This is the third of five weekly installments on the religious basis of the founding of the United States of America. Daniel Hoffheimer is an attorney in Cincinnati and writes about Jewish history.
In Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, as in many of his official actions, he seems consciously to be modeling his attitudes of tolerance for his successors. One of them, the Hebrew scholar James Madison, wrote a strikingly similar letter to a member of the Hebrew Congregation at Savannah:
The history of the Jews must forever be interesting.
The modern part of it is, at the same time so little
generally known, that every ray of light on the subject
has its value.... Among the features peculiar to the Political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious Sect. And it is particularly pleasing to observe in the good citizenship of such as have been most distrusted and oppressed elsewhere, a happy illustration of the safety and success of this experiment of a just and benignant policy. Equal laws protecting equal rights, are found as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among Citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony and most favorable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your Congregation [in Savannah] brings them fully within the scope of these observations.
Madison, the Father of our Constitution, was never far from his Hebraic education. What he learned about Jewish history and Hebrew literature at Princeton, especially from the Hebrew Bible, was a respect for the Jewish instinct for allowing all other nations to hold onto their respective religions. All the Hebrews in Egypt ever wanted, Madison understood, was to be able to practice their own religion in freedom. They carried that aspiration throughout their millennial wanderings.
Though in some instances the Founders were largely self-taught, all were men of great learning, broad sympathies, and manifold skills. Here is Benjamin Franklin, just a few weeks before his death, with a touch of his characteristic wit, addressing the president of Yale:
Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most
acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the principal principles of sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon as opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
The “system of morals” and religion of Jesus to which Franklin refers, of course, was in fact Judaism, as he certainly understood. Franklin's faith sounds indistinguishable from that of many modern liberal Jews. His was the faith of the scientist and diplomat who, finding the ethical essentials of the best in American religion the same, respected them all. He was famous for seldom declining to contribute his money to any religious group seeking assistance in erecting a house of worship.
Franklin's famous prayer for mankind, conceived in the American revolutionary spirit, was as tolerant a prayer as one could hope to discover anywhere:
God grant that not only the Love of Liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his feet anywhere on its surface and say, 'This is my country.'
Although the utterances of our first president, of Franklin, and of Madison with respect to faith are miraculously tolerant and inspiring, the most outstanding examples of the Spirit of Seventy-Six in the free exercise of religion are contained in the writings of Washington's two immediate successors. Products of America's two oldest colleges,
Harvard and William and Mary, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were as far apart in social and religious background as in political party and temperament. But they were united in their unflagging advocacy for freedom of thought and belief. It is fitting that the outside walls of the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati are inscribed with lines from the pens of these two men, along with words from the Hebrew prophet Micah. Jefferson and Adams were at one period perhaps the most bitter political and personal foes in American history. In their later correspondence with each other after retiring from public office, Adams and Jefferson give us one of the most affectionate displays of personal tolerance in American, or any, history. Their long exchange of letters ended only by their deaths — on the same day, July 4, 1926, a half-century to the day after they affixed their signatures on the Declaration of Independence.
The one of Puritan, the other of Episcopal, background, both developed as Deists. Adams, in expressing his admiration for the Christian religion, said:
Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all.
Notwithstanding the foregoing statement, however, Adams, never restrained by interpersonal decorum, also called Calvinism, which was his own heritage, "the most bloody religion that ever existed."
For Jews, Adams had admiration, if not affection:
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently all civilization. I cannot say that I love the Jews very much neither, nor the French, nor the English, nor the Romans, nor the Greeks. We must love all nations as well as we can, but it is very hard to love most of them.
Of Judaism, Adams said:
The Hebrew unity of Jehovah, the prohibition of all similitudes, appears to me the greatest wonder of antiquity. How could that nation preserve its creed among the monstrous theologies of all the other nations of earth? Revelation, you will say, and especial Providence; and I will not contradict you....
Adams felt his own beliefs — like those of others — were entirely a private concern, yet much of them he made clear—to Jefferson at least. As with Washington, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson, there is no evidence in Adams for a belief in the divinity of Christ. To a friend he wrote in 1809:
My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as the necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part. Are you a dissenter from this religion? I believe, too, in a future state of rewards and punishments, but not eternal.
At another time Adams wrote that he could condense the meaning for him of his fifty or sixty years of religious study into four words: "Be just and good."
To be continued next week in The American Israelite.