George Washington and Religious Liberty: The Hidden History of the Newport Letter

University of Oklahoma

Andrew Porwancher is the Wick Cary Professor at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches constitutional history. Professor Porwancher previously held the May Fellowship at Harvard, the Horne Fellowship at Oxford, and the Garwood Fellowship at Princeton. Porwancher also is the recipient of the Longmire Prize for innovative teaching. His newest book, The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, was published by Princeton University Press and won the Journal of the American Revolution Book-of-the Year Award.



August 18 marks the anniversary of one of the most important milestones in American Jewish History: George Washington’s letter to the Newport Synagogue.  This letter was of world-historical importance, marking the first time that a head of state anywhere in the world recognized Jews as citizens.  Despite the letter’s enduring fame, few know the hidden history that lies behind it. The lecture will reveal the surprising story of the most important document in American-Jewish history.

As George Washington assumed the powers of the presidency, Jews were unsure of their standing in the new republic. It remained unclear whether the nation would fulfill or forget the promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  Amid this uncertain context, Jews engaged in a heated debate over if and how to engage the new administration.  Washington’s unexpected visit to a war-ravaged Rhode Island prompted the Jews of Newport to issue their own address to Washington.  His momentous response, perhaps even more than the First Amendment itself, created the foundations of free exercise in the United States.

In our modern age, as the scourge of antisemitism resurfaces with new vigor, the Newport letter and its vital call for religious freedom remain as relevant as ever.





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Marc Tanenbaum

The Newport Letter- Who knew??

Professor Porwancher gives a remarkable presentation about the Newport Letter_George Washington’s response to Rhodesia Island Jewery in 1790. I will listen to it a few more times as it is information dense and very valuable to today’s values. The document supports a strict constructionist interpretation of the Bill of Rights regarding Religious Liberty. I wonder if Washington’s writings include comments on the Right to Bear Arms? Wouldn’t a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution limit the arms to muskets. The Consitution says nothing about AR15’s etc. Professor P is a wonderful and engaging speaker. I look forward to his continued contributions to OneDayU.

2 years ago
David Schwarz

Fabulous. Thank you. So glad I watched today.

2 years ago


Great enthusiasm and details! Enjoyed this one.

2 years ago
Maggie Olmstead


I learned some things, but for my interests, there was way too much time spent on the internal politics of Jewish congregations in the 18th century. I wound up fast forwarding through much of the first half-hour of the lecture.

2 years ago
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