President George Washington had one final piece of business to perform before the nation's capital moved from New York City to Philadelphia--visit Rhode Island.
The Ocean State had been the last of the original thirteen colonies to join the Union, which it did on May 29, 1790, over two years after the new United States government went into effect.
Since taking office as president in April, 1788, Washington had visited all the states in New England, except Rhode Island. Now, at last, Washington was going to meet the newly enfranchised citizens of that state. On August 15,1790, the President boarded a packet ship and journeyed there by sea. Joining him were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, New York Governor George Clinton, three members of Congress, and three of Washington's staff. They were merely window dressing. Washington was the main event, the one everyone wanted to see.
And wanting to see him they did, turning out in droves to cheer the President’s arrival in Newport. After the usual round of speeches, Washington made a tour of the city. Fully recovered from an illness he'd suffered the previous June, and feeling fit and strong again, Washington walked with the briskness of a young man. Those walking with him had trouble keeping up. In the evening he attended a dinner in his honor at the State House.
The following morning, while listening to various city officials and religious leaders welcoming him to their city, Washington was particularly touched by a letter read aloud by a member of the Newport Hebrew Congregation. The members were descendants of Portuguese Jews who had suffered persecution during the Spanish Inquisition and sought refuge in America. Their letter reads in part:
"Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial of affection and esteem. . . .
"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 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 government Machine:
"This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confident 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. . . ."
As president, Washington had written any number of letters to various churches and congregations around the country, but his response to the Hebrew Congregation was particularly profound. The style is lean, direct, Lincolnesqe. His allusion to everyone sitting in safety “under his own vine and fig tree” is from the Bible.
"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 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 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 were 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 fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
"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.