Commentator Dinesh D’Souza is about to release a new movie called Police State. He is tapping into a zeitgeist that many Americans are concerned about today because they have heard about atrocities from the Soviet Gulag and Nazi concentration camps and fear something similar happening in America.
When I was preparing to be interviewed for The American Miracle movie (which comes out in 2025), I came across a story that I had not heard before about a Jewish family and the Inquisition and wanted to share it with you. Although this story is not in the movie, it shows the importance of religious liberty. Our Founders had enough confidence in what they believed about God that they did not require everyone to believe the same thing. They let faith be free.
The Seixus family of Newport, Rhode Island, had a justified reason to fear visits from government officials to their homes in 1790. After all, they all knew their family’s story. When their ancestor, Abraham Seixus, received a visit from Portugal’s police state known as the Inquisition in 1720, he knew that they might arrest him and burn him at the stake in Lisbon’s town square.
Similar to its Spanish counterpart, Portugal’s Inquisition targeted non-Catholics, including Protestants, Muslims, and Jews like Abraham Seixus. While many Jews publicly converted to Catholicism and attended mass to avoid the Inquisition, they were at risk of their servants and neighbors spying on them and accusing them of “crimes,” such as eating Jewish food, observing Shabbat, or fasting for Yom Kippur.
For these and other offenses, Inquisition judges often imposed the harsh sentences of imprisonment, flogging, loss of property, and torture. Sometimes Jews were allowed to return to their homes but were forced to wear degrading conical hats symbolizing heresy whenever they were in public, as Jon Feder discovered when he researched his 11th great aunt.
“The judges ruled that, although she outwardly kept Catholic practices, she didn’t truly believe in them. She was sentenced to prison and was forced, to the end of her days, to wear a “sambenito” – a tunic and a conical cap, denoting heretics. This hat of disgrace constituted an open invitation to anyone meeting her in public to curse and beat her. To the end of her days,” Feder reported.
“The horrific public punishment ceremonies carried out by the Inquisition were known as autos-da-fé, (“acts of faith”). Their role was clear: to demonstrate the force of the church and the Inquisition, intimidate the masses, and illustrate to the “New Christians” their certain fate if caught practicing their former religion.
The worst sentence, of course, was execution, especially burning at the stake on the town square. Public executions by Portugal’s police state became a blood sport. To intimidate the masses and show the power of the church and crown, executions were often included in public ceremonies, such as a king’s coronation. From 1536 to 1821, the Portuguese Inquisition prosecuted 31,000 lawsuits and executed 1,900 men and women.
Hence, in 1720, Abraham Seixus had every reason to fear when his servant told him that officials from the Holy Office had knocked on his door. A thousand thoughts must have raced through his mind. Had his servant betrayed him? Would he be arrested and tortured? How could he possibly hide?
However, Abraham’s servant, as the Seixus family relayed, came to his aid. Hiding him in a laundry basket, his servant carried him to a discreet location on the property. When the Inquisition officials could not find Abraham, they left.
Fleeing to England, Abraham arranged for his family to join him. They eventually migrated to Newport, Rhode Island. Peacefully tolerated, the Seixus family enjoyed something they did not have in Portugal— a synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763 and led by Rabbi Isaac Touro.
In 1765, King George III imposed the Stamp Act, which was a tax on almost every sheet of paper in the American colonies. Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward was the only colonial governor who did not enforce the tax.
When Governor Ward called upon all Rhode Islanders to celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of November despite the Stamp Act, Rabbi Touro answered the call and led his synagogue in showing solidarity with their Christian neighbors and civil authorities by publishing a Hebrew Thanksgiving prayer in the newspaper.
After thanking God for his mercy and goodness, Touro expressed gratitude for the peace they enjoyed from local authorities.
“Grant, we beseech thee, that we may enjoy internal peace in this land; and that peace may subsist between all states and potentates; that thy holy word, spoken by the prophet, may be fulfilled; ‘and I will give peace in the land.’”
After the American Revolution in 1790, Moses Seixus, one of Abraham’s grandsons, managed Newport’s synagogue. At this time, Rhode Island was in the national news as the final state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Because the Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights, Rhode Islanders had refused to ratify the new Constitution. Congress, however, had recently passed a Bill of Rights and the states were in the process of ratifying them. This gave the people of Rhode Island the assurance that they needed to rejoin the union under the new U.S. Constitution.
President George Washington decided to visit Rhode Island in honor of their recent ratification. Moses Seixus seized the opportunity. In sharp contrast to his grandfather Abraham, who was forced to hide from Portugal’s Inquisition when they visited his home, Seixus welcomed President George Washington to his synagogue. He wrote a special greeting to the President, who visited the synagogue on August 18, 1790:
“Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits—and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport."
Seixus reflected on the difficulties that General Washington faced during the war.
“With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States."
Knowing that not only had King George III deprived him of his rights, but that the Portuguese Inquisition had also deprived his grandfather of religious liberty, Seixus showed his appreciation for America.
“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a government, erected by the majesty of the people—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: This so ample and extensive federal union whose basis is philanthropy, mutual confidence and public virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good."
“For all the blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of men—beseeching him, that the angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honor, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the heavenly paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.”
President Washington took the opportunity to show that religious liberty in America extended to Jews.
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity.
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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy."
He believed that religious liberty was an important freedom. Through this message to the synagogue in Rhode island, George Washington set the example that America would be a place of freedom and not a place for an Inquisition.