“By 1789, when the Constitution of the United States was adopted,” Milton R. Konvitz, a foremost authority on First Amendment rights, in his Fundamental Rights of a Free People (Ithaca, 1957) states, “Virginia and Rhode Island were states in which complete religious freedom was enjoyed. Remnants ofs establishment or intolerance lingered in the other eleven states.” That religious freedom was the law in Virginia, the largest and leading state of the union, was due in great measure to Thomas Jefferson’s political leadership and even more so to James Madison’s ideological arguments. His “Memorial and Remonstrance” made possible the enactment of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which in 1786 became law in Virginia and which provides:
Konvitz notes, “This was probably the first statutory enactment of complete religious freedom and equality in the world. in effect, when Virginia won religious freedom for herself, it won it also for the rest of the country.”
Jefferson and Madison corresponded on the subject with two of America’s leading Jews, Mordecai Manuel Noah and Dr. Jacob De La Motta. Each had delivered an address at the consecration of a synagogue — Noah in New York in 1818, De La Motta in Savannah in 1820. Each had sent published copies to the presidents, who responded with letters which remain important contributions in defining the meaning of freedom and equality in the United States, particularly for the Jews.
De La Motta’s letter to James Madison and the retained responses of both presidents to both orators are now in the Library’s Presidential Papers collection. In Jefferson’s case, the copies are ones he actually inscribed by his own hand, using a polygraph which he referred to as a “portable secretary.” It was a writing machine which had two pens in tandem, so that the letters sent and the copies retained were identical.
It is not surprising that Mordecai M. Noah was chosen to deliver the discourse at the consecration of Shearith Israel’s new synagogue on the 17th of April, 1818. Certainly the best known Jew in America, he had served as the U.S. Consul in Tunis, was now editor of the National Advocate, and a year earlier had been the chief orator at the forty-first anniversary celebration of American independence in which the Tammany Society had been joined by a half dozen kindred organizations. In addition, he was a faithful member of the congregation, which his great-grandfather, seventy years earlier, had served as hazzan. Noah’s Discourse was published and widely disseminated. in his Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, which appeared a year later, Noah published the letters he received about the Discourse from “three presidents of the United States, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.”
Adams was a true son of Massachusetts, the only seaboard colony which did not have a Jewish community until well into the nineteenth century. The Federalist assumed a proper but patronizing posture. After acknowledging that “I know not when I have read a more liberal or more elegant composition,” Adams allows:
Adams was a member of the committee which framed the Declaration of Independence, and having participated in the forging of the new nation, he was proud of its liberality.
I wish your nation may be admitted to all the privileges of citizens in every country of the world. This country has done much. I wish it may do more; and annul every narrow idea in religion, government, and commerce.
The response Noah received from Madison was rather formal. Relations between the two were strained, because during the Madison administration Noah was recalled from his consulship, an action which Noah publicly attributed to bigotry.
Montpelier, May 15
Sir: I have received your letter of the sixth, with the eloquent discourse delivered at the consecration of the Synagogue. Having ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions and worship as equally belonging to every sect, and the secure enjoyment of it as the best human provision for bringing all, either into the same way of thinking, or into that mutual charity which is the only proper substitute, I observe with pleasure the view you give of the spirit in which your sect partake of the common blessings afforded by our Government and laws.
Jefferson’s response must rank as one of his greatest statements of religious liberty and equality.
Monticello, May 28
the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious, as they do our civil rights, by putting all on an equal footing. But more remains to be done, for although we are free by the law, we are not so in practice. Public opinion erects itself into an inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an Auto-da-fé. The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion altho’ the elder one, cannot be unfelt by ourselves. It is to be hoped that individual dispositions will at length mould themselves to the model of the law, and consider the moral basis, on which all our religions rest, as the rallying point which unites them in a common interest; while the peculiar dogmas branching from it are the exclusive concern of the respective sects embracing them, and no rightful subject of notice to any other. Public opinion needs reformation on that point, which would have the further happy effect of doing away the hypocritical maxim of “intus et lubet, foris ut moris.” Nothing, I think, would be so likely to effect this, as to your sect particularly, as the more careful attention to education, which you recommend, and which, placing its members on the equal and commanding benches of science, will exhibit them as equal objects of respect and favor. I should not do full justice to the merits of your Discourse, were I not, in addition to that of its matter, to express my consideration of it as a fine specimen of style and composition. I salute you with great respect and esteem.
Jacob De La Motta (1789-1845) was a native of Savannah who received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania at age twenty-one. Volunteering his services at the outbreak of the War of 1812, he was commissioned as a surgeon in the U.S. Army. Later he practiced medicine in New York, where he became a friend and disciple of Gershom Mendes Seixas, at whose funeral he delivered the eulogy. De La Motta then returned to Savannah, where he resumed his practice and soon became a leader both in his profession and in the Jewish community. It was natural that he be invited to deliver the consecration address at the dedication of the city’s new synagogue on July 21, 1820. In appreciation, the congregation’s Building Committee published the address, of which the Library has a copy. In a letter accompanying the pamphlet he sent to Madison, he writes:
We may assume that he sent a similar letter to Jefferson, whose reply to De La Motta is noteworthy for his felicitous inversion of “united we stand, divided we fall.” Written in third person and dated September 1, 1820, it said:
Th. Jefferson returns his thanks to Dr. De La Motta for the eloquent discourse on the Consecration of the Synagogue of Savannah, which he has been so kind as to send him. It excites in him the gratifying reflection that his country has been the first to prove to the world two truths, the most salutary to human society, that man can govern himself, and that religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension: the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is “divided we stand, united, we fall.” He is happy in the restoration of the Jews, particularly, to their social rights, and hopes they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government. He salutes Dr. De La Motta with sentiments of great respect.
Madison’s letter is more gracious and of greater relevance and utility to American Jews of the time who were striving to remove the disabilities which still remained in some state constitutions, particularly in Maryland, where Jews were in the midst of their struggle for adoption of the “Jew Bill.”
Source: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).
Portrait: Public domain.