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George Washington: To the Letter
For the first special exhibition to be presented since moving to its new location on Independence Mall nearly two years ago, the National Museum of American Jewish History picked an appropriate and timely subject.
"To Bigotry No sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom," which opens to the public on June 29 -- just in time for the July 4th holiday celebrations -- is devoted to the 1790 letter Washington wrote to Moses Seixas and Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, also known as the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I.
It's a letter that the museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions, Josh Perelman, says "stands as one of the iconic documents of early America, from the time when our nation was sorting out what are the ideals and principles we would live by as a country."
The document, all of 337 words, was a response to Washington's visit to Rhode Island in recognition of the state's ratification of the Constitution, as well as to a letter sent to him by Seixas, the warden of the congregation, which represented most of Rhode Island's 300 Jews at the time.
One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition is the ability of visitors to gaze upon the original letters of both men, at which point it can be seen that some of the most famous and long-lived words in American history -- "to bigotry, no sanction, to persecution, no assistance" -- were first written by Seixas to Washington, who then reaffirmed their truth and power when he used the exact same phrase in his reply to Seixas, adding the equally revolutionary belief that for American citizens to enjoy "the exercise of their inherent natural rights" requires "only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
For the past decade, Washington's letter has been as notable for where it wasn't as for what it represented. When the museum opens its doors on the 29th, it will be the first time the public has had a chance to see the document since 2002. When asked how the museum was able to convince the letter's owner, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, to allow its display in Philadelphia, as opposed to any of the other countless museums and historical institutions around the United States who were competing just as fiercely to display it, Perelman says, "I think we made a credible case that, this being the National Museum of American Jewish History, which sits on Independence Mall, where our nation was founded, and across the street from the President's house, were he to choose to exhibit the letters again, that this would be the perfect place to do so."
And the letters are in good company. To provide context, Perelman and his curatorial team have assembled a lineup of documents that reads like an American history version of the 1927 Yankees, including "An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom," drafted by Thomas Jefferson; "The Salem Broadside" printing of the Declaration of Independence; the first public printing of the Constitution; Pennsylvania's ratification of the Bill of Rights; and correspondence between Washington and other Jewish communities, as well as his writings to Quakers, Lutherans and Catholics that serves to further underscore the ecumenical impact of his declarations of religious freedom for all American citizens.
Perhaps the most useful component of the exhibit is also its most high-tech one. The museum's chief historian, Jonathan Sarna, has annotated both Washington's and Seixas' letters. His commentary and insight have been turned into an interactive touchscreen application. For those visitors not intimately acquainted with the nuances and idiosyncrasies of late 19th-century letter-writing, this is an indispensable tool to have at their disposal in order to better understand, for example, what. exactly, Washington meant when he paraphrased the biblical prophet, Micah (Micah 4:4), writing that "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid" in order to emphasize his dedication to supporting religious freedom in the new country.
While opening an exhibition of this magnitude in the summertime may seem unusual at first glance, Perelman says that it was all part of the plan.
"For Philadelphia, summer is actually a great time to do an exhibition like this," he explains. "We very much wanted the first showing of the letters to correspond with July 4 because we feel that they are so fundamentally tied to the founding ideals of the nation. In addition, it's the time of the highest visitorship to this area of the city."
The museum is also engaging in educational outreach. The institution's education department has developed a full curriculum around the exhibition, and Perelman says that he has had tremendous response from the local camp community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. There will also be numerous school groups coming through the gallery in September to take advantage of the show's final weeks.
But just because the exhibition only runs for three months doesn't mean that the letters will be taken out of circulation for another decade. According to Perelman, the letters are now on long-term loan to the museum, which means that there will be plenty of opportunity to check them out in some new iteration as they are worked into the museum's core exhibition space.
As part of the National Museum of American Jewish History's sponsorship of Welcome America, and in honor of Independence Day, the museum will be open to the public free of charge on July 4.
For more information, call 215.923.3811, or go to www.nmajh.org.