The Power of Words

Posted by Mary Hendra on October 16, 2014

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

When in the course of human events…

… the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, …

There are some words that need little introduction. They call up an immediate reference to American democracy and the long and ongoing struggle for liberty which is unfinished work. I was reminded of this at our school culture summit this weekend at which we featured the film Cesar Chavez.

In one scene, the local sheriff comes to see Chavez after complaints about people gathering nightly. When the sheriff emphasizes the importance of being law-abiding, Chavez quickly responds that they do love the law, especially the First Amendment. When a hearing with Robert F. Kennedy is shown, Kennedy calls that same sheriff to task by telling him that during the break he should read the U.S. Constitution. To me, such scenes remind me both of the power of putting these ideals into words during the founding of our country, even if the ideal was not yet a reality, and the recognition that these words are a call to action to all of us to try to reach that ideal in our own interactions.

Washington letter coverFor several years now, Facing History and Ourselves has partnered with the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom to bring to greater visibility another set of words.

In 1790, Moses Seixas, a leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to George Washington on the occasion of his visit to the city. Rhode Island had finally ratified the Constitution. Seixas was one of many leaders who met Washington when he arrived, and Seixas was allowed to read his letter. He included these very bold and flattering words towards Washington’s government:

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 governmental Machine

I love his boldness. And it paid off.

Washington returned the words and the sentiment, declaring:

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.

George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island is a landmark in the history of religious freedom in America, and part of a founding moment in U.S. history when the country was negotiating how a democracy accommodates differences among its people. Facing History created a series of lessons which can be used to bring the letters to students. The letters can be used to consider the diversity of religions from the very beginning in the United States of America, the early notions of the separation of church and state, and even the structure of civil dialogue. It presents a powerful opportunity for students to consider the active nature and needs of democracy as well as its ideals.


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Topics: Choosing to Participate, Critical Thinking, Religion

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