 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 (1), we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people (2).

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 were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights (3), 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid (4).

May the Father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy (5).

G. Washington
August 1, 1790

(1) I think that having the "wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored" is the hardest thing in the world. Or one of them, at least. But it's so important! So why is it so hard?

(2) The mention of "a great and happy people" draws a smile. Are Americans a "happy people"? I'm not so sure. It's also interesting to remember that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," I think started out as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property" or "wealth" or something like that. Is the pursuit of happiness a value? What about just going for "contentedness" or "peacefulness" or "calm"? I think that making the best use of advantages is more important than seeking happiness, but mostly because I think that making the best use of advantages can lead to happiness. I think... Gotta' think about this one some more.

(3) "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..." I wish this had been true in 1790. Alas, it was not. I wonder what things we believe are true now will be shown, in retrospect, to be painfully false in 2220?

(4) This messianic imagery is interesting. I believe that early colonial writings and early American writings are full of it. I can't remember any specific examples now. It would be interesting to study, and to compare messianic earmy American imagery with messianic early Israeli imagery. That's my second dissertation, after I write one about the history of the 2nd Avenue subway line...

(5) I just love this last paragraph. LOVE it. "Father of all mercies" seems to be a direct translation of "av harachamim," which appears in Jewish liturgy. I love the image of God scattering light upon our paths--isn't that what we all want, really? Some light along the way? And then the plea to be useful--I think that this is something else that we ultimately all want out of life--to make some kind of contribution to the world. (Let me know when you figure out what mine should be, okay? Because I'm still in the dark over here.) And then back to the happiness--which I'm not so sure is an ultimate goal of mine, but tempered with "in his own due time and way" is a pleasant thought. I guess what I have an issue with is not happiness, because I do truly want that, but this "happiness NOW" phenomenon that I see around me, that seems kind of short-sighted.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! I am off to a long-awaited, scrumptious meal with extended family!

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