George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Savannah, Ga., Hebrew Congregation, 14 June 1790

To the Savannah, Ga., Hebrew Congregation

[14 June 1790]


I thank you with great sincerity for your congratulations on my appointment to the office, which I have the honor to hold by the unanimous choice of my fellow-citizens: and especially for the expressions which you are pleased to use in testifying the confidence that is reposed in me by your congregation.

As the delay which has naturally intervened between my election and your address has afforded an opportunity for appreciating the merits of the federal-government, and for communicating your sentiments of its administration—I have rather to express my satisfaction than regret at a circumstance, which demonstrates (upon experiment) your attachment to the former as well as approbation of the latter.

I rejoice that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent than it formerly was among the enlightened nations of the earth; and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive. Happily the people of the United States of America have, in many instances, exhibited examples worthy of imitation—The salutary influence of which will doubtless extend much farther, if gratefully enjoying those blessings of peace which (under favor of Heaven) have been obtained by fortitude in war, they shall conduct themselves with reverence to the Deity, and charity towards their fellow-creatures.

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

G. Washington

LB, DLC:GW. The address was delivered to GW on 14 June by Congressman James Jackson of Georgia (Daily Advertiser [New York], 16 June).

The first Jewish congregation in Georgia, Mickve Israel, was established in Savannah about 1735 but discontinued services around 1740. The congregation was reorganized in 1774, only to have regular services interrupted by the Revolution. The congregation was reformed again in 1786, largely through the leadership of the brothers Mordecai and Levi Sheftall. The leaders of the congregation wrote to GW, apparently in May 1790, congratulating him on his election as president: “Sir, We have long been anxious of congratulating you on your appointment by unanimous approbation to the Presidential dignity of this country, and of testifying our unbounded confidence in your integrity and unblemished virtue: Yet, however exalted the station you now fill, it is still not equal to the merit of your heroic services through an arduous and dangerous conflict, which has embosomed you in the hearts of her citizens.

“Our eccentric situation added to a diffidence founded on the most profound respect has thus long prevented our address, yet the delay has realised anticipation, given us an opportunity of presenting our grateful acknowledgements for the benedictions of Heaven through the energy of federal influence, and the equity of your administration.

“Your unexampled liberality and extensive philanthropy have dispelled that cloud of bigotry and superstition which has long, as a veil, shaded religion—unrivetted the fetters of enthusiasm—enfranchised us with all the privileges and immunities of free citizens, and initiated us into the grand mass of legislative mechanism. By example you have taught us to endure the ravages of war with manly fortitude, and to enjoy the blessings of peace with reverence to the Deity, and benignity and love to our fellow-creatures.

“May the great Author of worlds grant you all happiness—an uninterrupted series of health—addition of years to the number of your days and a continuance of guardianship to that freedom, which, under the auspices of Heaven, your magnanimity and wisdom have given these States” (DLC:GW). The letter was signed by Levi Sheftall (Shestal; 1739–1809), the first president of the Mickve Israel congregation. Sheftall engaged in mercantile activities and operated a butchering and tanning business before the Revolution and after the war invested in farm and timber land. Along with his brother Mordecai Sheftall (1735–1797), he was among those chiefly responsible for the reformation of the Mickve Israel congregation. Levi Sheftall later held the post of U.S. agent for fortifications in Savannah (Sheftall, “The Sheftalls of Savannah,” description begins John McKay Sheftall. “The Sheftalls of Savannah: Colonial Leaders and Founding Fathers of Georgia Judaism.” In Jews of the South, edited by Samuel Proctor et al., 65–78. Macon, Ga., 1984. description ends 65–78). The congregation’s letter to GW may have been related to their efforts to obtain a charter of incorporation. In December 1789 the Georgia legislature passed an act authorizing the governor to grant charters to religious societies, enabling them to hold property and assume other corporate privileges. The leaders of Mickve Israel applied for incorporation under this act in August 1790 and were granted a charter by Georgia governor Edward Telfair on 30 Nov. 1790 (Marcus, American Jewry, description begins Jacob Rader Marcus, American Jewry—Documents: Eighteenth Century. Cincinnati, 1959. description ends 172–75).

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