Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump vs. George Washington on Muslim Immigrants

"Religious Freedom in America" canceled?
stamp commemorating the
Flushing Remonstrance, 1957

The bizarre political candidacy of billionaire developer Donald Trump continues to generate amazement: After each outrageous statement, pundits declare him politically dead, only to see his popularity continue to grow. If his mocking of Vietnam War hero John McCain did not do him in, what could?

A gaffe too far?

It was bad enough when Trump assented to a reporter's goading suggestion to establish a database to register Muslims. And his comment about Syrian migrants as potential "great Trojan horses" was among the flood of nationwide anti-refugee sentiment that prompted the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to make a rare entry into the political sphere and issue a sharp warning. This week, commentators are wondering whether he has finally gone too far.

Yesterday's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" provoked outrage across the political and cultural spectrum. Fellow Republican candidates Christie, Graham, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush castigated the remarks as "ridiculous," "dangerous," "offensive and outlandish," "outrageous," and "unhinged." Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley for the second time branded Trump's ideas as "fascist." (1, 2Jewish groups joined in the condemnation. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, not known for being squishy on issues of national security, said, "this whole notion . . . goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from." This morning, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan made an unusual intervention, saying Trump's plan "is not conservatism . . . is not what the party stands for and more importantly is not what the country stands for."

"to bigotry no sanction"

What else need one add? Perhaps it will suffice to contrast Mr. Trump's views with those of the first man to hold the office he seeks.

George Washington, though a slaveholder, to be sure, was celebrated for his commitment to both Enlightenment values and democracy. In 1790, as the states were debating the amendments that would constitute the Bill of Rights, he received a letter of greeting from the Jewish congregation of Newport. The new President responded:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, 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. . . .

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The letter is today an iconic document of pluralism: oft-cited, and ceremoniously read from the pulpit of Newport's Touro Synagogue each year.

"They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an Sect, or they may be Athiests"

By contrast, Washington's attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are less familiar. There were no large formal Muslim American congregations akin to the Touro synagogue, but there were Muslims aplenty among the captive African workers of the South, a fact now coming to be recognized in the interpretation of historic sites such as Mount Vernon, but only gradually making its way into popular consciousness. Diversified agricultural enterprises such as Mount Vernon depended upon a large labor force, free as well as slave, and Washington, for whom this property was his life's work, was ever on the lookout for skilled artisans. Upon learning that German immigrants ("Palatines") were arriving, he wrote to Tench Tilghman in 1784:
I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Trademen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing [=hire on contract; JW] one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Athiests. I would however prefer middle aged, to young men.
Washington may have been exaggerating in order to make the point that he judged a man only by his skills, but it was clear that the principle of toleration would extend to free Muslims including voluntary immigrants. When Washington wrote his letter to the Newport congregation, the United States was unique in guaranteeing full civil and political rights to citizens of all faiths (even the French revolutionaries were still grappling with the issue). Traditional New Englanders had worried that religious "toleration" "opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels" as citizens, but that was exactly the point. Richard Henry Lee, though an advocate of tax-supported religion, wrote to James Madison in 1784: "True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion." And, addressing Irish immigrants the previous year, Washington declared, "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions."

Now, which attitude seems more presidential, more American?

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