- More Disgrace than Honor:The Diminishment of Paternal Authority in the Letters of Aaron Hart
When eighteenth century Canadian Jewish business magnate Aaron Hart wrote letters to his sons, he could not help but sound like a worried father—and with good reason. He was the father of eight grown children (four sons and four daughters1) and the proprietor of a “conglomerate of business interests in a variety of areas of real estate, fur, liquor, foodstuffs, and lumber” scattered throughout Quebec.2 But while this wealth allowed him to provide generously for all of his progeny, he could hardly predict, let alone influence, his children’s varied courses in life. “Like most aggressive men,” writes Jacob Rader Marcus, “[Hart] kept a watchful and paternalistic eye on his family.”3 Hart’s letters to and concerning his sons (especially those he wrote to his eldest son, Moses) bear eloquent witness both to the eagerness with which he attempted to guard their future and the frustrations he felt as a result of his inability to do so. As powerful as Hart was, his letters are fraught representations of the limits of paternal authority. Each of them brusquely announces its writer’s intention of deploying his sons as agents and extensions of his own imperious reach. At the same time, the letters are poignant reminders of Hart’s struggle to assert a control that he did not possess. The eagerness with which Hart’s letters relayed his strong wishes for his sons’ development as autonomous individuals and, at the same time, imparted firm guidance for their pursuit of family business interests, invites speculation with regard to a nascent Jewish American literary patrimony in which individual power rarely translated into communal authority. Hart’s legacy typified that of several early American Jews; for all his commercial achievements, he would exercise little influence over his children’s moral character or their future place in society. [End Page 211]
Hart could not help but draw from his own experience as he presented fatherly counsel, but his Canadian-born sons, who would survive well into the nineteenth century, were not necessarily susceptible to that counsel. Born in 1724, the Yiddish-speaking son of Bavarian-born Ashkenazic Jewish parents, Aaron Hart was raised in London, but he left the Old World for New York around 1757. After a lucrative stint as a purveyor to the British military force that would eventually wrest sovereignty over Quebec from French control, he settled in Lower Canada in 1761. Hart made his way as a shopkeeper and fur trader in the town of Three Rivers. He acquired vast land holdings in Quebec and Nova Scotia, and he always hewed to the traditions and practices of the Jewish religion. His Jewish identity heightened the precariousness of his circumstances, especially in the context of a predominantly Francophone and Catholic district of Canada, where he was perceived as a quintessentially foreign agent of British power—“a shrewd and oversharp Jew,” as one of his early critics put it.4 His sons—Moses, Ezekiel, Benjamin and Alexander Hart—would certainly accept their financial inheritance from their father, but the halting words of advice that the old man dispensed in their behalf were of little use to them. They were living in a rapidly changing world in which the importance of familial ties and religious heritage was being eclipsed within an ideological climate that encouraged individual achievement and advocated cultural assimilation—if not to local French customs, then at least to British standards of gentlemanly demeanor. Hart himself was well aware that his authority had bounds, and his letters present profound literary evidence of the multiple anxieties he felt about that fact, as well as the evident insecurity he felt as a result of his family’s isolation.
Though Jews comprised a tiny minority throughout North America, the great majority of them were able, nonetheless, to avoid isolation by living in close proximity to one another in the continent’s larger seaport settlements. Moreover, even as colonial-era Jews often sought and found common cause with one another, both socially and economically, they often mingled freely with non-Jews and participated in the...