- Search out the Land: The Jews and the Growth of Equality in British Colonial America, 1740–1867
In this handsomely produced volume, the Godfreys explore the role of Jews in the British colonies of Nova Scotia, Quebec (Canada), St. John (now Prince Edward Island), New Brunswick, Upper Canada (now Ontario), and British Columbia during the roughly twelve decades from the sponsored settlement of Nova Scotia beginning in 1749 to the British North American Act of 1867, after which they all became provinces of what has become the national state of Canada. Although it provides a lot of information on where Jews settled and why and incidentally throws some light on their economic activities and the social conditions in which they lived, the volume, as the subtitle announces, is primarily a narrative of the relationship of Jews to “the growth of freedom and legal equality” in British America. Within their definition of equality, the authors include the civil rights to become citizens, reside freely, hold land, and use the courts, the religious rights to the free exercise of religion, and the political rights to vote and hold public office. The authors’ principal thesis is that Jews, whose numbers in all the colonies studied never was more than a few hundred families (they document only a few more than one hundred such families between 1750 and 1840) “were at the leading edge of the movement for equality of citizenship.”
Following brief sketches of the political, civil, and religious disabilities imposed upon Jews in early modern England and of the only slightly more liberal conditions encountered by the limited number of Jews who resided in some of the American colonies before 1740, the authors show how the offer of naturalization to foreign Protestants and Jews by the British Plantation Act of 1740 encouraged Jews to settle in many American colonies in the 1740s and 1750s, including Nova Scotia, where for a brief period in the 1750s they formed a considerable part of the early mercantile community, acquired land, served as jurors, established a minyan, and had their own burying ground. After the conquest of Canada in the early 1760s, Jews, welcomed by the small non-Catholic English population and attracted by economic and civil opportunities and a climate of religious toleration, were conspicuous among the new immigrants to that colony. As sutlers, settlers, and traders, they became [End Page 113] especially prominent in the Great Lakes fur trade. Over the next thirty years, Jews in Lower Canada, the Godfreys show, “possessed virtually equal rights with Anglicans,” and a few of them even held minor political offices, developments without precedent in the Anglophone world. Although the period from the late 1780s through the 1810s represented a period of retrenchment in which the requirement of a Protestant oath for enfranchisement, landholding, and public officeholding placed Jews throughout British North America, including Lower Canada, under the sorts of political, civil, and religious disabilities that were characteristic of Britain, every North American colony, for reasons and in a manner peculiar to itself and often with significant Jewish participation, had by the middle of the nineteenth century adopted a secular form of oath that made Jews fully equal with other religious groups.
The volume contains a few errors. Before the American Revolution, the British did not “usually” pay “many of the costs for the settlement of colonists.” Georgia during its earliest decades and Nova Scotia were unique in this regard. Nor did metropolitan officials give law to colonies through royal instructions or proclamations. So far from carrying authority equivalent to that of colonial statutes, the legality of such directives depended almost entirely upon the willingness of local powerholders to implement them. What was legal, constitutional, and authoritative in the early modern British Empire was thus invariably a function of what metropolitans and locals could agree upon. Authority in the colonies did not devolve from England but was created through a delicate process of negotiation between the settlers...