After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public
George Washington's letter will go on display after being out of public view for almost a decade.
May 23rd, 2012
02:18 PM ET

After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public

By Alex Zuckerman, CNN

Washington (CNN) – After sitting in storage for nearly a decade, George Washington’s signature statement on religious liberty will go on display this summer in the city where freedom of religion was enshrined in the Constitution: Philadelphia.

America’s first president wrote the letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, assuring American Jews that their freedom of religion would be protected. The document will go on display this summer for the first time since 2002 in an exhibition at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.

For nine years, the letter has been kept out of public view, in storage at a sterile Maryland office park a few hundred feet from FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins play. CNN took an inside look at the document in September.

But the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, which owns the letter, has agreed to put the historic document on public display, officials at the National Museum of American Jewish History said.

“Our institution as well as others have been trying to have access to (this) for a long time,” said museum director and CEO Ivy Barsky. “We feel fortunate that the Morgenstern Foundation thought us worthy.”

The loan agreement between the museum and the foundation is unusual. The museum will have the letter for three years but will be allowed to show it for just three months per year. The letter will be kept in a dark storage area for preservation for the other nine months.

An excerpt of the letter showing George Washington's signature.

The document will be accompanied by an exhibit called “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom,” which will run June 29 to September 30. Barsky said the exhibit came together only after the museum was certain it could showcase Washington’s letter.

Before going into storage in 2002, the letter was on display at the Klutznick Museum at B’nai B’rith International Headquarters in Washington. It was on display there for 45 years before the organization downsized, closing its museum. The letter went into storage.

After that,  many people did not realize where the letter had gone, according to Jane Eisner, editor of  Forward, a Jewish newspaper. Eisner dedicated a series of editorials over the last year to lobbying for public display of the letter. She also sent a reporter, Paul Berger, to research the history of the letter.

“This is one of those rare moments as a journalist where you can see the fruits of your labor,” Eisner said. “All we had was all Washington had, which was words. We just have our words and arguments that we try to put out in the public sphere as best we could.”

Morris Morgenstern, center, showed a number of notable people his prized letter, including then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

The letter is considered to be Washington’s key public statement on religious freedom. Eisner and Barsky say that the document signaled a welcoming of all people to America in pursuit of freedom.

“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths,” the letter reads, “and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

The letter addressed the congregation’s fears that Jews could face discrimination in the new nation. “The letter starts off to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” said Mordechai Eskovitz, rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. “It was meant for the congregation. It is addressed to the congregation.”

The Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, where Washington sent his letter.

The Library of Congress had asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit on the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. When the loan was not completed, many historians speculated that no one would be able to meet the standards of the Morgenstern Foundation for exhibiting the letter.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

Berger, the Forward reporter, says the letter’s placement at another Jewish museum could mean the Morgenstern family would like to see the letter stay in a Jewish facility. “Nobody knows why the family chose the museum in Philadelphia over the Library of Congress,” he said.

The Morgenstern Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unclear where the document will go after its three-year loan at the Museum of American Jewish History.

- CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: History • Judaism

soundoff (869 Responses)
  1. Leucadia Bob


    June 2, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  2. Deez Nutz

    George Washington belived in equaity and freedom. As long as you weren't black. Makes a lot of sense right.

    June 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  3. Kelly

    It's so entirely human than the same people who would champion Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement for their own desires would then denounce Christianity which was the cornerstone of Dr. Kings faith. Ergo if there were no freedom of religion there would not have been a civil rights movement. Every belief system has it's radicals who make it look bad. Even atheists, agnostics ultra liberals and super conservatives. There may yet be room in the world for every belief system, but I blame people and not what they believe in. Everybody shut your pie-hole and go love your neighbor.

    June 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  4. Rick James

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti3mtDC2fQo&w=420&h=315%5D

    June 1, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  5. Roger Noe

    George Washington, along with Thomas Jefferson, were racist hypocrites who enslaved men, women and children for profit and perverse personal pleasure.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • MillerMan

      You are an absolute idiot. Ignorant of the time period and context. Washington and Jefferson were some of the most amazing productive men of their era. The left's liberal brainwashing and attempt to re-write history is nauseating. If this country is sooo bad, then immigrate to another land preferably, China, Russia, Iran, or Pakistan. Then you might have a clue.

      May 31, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Alex Gessong

      @MillerMan: Actually, reality is not "brainwiashing," "liberal" or otherwise. Washington and Jefferson enslaved people. That's just fact. You conservatives want to hide from reality. Playing "make believe" is for children. You try to alter history to make yourselves feel better. Neither washington nor Jefferson really enjoyed being slavers, although they both profitted monitarily from it. Washington orderd his slaves to be freed after his death, and Jefferson wrote that slavery was "like having a tiger by the tail. You don't like it, but you don't dare let it go." The Founding Fathers were as human as anyone else, not supermen, not angels. Accept them for who they were. Never be afriad to embrace reality.

      May 31, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • CJM

      If that is your belief, Roger Noe, may I suggest you go to a country that has no freedoms and more indulgent perversion? It is because of Washington, Jefferson, et al, thatt you have the freedoms you now enjoy–quit spitting on those who died so you can live free.

      May 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  6. Marc the Spark

    I don't care what anyone believes, to each their own, as long as it doesn't infringe on any of my rights. But I do wonder, what part of it do you really believe? I mean in your deepest thoughts. That God looks like us? That he is the Alpha and Omega, yet had a "son" and a holy spirit? That people lived to be hundreds of years old? That a person lived in a whale. That a woman turned to a pillar of salt? That God is all powerful, yet either can't defeat, or allows to have prominence an arch angel who defied him? That God will send Ghandi to hell but let W in? I just am baffled as to how anyone believes this. If you believe in ONE god that is existential, I can at least fathom that, but Christianity? Is it really any less absurd than Mormanism or the Norse or Greek Gods? Really? Coming from someone who went to church for 20 years and never understood it or believed it, even at 5 years old, if you do want to have faith, fine, but stop listening to anyone else tell you anything about God. If God exists, I think we can all agree it would be a one on one relationship and that most religions are about power and not about faith.

    May 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • elle

      What most people believe is that THEIR choice of God is the right one, and that's really what they mostly care about. They seldom care about their teachings. American Christians, for instance, seldom do the hard work which Christ lobbied for (if you believe their own texts.) Most other religious people, at least in the western world, are the same. They want to secure their "salvation" by being right, not by doing the right things.

      May 31, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • stanknasty

      Sparky – What is difficult to believe...it's not so difficult... He can do these things because He is God. If He couldn't do them, then He would not be God.

      June 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  7. heywatchthis

    love thy neighbor like you would love thy self

    May 27, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  8. Kindness

    Some thoughts to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome

    May 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • 13monkees

      Ego has nothing to do with whether I believe it or not. I have read Corinthians many times. Even prior to being an Atheist I had questions about it. In fact, it was one of the many books in the bible that convinced me it wasn't true. Does that mean there isn't anything that can be learned from it? No. How about this, why don't you try reading the bible in it's entirety? Try reading it without the preconceived notion that it is the word of some deity? You will find that you are more moral than the god you believe in? Would you ever throw your children into a basement to be tortured for eternity? Probably not. God would. God has killed or ordered the deaths of many innocent children. You guys love to ask us to read the bible without bias. Follow your own advice.

      May 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • David

      Your religion is stupid and your god is a clown.

      May 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Roland Bouchard

      This Blog or Post iIS about George Washington's Letter ... and Touro Synagog.... It Is Not about 'Jesus Christ'.

      May 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Randy

      Oh, of course. Just accept that everything you and the Bible say are true, and magically everything will be different and better. Don't bother with all that silly reason and thinking. Just accept it and let the fireworks begin. Yeah, no. Nobody with a brain between their ears should consider that in any way worthwhile.

      Why don't you use that exact same approach toward Islam?

      May 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • old golfer

      Thankfully, our founding father's also allowed freedom FROM religion. You are wrong to try and force your beliefs on other people.

      May 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Craig Doug

      So let me get this straight. We're supposed to believe in a "Perfect" God (of Israel) based on a book written by FLAWED, IMPERECT Human Beings. I don't think so. The bible, and the christian religion (and catholocism for that matter) are a false belief system. Think about how many religions (and mythologies) have the EXACT same story elements.

      That being said, I'm not one who doesn't believe in the existence of a higher power, but The Creator didn't need a flawed book to be written to show his power and love for his human relations. He shows us through his creation, that christians destroy on a daily basis.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • John Robertson

      It's all fake.. There is no great guy in the sky.. Even the bibles translation into English is full of errors and is taken as the truth,,, Wake up

      May 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  9. SayanIndia

    A man of determination, resilience and vision, George Washington clearly foresaw the potential contribution of multi-racial and multi-religious mass in propelling the American nation towards the top in modern times.

    United States is perhaps the only nation in recorded history to have made significant contribution in every aspect of human civilisation in her own way, thanks to substantial influx of skilled personalities from every corner of Globe.


    May 26, 2012 at 7:38 am |
  10. roundeyes

    the jew is today america's misfortune.

    May 25, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Mike in NJ

      People like you are America's shame.

      May 31, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  11. roundeyes

    how like a jew to put words in my mouth. genocide? where?

    May 25, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • NJ2

      Where? Below, where you quoted in German the slogan printed on every Nazi newsletter leading up to the Holocaust. I wont engage you any further except to repeat: fuck off.

      May 25, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  12. Anan

    One World
    All of us connected to one another
    One Race (The Human Race)

    May 25, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  13. roundeyes

    not a sympathizer at all. i'm just stating facts and drawing conclusions.
    hadrian, constantine, many great figures in history saw them for what they are and kicked them out.
    lopez owned part or all of 80 slave ships during the black shoah.
    i'm just a conscience.
    ps: watch your language.

    May 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • NJ2

      The pathetic irony is that you are quoting Nazis and endorsing genocide and telling me to watch my language. Saying fuck hurts no one, you fucking fuck. But your racism is a poison .

      May 25, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  14. NJ2

    I get the point that you're literally a Nazi sympathizer. Proceed to fuck off.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  15. roundeyes

    sorry for typo: it's juden not junen.
    but i think you get the point.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  16. roundeyes

    i would, but it seems your head is up there.
    Washington knew when he wrote that letter: "Die junen sind unser Ungluck!"

    May 25, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  17. NJ2

    How about you google my bowels you stupid racist son of a bitch.

    May 25, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 25, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Amen

      What do you suggest we do with all of the babies in the world (all atheist)?

      BTW, whatever you've been doing is what appears to be unhealthy. You are posting the same thing over again, perhaps you have lost your marbles?

      May 25, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • A Candid Look

      It is appearent that you have never read the bible Amen.... you have no idea what you are talking about!

      May 26, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Chcuk

      Prayer doesn't change anything, people do!

      May 27, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      May 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • northern light

      @ Amen
      "You are posting the same thing over again, perhaps you have lost your marbles?"

      Wrong ...you have to have marbles to begin with ....believers do not have brains ...their brains are removed during childhood by religious indoctrination.

      May 29, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  19. roundeyes

    google Aaron Lopez of richest man of newport ri ar the time. fine upstanding jew.

    May 25, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  20. roundeyes

    just google aaron lopez slavery before you quickly disqualify what i say.BLOODSUCKING LICE

    May 25, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.