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  • “How it Will End, the Blessed God Knows”: A Reading of Jewish Correspondence During the Revolutionary War Era
  • Michael Hoberman (bio)

“Keep us all from so much danger”: a revolution in epistolary modes

Philadelphia merchant Jonas Phillips’ July 28, 1776 letter to his Amsterdam cousin Gumpel Samson bore witness to a heightened mood of political momentousness.1 Phillips had accompanied his letter with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, but the forthrightness of its tone was an even more powerful conveyance of enthusiasm. “The Americans have an Army of 100,000 soldiers and the English only 25,000 and some ships,”2 he boasted, before going on to tell Samson, “[The] Americans [had] made themselves [free] like the states of Holland.” Despite his admitted inability to predict an outcome—“How it will end the blessed God knows,” he said—Phillips sounded an optimistic, even breathless tone as he exclaimed, “[The] war does me no damage, thank God!”3 Through much of the eighteenth century, letters by North American [End Page 281] Jews had displayed an attitude of restraint. As Jacob Rader Marcus put it, colonial era Jews “kept their mouths shut and accepted a secondary status because they were convinced that there was nothing they could do to improve it.”4 This habit of reticence on public matters had been nowhere more apparent than in Abigaill Levy Franks’ letters to her son Naphtali (Edith Gelles refers to their powerful display of “rationality, acceptance, and adaptability”5), and in the correspondence of several other aspiring members of the merchant class.6 The outbreak of the Revolutionary War, by contrast, saw the rise of an epistolary attribute that had been lacking among Jews until that point: unbridled passion.

Phillips’ letter affords insight into the emotional fervor that infused Jewish writing about the American Revolution. In the face of what Jonathan D. Sarna refers to as a thematic background of “exile, loss, destruction, and redemption,”7 Revolutionary War-era Jews created an effusive family and business correspondence that described the depredations of war, enumerated the sufferings it brought, and projected the hope for a more tranquil future. While this body of epistolary literature was not always a testament to their devotion to the patriotic cause (or, for that matter, that of the Loyalists), its rhetorical force was indicative nonetheless of its authors’ deepening conviction that they had found a home in North America. Regardless of their individual or familial circumstances, Jewish correspondents during the Revolutionary War knew that they could ill afford to remain indifferent to the conflict’s progress. Like the highly individualized portraits for which some of them sat in the war’s aftermath, the letters that Jewish merchants wrote during the conflict reflected a profound change, if not in their actual social status, then in their view of themselves as “part of, rather than apart from” early American society.8 As Richard Brilliant writes with [End Page 282] reference to those portraits, the experience of the Revolution allowed Jews to represent themselves in “more personal, more specific” ways.9 This “growing confidence in their… sense of belonging” also inspired Jewish letter writers on both sides of the conflict to be more emotionally assertive than they had been during the previous decades of the century. Then, life in the colonies had felt like a less secure prospect to many of them, and they had gone out of their way to withhold all political pronouncements. That “nearly all [of them] chose one side or another” during the war, as Eli Faber suggests, was an indication of the firmness of their commitment and their newfound willingness to take “public political stands for the first time.”10

Deliberate attention to Revolutionary War Jewish correspondence allows us to see how formal shifts in epistolary communication can reflect the ways in which subjects experience and integrate social and political changes. Building upon the considerable efforts that scholars have already made to explore the contents of this correspondence in pursuit of a deeper insight into how Jews negotiated the fraught and bracing events of the Revolutionary War, this essay concentrates its attention primarily on the formal qualities of that correspondence in order to address a similar...


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pp. 281-313
Launched on MUSE
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