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Insufficient evidence is available to determine how the Jews reacted to the Declaration of Independence. Though Jonas Phillips sent a copy to a relative in Holland, he did so without comment. Implicitly the Declaration offered the Jews a great deal, certainly more than they had been granted under the British. Even so, until September, 1777, the Jews received nothing by way of more generous political rights from either the individual states or from the Confederation. All the states which had already adopted constitutions ignored the Jews—except that no one could hold high office who was not a Christian. In September, 1777, New York gave the Jews equality. The Whigs were then in exile from New York City, which was in the hands of the English; the state government could afford to be—somewhat—liberal. Originally the New Yorkers had considered offering rights to all men, not only to Jews, but also to Turks, infidels, and Catholics. They thought better of it: Jews were emancipated; Catholics were not. It was to be a long generation before Catholics achieved equality with others. New York Jews were pleased; a dynamic, urban, commercial group, they felt themselves entitled to recognition and on December 9, 1783, wrote the governor that they looked forward to living under a polity which had granted them “the inestimable blessings” of civil and religious liberty. They knew how much better off they were than Europe’s Jews. That same year Maria Theresa of Austria had declared that her Jewish subjects were a pest and their number would have to be reduced.1

In her Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, published in 1784, Hannah Adams said that the Jews had been indulged in all the rights of citizens. That was true of New York alone; everywhere else at that time state governments were still controlled by elite middle-class and upper-class electors who represented but a fraction of the total population. Most of them in the 1780’s had no intention of sharing power with the Jews, their bourgeois rivals. The majority of Americans, whether themselves enfranchised or not, whether radicals or conservatives, could not yet conceive of granting full rights to non-Christians; that would have been too much of a wrench; America was still very much a Christian country. For the Jew, as for millions of others, the Revolution began only after the signing of the peace treaty with the British. A true liberal in matters political, Jefferson in 1779 in his Ordinance of Religious Freedom set out to grant immunities to Jews, Catholics, Moslems, and all infidels. It was a propagandistic, Deistic piece of legislation. Jefferson wanted a complete separation of church and state, a goal which was not shared by his fellow-Virginians Patrick Henry, George Washington, and John Marshall. Jefferson, Madison, and their sympathizers were only too conscious of the fact that the decade of the 1770’s had seen Protestant dissenters, non-Anglicans, jailed in Virginia. Hence many evangelicals were as eager as the political radicals to divorce church and state. Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom finally passed the state legislature in 1786.2

One may assume that Jefferson’s victory in Virginia encouraged the Jews in other states to push for equality. Virginia was the largest and most populous state. Real progress was soon made; in four years, five states recognized their Jewish citizens, bestowing upon them all privileges and immunities: Georgia (1789), South Carolina (1790), Pennsylvania (1790), Delaware (1792), and Vermont (1793). There was probably not one Jewish family in Vermont when the state dismantled religious barriers in 1793; the Vermont lawgivers were thinking only of Christians when they made their sweeping proclamation of equality. Connecticut, too, when she granted rights to all in 1818, had as yet no Jewish community; rights only for Christians were envisaged there, but when in the 1840’s Jews established their first community in the state they met with no resistance.3

In other states it was well over three decades before the emancipation push was successful. As the Gentile masses increased their power politically, they were chary of emancipating Jews. Then, too, the excesses of the French Revolution frightened the Americans. Thirty-six years after Pennsylvania and South Carolina gave their Jews equality, Maryland finally permitted her Jewish citizens to hold office. That was in 1826. Twenty-five years earlier, Jefferson had appointed Reuben Etting the United States marshal for Maryland. In all likelihood, the President had made that appointment deliberately to shame the state for its political conservatism and to emphasize its bigotry. Maryland’s pro-Jewish emancipator, Thomas Kennedy (d. 1832), wrote:

I blush for Christians that they should forget

The Golden Rule—their great Law-giver set.4

Conservative forces more sure of themselves had a chance to rally. The ballot frequently permitted committed Christians to document their prejudices against infidel Jews. Massachusetts accorded Jews complete rights only in 1833, Rhode Island, not until 1843, New Jersey, as late as 1844. Present at the New Jersey constituent convention that year was the Jewish journalist and politician David Naar, one of the authors of the state’s bill of rights. Naar, later mayor of Elizabethtown, fought against imprisonment for debt, worked to establish the first normal school in the state, and insisted that his fellow-Masons recognize blacks. Yet, where the Jews were concerned, the battle for political democracy in America was still to be won. Tidewater gentlemen in North Carolina surrendered power reluctantly. That state did not emancipate its Jews till 1868 and then probably only with the help of black freedman legislators during the Reconstruction era. Finally in 1876–1877—a good century after Jefferson’s Great Avowal, the Declaration of Independence—New Hampshire emancipated her Jews. There were probably not ten Jewish families in the entire state.5



In 1777, the very year that New York made provision politically for her Jews, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, though they would not come into force until 1781. Like the Declaration of Independence, the Articles said nothing about religious liberty—a very sensitive subject. In principle, all discriminatory religious legislation was retained. Yet it was the intention of the Congress to strengthen the national character of the new United States. All free inhabitants were to enjoy rights and immunities—a declaration which was not much more than a pious wish, for the Confederation Congress had very little authority over the individual states, still effectively sovereign. Like the British parliament when it enacted the Plantation Act of 1740 giving Jews and others extensive economic privileges, the Confederation was eager to unite the country. Emphasis was laid upon the privileges of trade and commerce. As an urban trading class, Jews would certainly be encouraged. A little less than ten years after the Articles of Confederation were written and adopted, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance (1787), legislating for the Northwest Territory and for the states that were yet to be organized north of the Ohio and west all the way to the Mississippi. This law would become exemplary; it would be adapted to provide for all new commonwealths to the south as well as north of the Ohio. In brief, the Ordinance declared that no person was ever to be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments. This was tantamount to a guarantee of political equality in all new states. Many a new commonwealth would grant political rights to all citizens long before some of the original thirteen states had abolished religious disabilities. Let it be very clear: the new United States could not claim to be a pioneer in granting the Jews freedom of conscience and worship. Jews already enjoyed such freedom under the British and in many European lands. But freedom to worship as one sees fit is not true religious liberty if it serves as a disability to deprive Jews and other nonconformists of the franchise and the right to hold office. As late as 1787, eleven of the thirteen founding states still denied Jews political equality. Infidels and Jews in all those states, and even Catholics in some commonwealths, could not be full citizens because creedal considerations limited their political rights.6

The old colonial English concept of a tie between the province and religion still lingered on in the Confederation. The Continental Congress was in effect a Christian body. Its members tended to believe that religion, like morality and knowledge, was necessary to good government. When Massachusetts settlers from Granville settled Granville, Ohio, the log house they built served as a church as well as a city hall and a school. Granville was a Christian community. One may question, even given the Northwest Ordinance, whether Congress really wished to divorce the states from religion. The Confederation and Congress were always conscious of the religious mores of the individual pre-Revolutionary provinces. The unexpressed thought was constantly there: all Christians have a common religion; they must tolerate one another and work together. The notion that the states must actually encourage Christian morality is confirmed by the early blasphemy and Sunday laws of the Northwest Territory. The Christian world must rest on the first day of the week; fines were prescribed for those who in cursing invoked the name of God, Christ Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.7


The members of the Continental Congress still hankered after the fleshpots of a Christian paradise. This was not true of the men in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. To be sure, they were or had been reared as Christians, but they found it expedient to make a clean break between church and state. The Christian dissenters, the evangelicals, nonconformists who found themselves in rebellion against the established churches, unwittingly saved the day for the tiny Jewish minority. The threat of sectarian rivalries forced the country to adopt a nonsectarian constitution. The need for separation between church and state was fortified by an old English tradition that went back to the seventeenth century, a tradition that valued toleration and religious freedom, even for Jews. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention adopted a basic national statute on September 17, 1787, they were agreed—in Article VI—that no religious test was ever to be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. Later, Article VI was reinforced by the first amendment, accepted by Congress in 1789 and adopted in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, on the federal level, there was no religious test for Jews who sought office. It was a great advance—though Congress was not ready to establish a nondenominational Federal University and for diverse reasons rejected the proposal.8

It was in August, 1787, that the delegates to the convention resolved that there would be no religious test for federal office. Since the constitutional deliberations were held in secrecy, Philadelphia Jewry was not aware of this important decision. The Jews resented the political disability imposed upon them by the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776. Later, in Congress, Madison sought to amend the new federal constitution to the end that no state be permitted to violate the religious rights of any citizen. The House supported him; the Senate, with the prerogatives and prejudices of the individual states in mind, refused to accept the amendment. Had Madison’s proposal passed, eleven of the original thirteen states would have been compelled to guarantee political equality to Jews, Catholics, Deists, atheists, and other non-Protestants. Still, though this goal had yet to be realized in the new republic, great advances had been made by the federal constitution. For virtually the first time in Diaspora history, Jews were fully free, fully equal in federal rights. The new constitution gave them a chance to develop psychically, affectively, to come closer to their neighbors. This federal constitution, influenced in part by the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and possibly by New York’s 1777 organic statute as well, in turn influenced the states in a liberal direction. Just a few years after the constitution’s promulgation, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Delaware changed their constitutions, eliminating test oaths and religious disabilities. In 1788, when the federal constitution was adopted, Richmond’s little congregation of Jews held a banquet and offered thirteen toasts. The thirteenth is most interesting: “May the Israelites throughout the world enjoy the same religious rights and political advantages as their American brethren.” American egalitarianism was now in potentia an export commodity.9

It may well be that the writers of the new constitutions in the years after 1789 were influenced by the French Revolution, which in turn had not been untouched by American liberalism. The excesses of the French Revolution, however, were certainly resented by many Americans—which may explain why from 1793 to 1826 not one of the tidewater states moved to eliminate its political-religious disabilities. Political liberalism was in bad odor.10

By the turn of the century, the Jews of the United States realized that they stood on the threshold of a new world. Opportunity, real opportunity of a political and economic nature, was resident only in the American republic. The French Revolution, it was true, had brought freedom to Jews in France and Holland, but the situation elsewhere in Europe offered little comfort. America was the land of the future. Liberal charters had been offered Jews in some of the South American colonies in the seventeenth century, but those were privilegia benevolently handed down from above by calculating mercantilist administrators; here in North America, the privileges that the Jews enjoyed they possessed as of right together with all other citizens—immunities which all citizens had won by their own efforts and on their own authority. The Jew of the late eighteenth century believed that he belonged here; his coreligionists had by this time already been in the country for nearly one hundred and fifty years. If this land was free and independent, it was because they, few as they were, had helped make it so; they were proud of the fact that they had had a part in winning their own freedom. And how did they understand freedom? They were concerned with their dignity as human beings; they would accept no disabilities insofar as it lay in their power to reject them. They wanted all the rights advocated by egalitarians, but they never construed their wishes as reflective of the left. They wanted the privilegia of middle-class citizens, of the relatively few electors who exercised the franchise. That spelled opportunity. It was their good fortune that, on the whole, the delegates to the constitutional convention were conservatives. Had they been radicals, with their ears cocked to the prejudices of the masses, they might not have abolished the test oath for office. The masses were not sympathetic to the political aspirations of the Jews. Even in America, it may be said, the Jews were emancipated more from the top down than from the bottom up.11


As far as can be determined, the Jews were elated by the federal constitution. Benjamin Rush said that the new organic statute made worthy men of every religion equal before the law. The Jews were certainly in favor of a strong national government able to further economic life. The tariff barriers of the different states disconcerted them. Though always small in numbers, the Jews were not unimportant in the larger economy. Their sense of American nationalism was growing; many, if not most of them, were native-born in that generation. They approved of the constitution for economic as well as political reasons. And when the people of Philadelphia, the country’s largest city, determined to celebrate the adoption of the constitution by a majority of the states, the Jews prepared to rejoice with them. The occasion was the Federal Parade of July 4, 1788, the greatest spectacle the country had yet seen. It was worth watching, for the gaping, delighted citizenry saw a sight probably never before witnessed on any continent:

The Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight.

Surely the Messiah was just around the corner! After the parade was over, the Jews met together at a kosher table of their own with pickled salmon, bread, crackers, almonds, and raisins—but no hard liquor. Strangely enough Naphtali Phillips, who saw the show at age fifteen and described it eighty years later, did not think it worth mentioning that Jewish and Christian clergy had paraded together. Did he think it was perfectly natural for Jewish and Christian ministers to fraternize? Phillips described the parade in 1868; the preceding year Max Lilienthal had preached from the pulpit of a Unitarian church in Cincinnati. It was said to be the first time in the United States that a rabbi spoke in a church.12



As soon as the military phase of the Revolution erupted and the Continental Congress broke with the British, Jews began to seek appointment or election to office. It was not altogether unusual for them to be accorded rights, appointments, and offices even before the laws or constitutions of their respective states granted them equality. On occasion, popular toleration anticipated legal sanction. In emergency situations, Jews became leaders by popular acquiescence. In 1768, a mob protesting against an unpopular Maryland clergyman had been led by a Jew. It was assumed that, when the new regime was stabilized, Jews would be given equality by statute or by constitutional provision. Literate, urban businessmen, they were acceptable as officeholders. No one could question their capacity in an age of widespread illiteracy. This was certainly true in the South, in Georgia and in South Carolina, where Mordecai Sheftall and Francis Salvador exercised authority more than a decade before Jews were legally permitted to hold office in these states. It was not uncommon for individual “Israelites” to be sworn on the “Holy Evangels.” The Gentiles knew that they were Jews, but deemed their oaths valid. Judah Hays served as fire warden in Boston as early as 1805. Over thirty years before the state constitution permitted a Jew to hold office, Moses M. Hays ran for the Massachusetts state senate. He was egregiously defeated; his successful opponent received 1,574 votes; Hays, one vote. The cynic is tempted to say that such unpopularity must have been deserved, yet a contemporary Christian memoirist praised him to the skies. Had he been elected, he could not of course in good conscience have taken the test oath. When in 1788 cousin Michael Hays, of Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, New York, took the oath as assessor, he had no problem since no disabilities were imposed on Jews in that state. Another Westchester Hays, Jacob, was to serve as High Constable in New York City for years. A Portuguese naturalist on a visit to Philadelphia in 1799 was rather startled to learn that a Jew could sit on a jury. Back home in Portugal, he knew, Jews were not openly tolerated; an auto-da-fé had taken place as recently as 1791. By the turn of the century Jews were not only serving as jurymen in some northern states, but were also practicing law as officers of the court in Pennsylvania (1799) and in New York (1802). In 1822 the ebullient Mordecai M. Noah was serving as sheriff in New York; before 1840, members of the New York Jewish community were to be found on the school board and on the board of health.13

More Jews may have held office in the South than in the North. Was this because of the large number of enslaved blacks? About the year 1820, when Charleston Jewry, the country’s greatest Jewish community, was still at its height, there were more blacks than whites in the state. Were competent literate whites at a premium, especially in the smaller communities of the South? A number of these Jewish officeseekers were Revolutionary War veterans. Baltimore’s Jewish aristocrats, the Ettings and the Cohens, were eager to serve in office, though not as placemen. Ben Etting was a member of the Baltimore school board; Uncle Solomon Etting was elected to the First Branch of the city council and became its president (1826–1827). It was just about then that Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., also became a member of the council. Years later Cohen, too, was elected president of the First Branch. One of Baltimore’s most respected citizens, he distinguished himself as a founder of the city’s public school system and as a commissioner of finance. Let it not be forgotten that not until 1826 were Jews exempt from the state’s Christian test oath. These two Jews were immediately elected to office. The patriarch of the Baltimore Cohen clan was a Virginian, Jacob I. Cohen (senior), of Richmond, appointed as early as 1795 to a committee to quarantine refugees fleeing from the yellow fever in Norfolk. His business partner, Isaiah Isaacs, another Virginia Jewish pioneer, was more active in politics. In 1780 when the religious test oath laws were still in force, he had run unsuccessfully for city council, but he was appointed clerk of the market. After the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Isaacs became a tax assessor and a member of Richmond’s town council. It is interesting that both men were more at home with the Hebrew than with the Latin script. After the turn of the century, the cultured Solomon Jacobs became an alderman and even acting mayor of the city. On occasion, he conducted services in the synagog serving as hazzan.14

After 1790, when a new South Carolina constitution wiping away the Christian test was adopted, Jews in the state assumed a variety of offices. Individuals served in the office of postmaster and as tax collector, as commissioner of schools, of streets, of markets, as attorneys, as clerks of the court, as prothonotary, as deputy sheriff, as coroner, constable, and magistrate, as commissioners of the hospital, the orphan asylum, roads, pilotage, workhouses, and police, as aldermen, as wardens, and as intendant (mayor). The Charleston-born Solomon Heydenfeldt went west to Alabama in 1837 where at the age of twenty-four he was elected a judge in Talapoosa County. A few years later at the time of the Gold Rush, he moved on to California and there became one of the most distinguished jurists on the Pacific Coast. Another Charlestonian, Abraham Seixas, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was very eager for office. This New York transplant was a brother of Gershom, the “rabbi” of the New York congregation and for many years a trustee of Columbia College. Abraham was a magistrate and a warden of the workhouse in Charleston. Campaigning for office in the 1790’s, he resorted to verse. His sister Grace wrote poetry; he wrote doggerel as he pleaded with the electors to commit themselves:

The man I love, who will avow

He is my friend or foe;

But he who comes with double face,

I do despise as being base.

In this particular election the good Charlestonians did commit themselves—Seixas ended up at the bottom of the list. In Georgia, the Jewish involvement in local politics is reflected in the activities of the Sheftall clan. By 1791 Col. Mordecai Sheftall had served in Savannah as tobacco inspector, warden, lumber measurer, and justice of the peace. His son, Sheftall Sheftall, was also to become a justice of the peace; Dr. Moses Sheftall, another of the colonel’s sons, was a port warden, an overseer of the poor, and a judge of the Inferior Court of Chatham County (1828). This family was in no sense atypical; quite a number of Jews held office in Savannah prior to 1840.15


In 1796, Dr. Levi Myers, of Georgetown, South Carolina, was elected to the state legislature. Actually he was not the first Jew to sit in that body, for Salvador had earlier been named to the first General Assembly by a rebel junta. From all indications Myers was no avid politician; he was interested in medicine and general culture; he was a Latinist and a student of literature. He had apprenticed as a medical aspirant in the office of Dr. David Ramsay, who in his day was a notable historian. Myers crossed the ocean to study medicine at Edinburgh (1785–1786), but took his degree in Glasgow (1787), probably because that school, unlike Edinburgh, did not require publication of a thesis. Years later, back home, he received an appointment as Apothecary General of the state. In 1822 he and his family were swept away in a gale that devastated the coast. Subsequently, several Jews were elected to both houses of the state legislature. In 1808 Jacob Henry represented Carteret County in the North Carolinia lower house—illegally, for all North Carolina legislators at the time and for the next sixty years were expected to take a Christian oath. In Georgia, to the South, Dr. Moses Sheftall, served in the state legislature. Family tradition has it that David Emanuel, governor of Georgia in 1801, was a Jew, though there is no substantial evidence to confirm this. Up North, in New York City, Mordecai Myers, an 1812 war veteran with a fine record, began in 1828 serving several terms in the state assembly. Much later, in the 1850’s, he became mayor of the city of Schenectady.16

Myers had once been very active in Congregation Shearith Israel, where he knew Samuel Judah, a pro-American Canadian, and his son, “Dr.” Bernard Samuel Judah, a “surgeon” and druggist. Dr. Judah had married a daughter of Aaron Hart, of Three Rivers, one of the great Quebecois Jewish entrepreneurs, a man who built a feudal estate and established a family still respected today throughout Canada. In 1798, Bernard S. Judah had a son who was named after the child’s paternal grandfather. Young Samuel (1798/1799–1869), a native of New York, after graduating from Rutgers in New Jersey in 1816, picked up stakes and moved west to Indiana, where he turned to law and by 1819 was already practicing in old Vincennes. Were the Brandons of that town, whose daughter he married in 1825, related to one of the numerous Jewish Brandons? Had they brought him out to Indiana? Or was he just another one of the many young men of his day who believed that his chances for a career were far better on the western frontier than in New Jersey? He was a brilliant young fellow; he knew the law and had a fine background in Latin, Greek, and the sciences; and his little two-story frame house not only sheltered his wife and their half-dozen or more children, but also a good sound library. When not yet thirty, Judah was already a successful lawyer enjoying a fine practice and pointing with pride to the best garden in town on his two and one-half acre lot. Of course he had sheep, cows, horses, and beehives, but he also had what few others had—asparagus and celery!

In politics he was a Jacksonian, one of the faction’s leaders indeed, for in 1824 this twenty-six-year-old lawyer had written the state Democratic platform. Three years later he was in the state legislature, and after Jackson’s landslide, in 1829, he became the United States District Attorney. Old Hickory took care of his friends. But Samuel wanted to be United States senator, and when the incumbent James Noble died, Judah campaigned vigorously for the office against a half-dozen rivals, including the shrewd, hard-hitting, hard-drinking Indian fighter, General John Tipton. Judah led on the first two ballots with thirty-six and thirty-nine votes; Tipton had only four, but on the seventh ballot the General came through with a majority. Inasmuch as the election for the six-year term was just one year off, Samuel once more took up the burden of a bitter campaign. This time, he was sure, he was going to win; the General’s friends were equally determined to head him off. One of them, a Doctor Woolverton, had the brilliant idea the following spring of making Judah the governor of the new Wisconsin Territory or of having him appointed judge. Nothing came of that. Judah wanted to be senator; he was convinced that he had earned the job; some of his friends even believed that Tipton had promised not to run against him. In any event Judah made his intentions quite clear in a letter to Tipton on May 30, 1832:

I have determined to be a candidate … I owe some thing to myself … some thing too is due to my own feelings, and some thing to the sacrifices I have made for the party.

It was during the second week of December, 1832, that the election for the full six-year term in the United States Senate took place in Indianapolis, but Judah was not among the candidates. What had happened? A letter sent under a fictitious name to the federal authorities claimed that the accounts of Dr. Woolverton—receiver of public moneys at the Vincennes Land Office—were not in order. Somehow or other this letter fell into the hands of the Doctor and his friends, and they believed the writer to be none other than the United States District Attorney himself, Samuel Judah. The report that Judah was the author of this letter may have been true—he was anything but a political lily—and Woolverton may have been guilty of misappropriating public funds; it may all have been a “frame-up” to crush Judah by smearing him with the epithet of an “informer,” but it worked; for the nonce Judah was dead politically and did not even offer himself as a candidate. Tipton was again elected, this time on the nineteenth ballot.

Did the fact that Judah was a Jew bring about his defeat in the senatorial elections and campaigns of 1831 and 1832? Did Judah admit being a Jew? This last we may take for granted, for in 1827 his father came out to see him, and Bernard S. Judah was a loyal member of Shearith Israel and closely tied to his Jewish kin. Before crossing New York State by stage and canal on his way westward, he called on his cousins the Solomons and Harts in Albany; in Cincinnati he paid his respects to the Jonases and also visited a young Jewish couple who had just married; he even agreed to carry back a packet of wedding cake to be delivered to the Peixottos in Philadelphia for distribution there to the hopeful young females. In spite of his somewhat Deistic leanings, the father was certainly a Jew and close to his son.

Were the Indiana legislators conscious of Judah’s Jewishness? Definitely. After Judah’s first election defeat in December, 1831, General Washington Johnston, of Vincennes, had written to Tipton:

A number of our citizens in this part of the country are highly gratified that you have succeeded over the Jew; in you they confide, but not in him. He now says he did not care about the two years [as senator, 1831–1832] but the next six, which he intends being a candidate! May the Lord in his goodness prevent this.

Almost a year later, Thomas Fitzgerald, a Michigan politician who was one day to become a United States senator himself, wrote to encourage his friend Tipton before the election of December, 1832;

Situated as I am, I can form no satisfactory opinion with regard to politicks and am quite ignorant of what is going on in Indiana, except that you are to have several rivals for your office, and among the rest, Sam’l the Jew. Wonder if he will cry again if he is not elected, though I must say he bore his defeat very well last winter. But it wont do, “Sammy” cant be elected; he cant get so many votes as he had last winter.

In none of his letters—even during the most trying moments of this bitterly fought frontier election when chicanery and bribery were rife—did Tipton himself ever attack his opponent as a “Jew,” although he believed that Judah would stop at nothing to defeat him. The whole public campaign was, morever, singularly free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The references to Samuel as a Jew need not be regarded as sinister; they may very well have been more adjectival and descriptive than calumniatory. Jews were still novelties in Midwestern political life, but Judah always had a large following. A few years later, when he broke with Jackson on the question of internal improvements and joined the Whigs, he became one of the party’s leaders and enjoyed statewide support. In 1840—now back in the State Assembly—he was elected president of the Indiana Whig convention which helped nominate Harrison and carried the state for him. If there was anti-Jewish prejudice on the Indiana frontier, it seems not materially to have been responsible for Judah’s defeats; it certainly did not prevent him from becoming one of the great lawyers of the Middle West and a political power among antebellum Hoosiers.17


In one respect Jews were certainly no different than their Gentile fellow citizens. Ever since the 1780’s they, too, had sought federal office. Col. David S. Franks had enjoyed minor federal assignments in Europe after British recognition of American independence. It was particularly true that many wanted to feed at the national trough in the days after the war when the depression of the 1780’s made it difficult for thousands to make a living. Increasingly, Jews applied to the national government for appointments. Some Jews occupied minor posts in the customs service; others, like Moses Myers, filled important positions. In 1819, Myers, one of the leading businessmen in Norfolk, if not in all Virginia, was crushed financially in the panic that followed the War of 1812. As early as 1784 he had hoped to become the American consul in Amsterdam. At this time Isaac Moses, the senior partner in their firm of international importers and exporters, had appealed on his behalf pointing out that Myers had been grossly abused and robbed by the British when they seized the Dutch Caribbean Island of St. Eustatius in 1781. Myers was stationed there during the Revolution to help run cargoes from Amsterdam past the British cruisers. The desired appointment was not offered Myers, though his partner’s request was given a respectful hearing; the government was indebted to Isaac Moses in more ways than one. The classical example of the seeker after office was Lt. Col. Solomon Bush, who hoped, in vain, to become postmaster general in Washington’s cabinet. Many called but few were chosen; it was not until 1906 that Oscar Straus was invited to become Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the Theodore Roosevelt administration.18

But why had Moses Myers been so eager for a consulship? The reason Jews and others sought consular appointments was that the job, then prestigious, required relatively little time and offered many financial advantages to its holder, who was permitted to carry on his own trading activities. There was no question of a conflict of interest. Three of Benjamin Nones’ sons received consular appointments. Nones himself was an ardent and active Jeffersonian. One of his boys was consul in Venezuela, another went to Haiti, the third was a consular officer in Portugal. The Noneses were a family of great patriots; Benjamin had served with distinction in the Revolution; one of his sons had volunteered during the War of 1812; two others were in the navy; one of them even commanded a revenue cutter—no small achievement for a Jew. The Noneses knew Mordecai Noah well; they were all originally Philadelphians, part of the relatively small Mikveh Israel Sephardic community. Noah had been appointed consul to Tunis and served there from 1813 to 1815 when he was recalled by Madison and Monroe. The government questioned the propriety of his expenditures in redeeming certain presumptive American prisoners; moreover as his superiors wrote, they felt that as a Jew he could not function effectively in a Moslem land. When in 1816 Noah published a book denouncing the President and his Secretary of State for bigotry, these two notables, embarrassed, attempted to exculpate themselves. Madison and Monroe appointed a South Carolina Jew, Moses M. Russell, as consul to Riga, but long before the Senate voted approval Russell was entertained in the White House, where the President and the Secretary explained why they recalled Noah. Russell was asked to take up the cudgels in their defense and to tell his Jewish friends the truth. Bigotry? They were happy to offer Russell a consular post because he was a Jew! Russell for his part offered no objection. Writing to Dr. M. Sheftall, he declared Noah guilty of “injudicious and foul conduct.”19

The job of consul, protecting American shippers and serving as an informative arm of the Department of State, was not always a bed of roses—as Nathan Levy found when serving as Commercial Agent and later as consul for his government on St. Thomas (1818–1836). Levy’s was one of the oldest and most respected of American Jewish families. His mother, Rachel, wife of the Baltimore patriot Benjamin Levy, had sought to secure an appointment for her son in the 1780’s when General Washington, a family friend, first became president. Many years later, in the Danish West Indies, Levy found himself exposed to constant attacks by fellow Americans who tried unsuccessfully to unseat “the Jew.” The Americans in the Islands, said one informant, were shocked because Levy was living with a black woman and was frequently seen promenading with her, arm in arm. Morris Goldsmith, of Charleston, never rose higher than a deputy United States marshal yet served notably in that post for almost twenty years during the early 1800’s. His record would indicate that he was a gentleman of intellect and courage. Goldsmith, a prominent Mason, was a founder and officer of the Reformed Society of Israelites and the editor of the Charleston Directory for 1831. In the 1820’s he was known for the intrepidity with which he took on the dangerous work of pursuing smugglers and pirates.20

For some of these civil servants, a government appointment was more than a meal ticket or an augmented source of income. They wanted to do a job; they were conscientious. This was certainly true of John Jacob Hays (1766/1770–1836), a native New Yorker and a cousin of Moses Michael Hays, of Boston; thus he was a member of a widespread clan which by this time had intermarried with the Gratzes, the Ettings, and the Myerses, scattering its children into numerous states of the growing republic. John had accompanied his Loyalist father Barrack Hays to Canada after the British withdrawal from New York. Flight was the better part of valor for this branch of the family. In Canada, John found Uncle Andrew Hays, one of the first English adventurers to settle there and, apparently, a founder of that country’s first synagog. Like many of the merchants and fur traders of that day, young John had canoed west to Mackinac—sometime in the late 1780’s—and it was during this period that he came near freezing to death close to the headwaters of the Red River of the North. Caught with two companions in a snowstorm out on the prairie, he and the others were buried under drifts for three days with only a few thin blankets and a limited supply of dried meat. Later he moved south again to the United States. By 1790, now a young man of about twenty, Hays had already settled in Cahokia on the Mississippi, not far from St. Louis. This was to be his home till his death in 1836. Living in Canada, he had learned to speak French fluently, which served him well in the old French settlements of Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes. For some time he worked as an agent for the firm of Todd and Hay, but finally went into business for himself. He opened a shop in town, farmed extensively in the river bottoms, and annually went on an expedition up the Mississippi to trade with the Indians. He married a Franco-American Vincennes girl of good family and “good sense”—a Gentile—and the couple raised a Christian family of three girls. Like other frontiersmen, he went into politics and for many years was postmaster and sheriff in Cahokia, St. Clair County; by 1814 he was Collector of Internal Revenue for the Illinois Territory, and when business declined at home during the long depression years of 1815–1821, he sought a government appointment. In May 1820, he accepted the position of Indian Agent in the Indiana wilderness at Ft. Wayne, not a job to be sneezed at, for it paid $1,200 in hard cash, a lot of money in those days.

There is no question that Hays was a good man for the post: he knew the Indians, and—what was equally important—he knew the traders who fed them whiskey. The Miamis were dangerous enough when sober, even more so when drunk. It was his duty, so he believed, to see that the silver dollar annuities which he paid the Indians for their ceded lands did not roll into the hands of the ubiquitous and unconscionable traders. The whiskey-crazed Indians, numbering thousands, could easily wipe out the tiny Ft. Wayne settlement of eighteen or twenty cabins on the Maumee. Hays himself lived in the stockade, sharing it with Isaac McCoy, a Baptist preacher, missionary, and schoolteacher. This was still the wilderness with a vengeance. It took Hays over two weeks to reach Ft. Wayne from Cahokia; it took four weeks to make the trip to Cincinnati and back with the silver coin for the Indian payments. Hays as Indian Agent made every effort to see that they were treated fairly and fought vigorously to keep down the whiskey-selling traffickers who preyed on them. That was the problem he faced. He made a determined effort to settle the Indians on the soil and was not without success. He saw to it that they built houses, planted corn, and raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. Some even churned butter. Fields were fenced and thousands of rails were cut for sale. His goal was to make them self-sufficient. Three years was all that the aging Hays could stand; he had left his family back in Cahokia; it took weeks to journey home to see his daughters; there was an interval of many months when he could not even return for a visit, and his rheumatism was torturing him. He had enough, and by June, 1823, his resignation was finally accepted and he was on his way back to the family. Surely he could console himself that he had conducted himself honestly and honorably, and had endeavored sincerely to help his charges attempt the transition from a seminomadic to an agricultural type of life.21



Jews, as we have noted, had served in the militia in Dutch New Netherland and in the British colonies. After the United States came into being, Jews were commissioned as officers—a new departure. They now became more active in the militia organizations fighting Indians, putting down insurrections, or, when federalized, augmenting the regular army in the two wars with Great Britain. Reuben Etting served as an officer in a Baltimore outfit when the troops were called out during the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794–1795. Two years later, when war with France seemed imminent, his friends elected him captain of the city’s Independent Blues. But a Christian test oath was required of all Maryland officers. Either Etting took it with tongue in cheek or he assumed office without it. His election proved that he was popular, completely acceptable. While still captain of the Blues—an office which was as political and social as it was military—he was appointed United States marshal for the District of Maryland. In 1823 a group of young Baltimoreans came together to form the Marion Corps; the soldiers elected Benjamin I. Cohen their captain, which created a problem since the test oath and the attempt to modify it through the “Jew Bill” had by then become a bitterly contested issue. Capt. Cohen could not or would not take the discriminatory oath. His company refused to elect a commander in his stead. This Jewish captain-elect was a banker, a founder of what was later to become the stock exchange, and also a violinist, a botanist, and a horticulturalist, obviously a man of culture. His home was the first in town to enjoy the luxury of gaslight.22

Jews in other states, too, flocked to the militia companies. One suspects that the prime motivation was social. The Reverend Isaac Leeser’s uncle, Zalma Rehine (pronounced Reinee), was a noncommissioned officer in Richmond’s Light Infantry Blues. Chapman Levy, of Camden, South Carolina, and Philip Phillips, another South Carolinian, were colonels. Levy was a planter and a politician whose reach included Alabama and Mississippi. Phillips, later an Alabama congressman, would become one of the country’s great lawyers. Third-generation Sheftalls and Minises were officers in the Georgia militia. Lt. Benjamin Sheftall had his hands full in 1788 scouting and preparing for Indian attacks. South Carolina Jews were officers in the militia units called up to fight the Seminoles in Florida (1836). In this decade of the 1830’s Texas fought for its independence, and Jews flocked to the colors. Leon Dyer, of Baltimore, was commissioned a major in the army of the Republic of Texas; two other Jews, also Southerners, served as surgeons. One of them, Moses Albert Levy, sported the title, Surgeon in Chief of the Volunteer Army of Texas.

Earlier, the War of 1812 had divided Jews as it had done many other Americans. Some would not serve; Federalists frowning on a new war with England formed peace societies. Others were hawks. All deemed themselves patriots. As businessmen, professionals, and planters, individuals of more than average culture, the pro-war advocates seemed to experience no difficulty in securing commissions. They were soldiers, surgeons, infantry officers, paymasters, and quartermasters. Dour Judah Touro, a staid businessman who had volunteered his services as a munitions carrier, was severely wounded in the Battle of New Orleans. Fortunately, he survived to amass a huge fortune, which was later divided among his friends and a host of Gentile and Jewish institutions. Perforce, he became one of the great philanthropists of antebellum America. During the War of 1812, Hazzan Seixas in New York was restrained in his public statements. Undoubtedly his congregation of traders and brokers was split between pro-war and anti-war advocates. All Jewish congregations frowned on clergymen who took sides publicly on political issues. It was a cleric’s job to chant the liturgy—not to criticize the government. Abraham A. Massias, an old militia devotee in New York and Charleston, became a professional soldier during the War of 1812. While in Georgia, with but eighty riflemen to back him up, he impeded the advance of 1,500 British regulars and made an orderly retreat with relatively light losses. He was to make a career in the army as a paymaster and retired with the rank of major, a high one in those days. An active Reform Jew, he specified in his will that his bequests to Congregation Beth Elohim were conditional on its loyalty to the new Reform movement in Judaism.24

Farther north, in Maryland, quite a number of Baltimore Jews were called out to defend the city when the British attacked it in 1814 and bombarded Fort McHenry (the Star Fort). This was the attack which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem adopted as the national anthem. Years later Colonel Mendes I. Cohen recalled his part in defending the Star Fort as a member of Captain Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, a rather fancy battery. After the British retired, Mr. Key came to the fort and showed the men there the poem he had written. Mendes I. Cohen recalled that the soldiers tried out various tunes to fit the words. Mendes owed his title as colonel to a gubernatorial appointment in the 1830’s. The highest rank held by a Jew during the war was borne by Bernard Hart, a division quartermaster in New York. He, too, was a major. Hart, a stockbroker, was the grandfather of the American writer, Bret Harte.25


Of the several Jews who served with distinction in the War of 1812, Mordecai Myers is one of the most appealing. He was born in 1776, in Newport, Rhode Island, where his family was engaged in commerce. His father, a Hungarian Jew with a gift for languages, was a butcher or shohet; his mother, was an Austrian. Among the tongues which the senior Myers knew was Hebrew, and this no doubt was the tie that bound him to Dr. Ezra Stiles, the well-known Christian Hebraist. When the father died, about six months after Mordecai’s birth, the widow Myers remained in Newport until the end of the war and then as a Loyalist migrated to Nova Scotia. For some reason or other in 1787 she returned to the United States, to New York, where young Mordecai was evidently given a Jewish education. Rabbi Seixas, no doubt, was his teacher and taught young Myers the rudiments at least of the Hebrew language. Some experience had made an ardent American patriot of this Newport lad; there was no trace in him of parental British loyalism. It may well be that he was strongly influenced by the teachings of Seixas, the patriot-rabbi of Shearith Israel in New York City. Although Myers lived to be about ninety-five years of age he never forgot the scene as Chancellor Livingston administered the oath of office to General George Washington. When only sixteen years of age, he had became a warm partisan of Jeffersonian democracy. Grimly he would recall in later days that when still a child he had once seen an unfortunate man, under the “mild and humane British laws,” standing in the pillory, cropped and branded for stealing a loaf of bread from a baker’s window. Adams’s four years in the presidency he referred to as a “despotic reign.” Myers had engaged actively in politics since his seventeenth year, but he had also found plenty of time during those early days to take an interest in the affairs of the Jewish congregation. Military training, however, was his hobby, and he made it his business to acquire an excellent military education. By the time the War of 1812 threatened he was already a battalion commander in the state militia, and three months before war actually broke out he was commissioned a captain in the United States Army, although he could have secured a higher rank had he permitted his friends to intervene for him. This he refused to do. There were three kinds of soldiers in 1812, he once wrote: those who joined “from motives of pride and love of military show and splendor,” those who were interested only in “employment and pay” and, finally, those who joined “from higher minded notions of national honor or patriotism.” His heroic and self-sacrificing career proved that he belonged to this last category.

During the winter and spring of 1812–1813 Myers was stationed with his troops at Williamsville near Buffalo. By this time he had become a seasoned veteran; he had fathomed the good and the bad in his men and his fellow officers; he had developed an infallible method for sobering up drunks; he had found to his dismay that some of his military associates naively believed that liquor was common property, and he had stood by more than once tracing the route of his men in the bitter lake-swept snows by the bloody marks they left as they plodded ahead, barefoot, with bleeding feet. Together with Major Zachary Taylor—later to become President—he had seconded his friend Major John Stonard as he was shot and fatally wounded by Dr. James C. Bronaugh. Some wrongs—or fancied wrongs—he knew could be wiped out only in blood; most duels, he declared, were stupid and silly, and he had no hesitation in helping pack the bullets with blood instead of lead when two of his acquaintances challenged each other for some petty reason. When one of the duelists fell, all covered with blood, his friends found it very difficult to convince him that he was not mortally wounded. One cold winter night O’Bryan, one of his bravest men, on duty near a graveyard, was reported to have seen the Devil. For fear that others might lose heart, Captain Myers spent two hours with O’Bryan at his post, to prove that the Devil—in this case at least—existed only in the soldier’s imagination. While at the Williamsville cantonment, where he was the commanding officer, he wrote in 1813 to his friend Naphtali Phillips, editor of the “kasher” National Advocate: “Sum must spill there blud and others there ink.… It is a fine thing to abandon the persute of welth. I never ware hapy in persute of riches and now that I have abandoned it, I am much more contented.”26

Several months later, towards the end of October, two schooners loaded down with sick and disabled fighters went aground on a reef in Lake Ontario during a terrible gale. Myers, knowing that the storm was battering the boats to pieces, volunteered to General John Parker Boyd to go to the rescue of the men. The General thought that the situation was almost hopeless because of the storm, but permitted Myers to make the attempt. With thirty men to help him he made his way through the raging gale, boarded the doomed vessels, and carried off the dead and the living, making thirteen trips in all. It was a desperate venture, for the living had gotten at the liquor in the hospital stores and all of them were drunk. About two hundred persons were on board the boats; all were brought ashore, but nearly fifty had already died. The following month, on November 11, 1813, Myers was severely wounded during the sanguinary battle of Chrysler’s Field; twenty-three of his eighty-six men were killed. He was hospitalized for a time at the home of a Dr. Mann, and there he met the physician’s niece, Charlotte Bailey, of Plattsburgh, whom he married four months later, in March, 1814. After his separation from the service in the late summer of 1815, he returned to New York and went into the auction business. His marriage to Charlotte Bailey changed his life, in one respect at least. Prior to this time he had been active in the Jewish community; now he was less ardent though he never ceased to identify with his people. His Reminiscences, written at Schenectady in 1853, have been substantially “edited.” The editors were careful to see to it that nothing was written or printed that would betray Myers’s Jewish origin. By the time he had written these Reminiscences he had already served for five years in the New York State Assembly, had been twice elected Mayor of Schenectady, and had been honored with the office of Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Masons of the State of New York. About the year 1860, when he was in his mid-eighties, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. In spite of his advanced years his patriotic ardor had not abated one whit, and in the decade before the Civil War this staunch defender of his country wrote: “Distraction to the brain that would conceive the idea of a separation of the Union, and palsied the hand that could break one link of this Heaven-wrought chain.” 27


The two great wars in which the United States had engaged, the Revolution of 1775 and the War of 1812, had seen Jews play active parts. Patriotism in the modern state is typical of most citizens, especially in periods of crisis, and Jews proved no exception to this rule. But what was the attitude of the American Jew during peace time toward the military establishment? Very few Jews opted for long term service in the army, but there were a few like Massias. What motivated him and other coreligionists to take up soldiering as a career? Did any come into the army by way of West Point? These questions are not easily answered, but some light may be thrown on them by our study of a few men who entered the army as a profession.28

As we know, Jews had been stationed at West Point ever since the Revolution, a generation before it became the national Military Academy. During the Revolution, Isaac Franks served in the quartermaster corps there, and his cousin, David Salisbury Franks, was one of Benedict Arnold’s aides when the General assumed command of this vital post in 1780. In his valuable Memoirs, General Joseph Gardner Swift, our first native American military engineer, described an interesting event in connection with Arnold’s flight from West Point. Swift had ample opportunity to learn the traditions of the Point for he was a graduate of the first class, the class of 1802, and was Inspector and Superintendent of the Academy from 1815 to 1818. He informs us that when Arnold fled from the fort to the shelter of the British Vulture, the coxswain of the barge that carried him to safety was a Corporal Levy. This noncommissioned officer had no inkling of what Arnold proposed to do until they reached the British ship and the Corporal was offered the position of sergeant major in the English army if he threw in his lot with the fugitive. Levy, according to our source, curtly told the General “that one coat was enough to wear.” The reply, we are told, made Arnold look like a dog with his tail between his legs. The English commander of the Vulture praised the Corporal for his loyalty to his country, fed the barge crew well, and permitted the men to return to the safety of their own lines. There is no evidence, beside the name, to prove that Levy was a Jew.29

West Point had of course not yet been established as a military academy, although Congress, even during the war, thought of using the retired veterans at the Point to teach in a proposed officers’ training camp. In a very desultory and unsatisfactory fashion, the training of officers was first undertaken at various posts about the year 1794, and it was not until 1802 that the Military Academy was formally created at the Point as the Corps of Engineers. The two were identical; the Academy was a military body, not an “institution.” The first class constituted under this new arrangement was composed of exactly two men, the above mentioned Joseph G. Swift and Simeon Magruder Levy (1774–1807). Levy was the son of Levi Andrew Levy, a well-known fur trader and land speculator. Cadet Levy—not to be identified with Corporal Levy—was a Jew despite his Scottish middle name, for his classmate Swift described him as a member of a “responsible Jew family of Baltimore and formerly a sergeant in Captain [Benjamin] Lockwood’s Company of Infantry and thence promoted to cadet for his merit and mathematics attainments.” His “merit,” apart from his knowledge of mathematics, lay in the service he had rendered as an Orderly Sergeant under Mad Anthony Wayne at the battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. Lockwood, who had also participated in the battle, knew of Levy’s fine record and recommended him for a cadetship when the opportune moment arose. He was appointed from the ranks where he had been serving since age sixteen. He already had nine years of experience; here was a professional soldier, a man who liked his job. Exactly a month after the first class at West Point graduated—all two of them—the men at the Academy met and organized a society for promoting military science. The whole faculty—three, all told—joined the new organization together with seven other officers and cadets, including the recently commissioned Lt. Levy who was about to report for duty at Ft. Jackson, Georgia. Five years later he was dead, a victim of the yellow fever possibly.30

Two years before Levy died the Military Academy admitted as cadet into the First Regiment of Artillery, Samuel Noah, said to be a cousin of “Major” Mordecai M. Noah. Samuel had an even more adventurous career than his cousin, the distinguished newspaper man and consul to Tunis. After acting as judge advocate at West Point while still a student there, he was commissioned in 1807 and sent to Mississippi Territory where he spent his time studying Napoleon’s campaigns and chasing smugglers on the Florida frontier. Disgusted with slow promotion and eager for adventure, he resigned his commission in 1811 and joined a filibustering expedition of Americans and Mexicans fighting to free Texas and other parts of Mexico from the grip of Spanish despotism. Back of the mind of Noah and his American associates was no doubt the hope of ultimate union between Texas and the United States. After participating in the hazardous and romantic campaign of 1813, which resulted in the defeat of the royalist forces, Noah made a hurried trip to Washington to offer his services to the government then fighting the British. Refused a commission by President Madison—because he had been born in England?—Noah at once proceeded to New York where he earned golden opinions for himself in the task of training recruits and preparing the city for the expected siege by the British. This was the last episode of his military career, though he lived to be over ninety, passing away in poverty and obscurity in an Illinois village.31

The Military Academy in the days of Simeon M. Levy and Samuel Noah left much to be desired. It was a second-rate institution at best until the appointment in 1817 of a schoolmate of Noah’s as the new superintendent. This man was Brevet-Major Sylvanus Thayer, frequently referred to as the “Father of the Military Academy,” and it was to him that Alfred Mordecai (1804–1887) a handsome, auburn-haired, blue-eyed boy of fifteen, reported for duty in June, 1819. Alfred was one of the brilliant Mordecai boys and girls of Warrenton, the little North Carolina village where Mordecai père presided over a successful “female academy.”

Jacob Mordecai was a better teacher than a businessman. One of his descendants said mockingly that due to the fact that Jacob’s mother was of Christian stock—she was a convert to Judaism—“his native business instinct would appear to have been dulled through having a mother of Gentile blood.” Mordecai had read much and was highly respected for his learning; his children were nearly all exceptional. When they were but six or seven years of age he urged them to read, gave them books, and wrote them encouraging notes: “The advantages attendant on education will no doubt all conspire to impel you with ardor steadily to pursue this pleasant avocation.” The only real success of which the father could boast was the nonsectarian school he had established in Warrenton, North Carolina, a small town county seat. He ran it for ten years, sold it at a good price, moved North to a farm near Richmond, and then proceeded again to lose his money in bad ventures. His Warrenton school was deemed one of the best in the South. Mordecai taught; his children taught, and as the young ones grew up they were put to work; it was a cooperative family enterprise. It was primarily a boarding school although there were a few day students. The pedagogical approach in the school was modern. When it was opened in 1803 Mordecai announced that the instruction would be “adapted to the various dispositions and genius” of the pupils. “My object, not merely to impart words and exhibit things, but chiefly to inform the mind to the labor of thinking upon and understanding what is taught.” The curriculum was broad, for it included art, music, rhetoric, grammar, and English literature. The girls read the novels of Scott and Maria Edgeworth, the Arabian Nights, Virgil in Latin. History was taught: English, Grecian, and South American. Where there were no adequate textbooks, the teachers compiled compendia on geography and mythology. The public exams were a success; the students did well.32

Most of the Mordecai children were achievers. Moses and George were lawyers. The latter was one day to become the president of a bank, of a railroad, and of a paper mill. Four of the sisters taught in different towns; one of them wrote a history of Warrenton but it was never published. She called it “The History of Hastings.” Brother Solomon at the age of eleven was reading the Greek and Latin classics and the best in current English literature. His letters are those of a cultivated person. When sixteen Solomon was co-opted to teach in the family school; later he became a physician and practiced in Mobile. Samuel, another son, spent most of his life in Petersburg and Richmond; he was the purchasing agent for the school. Business was his vocation, but he always manifested literary interests. He collected a library, wrote well, and in 1856 published anonymously, Richmond in By-Gone Days; a second edition appeared in 1860 with his name on the title page. These are delightful reminiscences of early Richmond and include a number of stories about Jews, although they are never identified as such. One wonders why. Samuel Mordecai remained a Jew, unlike most of his siblings, but he was buried in an Episcopalian religious ceremony. This was probably at the suggestion of a Christian member of the family. Rachel, the oldest daughter, was probably the most brilliant of the lot. For a generation she carried on a correspondence with Maria Edgeworth writing about politics, botany, horticulture, and a host of other subjects. In English literature, Rachel was interested in Byron, Bulwer-Lytton, and the Americans, Irving and Cooper.33

Taught by his half-sister Rachel and his half-brother Solomon, Alfred Mordecai knew how to read by the age of four and grew up a very studious, learned youngster. Rising often before daylight, the lad of tender years would read and study by the light of the fire with which old Jenny was baking her bread at the large oven in the yard. He learned Latin, Greek, and French and was following the campaigns of Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo before he was twelve—not that he was enthusiastic about war or soldiering as such. He interested himself in many fields of human knowledge and, though anything but a “sissy,” was by inclination and training a scholarly person; he much preferred Ivanhoe to a game of hopscotch. By 1819 his father had sold the Warrenton school, moved to a farm near Richmond, and suggested to his son that he go to West Point. No special reason is known as to why Jacob Mordecai should have wished Alfred to become an army officer. Outside of his own youthful experience, when as a member of a boys’ troop he had excitedly accompanied the delegates of the First Continental Congress into Philadelphia, the elder Mordecai had manifested no interest in matters military. But the army was an honorable career and as such, no doubt, appealed to the father, who recommended it to his son, a third generation American. United States Senator Nathaniel Macon secured the appointment, and the young Carolinian finished his first two years, second in his class; his last two, at the very top. By the end of the second year, though still a cadet, he was appointed acting Assistant Professor of Mathematics, a common procedure with brilliant students in those days since other teaching personnel was unavailable. After the second year the work was easier—his competitor for first place had withdrawn—and young Alfred found time to go visiting on Saturday night, to participate in buckwheat socials, to smoke an occasional “segar,” and to become active in the Cold Water Club, which on occasion tasted a drop of something even stronger. On a trip to Philadelphia during the summer of 1822, he visited brother Solomon, now attending physician at the Alms House, and we may be sure that his brother took him calling on his classmate, Dr. Isaac Hays. It was there at the home of Isaac’s parents, Samuel and Richea Gratz Hays, that Alfred for the first time saw Sarah Ann Hays, the girl he was to marry fourteen years later. When he graduated in 1823 he remained at the Military Academy, first as Assistant Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and later as Assistant Professor of Engineering.

By 1832, still a man in his twenties, he was already a captain, assigned to the Ordnance Corps the very year it was created. He soon became the outstanding ordnance expert in the United States Army. His achievements were recognized; he was put in charge of important arsenals, appointed to the Ordnance Board, and more than once sent to Europe to study armaments and military operations. By 1854, respected for his works on military law, ordnance, and munitions, he had risen to the rank of major. No antebellum Jew, it would seem, had risen higher in the regular army. Then came the Civil War which blighted his career. He was distraught, trapped in the valley of decision. Mordecai had to make a painful choice; he would not fight against the Union nor would he take up arms against the South, he would not wage war against his dear ones, his family in the South. He was himself essentially a Southerner and certainly no abolitionist, but he would not fight to preserve slavery even though slavery was constitutional. For him the only choice was to resign his commission, and he did so. At the age of fifty-seven he had to start life over again. Deprived during the Civil War of the means of a livelihood, he went down into Mexico and made an unsuccessful effort to help build a transcontinental railroad uniting the Gulf and the Pacific. Returning to Philadelphia, he went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company as an executive of the corporation’s canal and coal divisions. Notwithstanding his acknowledged eminence in the field of ordnance, Mordecai displayed none of the bravura of the professional soldier. He was a learned cultured Southern gentleman with a love of literature, a student in uniform. A Jew? Not really in sentiment. A Christian, no. He appears to have had no denominational interests. Though not consciously an assimilationist, he was in the process of assimilating. Once, it seems, he fell in love with a Christian girl and would have married her had she accepted him. Other members of his family married out. It was something of an accident that he married a Jewish woman and that she brought him into the Gratz-Hays-Etting clan. His wife, Sarah Ann Hays, was committed to her inherited faith, but evidently could not prevail on her husband to allow the circumcision of their sons. Like some of the European Jewish Reformers, Major Mordecai looked upon this ancient custom, no doubt, as “a bloody barbaric rite.” In later years one of the sons, in deference to the wishes of his mother, submitted to circumcision. Even so, all of the sons married out; none of the three Mordecai daughters found husbands; they, at least, seem to have maintained their Jewish identity.34


Jews in the early national period were rarely tempted to seek a career in the army or navy. Both forces were small; advancement was slow. In past centuries Jews in Europe had normally avoided the armed forces, which nearly always encouraged loyalty to the Christian religion. Officers were expected to take a Christian oath of loyalty. The army and navy here in the United States held scant charm for the typical ambitious Jew unless he was possessed with a very strong desire for social recognition in the general community. Some Jews may have feared—justly—that they would experience prejudice in the army and naval establishments. One wonders why the Senate on December 10, 1814, refused to confirm Captain Massias’s promotion to the grade of major. The prejudice against Jews in the navy was to persist well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, there were always venturesome Jewish boys, all teenagers, eager to join the navy. Most of them who took the oath never advanced beyond the rank of midshipman even after many years of sea and shore duty. A heroic midshipman, Joseph Israel, was blown to bits in Tripoli’s harbor on September 4, 1804, when the attempt was made to burn the enemy fleet. Again, as in the case of Corporal Levy of West Point, there is no evidence that Israel was a Jew or of Jewish ancestry. Of Benjamin Nones’s numerous sons, Joseph B. Nones (1797–1887) sailed on the flag-of-truce John Adams when it carried America’s peace commissioners on their way to negotiate an end to the War of 1812 (1814). The following year Joseph served under Decatur in the war with the Barbary powers; he was twice wounded in the service of his country and fought two duels. Finally, in 1821, he resigned from the service still a midshipman. What is known of him suggests that he went out of his way to maintain low visibility as a Jew. Maybe that was his only recourse if he hoped to survive.35

A few Jews entered the navy and remained. They were pursers, surgeons, and officers who had set out—come hell or high water—to make careers for themselves. The lives of these few make interesting reading. One of these men who went down to the sea in ships was the South Carolinian Levy Myers Harby (1793–1870), a younger brother of Isaac, the journalist and religious reformer. Levy Harby’s tombstone in the Galveston Jewish cemetery carries this inscription:

And with my last breath

On the threshold of death

I proclaim my faith in Israel’s God.

Tradition would have it that he died with the Shema (“Hear O Israel”) on his lips. There is no question that he was a professing Jew though probably not a devout one, for there is no record that he was a member of the local congregation. Young Harby served as a privateer during the War of 1812 and by 1815 had entered the navy as a midshipman. His was an adventurous life; he was captured by the British, fought under Andrew Jackson against the Florida Indians, and sailed with a squadron sent in 1823 to suppress piracy in the West Indies. When he resigned in 1827 after twelve years in the navy, he had still not been advanced in rank. But that was not the end of the line for him. Years later he was an officer in the revenue cutter service, which had never been an integral part of the navy. As commander of a cutter, he put down a mutiny. He fought in the Texas War of Independence, and when his adopted state joined the Confederacy in 1861 he became an officer in the new navy of the South. It was then, a man of sixty-eight, that he took command of a fleet of gunboats that patrolled the mouth of the Sabine River.36

Toward the end of the War of 1812 or shortly thereafter, Solomon Etting of Baltimore was chairman of a local committee to build a steam warship. He was in touch with Robert Fulton; costs and details were discussed but not much was done. The city would have had to find $225,000 to build the vessel; that was too much for a town of about 50,000 souls, many of them slaves. Solomon’s nephew, Henry Etting (1799–1876), hewed out a career for himself in the United States Navy. His appointment as a midshipman came in 1818 but it was not long before he became a purser. There are Jews who do have a penchant for paper work. He finally retired in the early 1860’s with the rank of commander. Called back into service during the Civil War, he finally retired for the second time in 1871 with the relative rank of commodore. In a way here was a Jewish officer who had “made it.” It was not easy: in 1832, in August and September, Etting had been court-martialed in Boston for using improper language toward a fellow officer and for assaulting him; in a quarrel between the two, Etting’s opponent had threatened to cut off his head, beaten him with a rattan, knocked him down, and called him a “damned Jewish son-of-a-bitch.” Etting defended himself and wounded his assailant with a dirk. The court found Etting guilty and sentenced him to be reprimanded publicly by the Secretary of the Navy. In his plea before the court, Purser Etting found it necessary to defend himself as a Jew, for his opponent had drawn attention to the fact that Etting was a follower of the Jewish faith.

The becoming allusion of this gentleman to the religion which I profess, made with a view to operate on the minds of the members of this Court will, I feel assured, fail in its object, for I doubt not that with you gentlemen, as with every good Christian, it is esteemed as the sacred right of all men to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience; nor in the exercise of my religious duties or by an adherence to the faith of my fathers have I ever before been assailed.

Etting persisted; he remained in the service and, it is obvious, rose high in the ranks. In view of his defense of himself as a Jew, it is interesting to note that his funeral service, both at home and at the cemetery, was conducted by a naval chaplain, a Christian.37

In a communication to Willis G. Clark, editor of the Philadelphia Gazette (1840), Isaac Leeser wrote: “As citizens with equal rights, not as tolerated aliens, we demand of our fellow citizens to abate the causeless prejudice which so many entertain for us.” A man who would at that time have subscribed to this sentiment with a heartfelt and pious “Amen” was a native Philadelphian, then a commander in the United States Navy, holding the highest rank yet held in the navy by a Jewish seagoing officer. He was a man who had experienced more than his share of prejudice. Though despised and rejected by some of his fellow officers, he never failed to open his mouth and was certainly no sheep dumb before his shearers. By 1840 he had already been court-martialed five times and had appeared before a Court of Inquiry. Before he died in 1862 he was to be court-martialed and cashiered again, yet he would end his life as “Commodore” Uriah P. Levy, late commanding officer of the Mediterranean Squadron of the United States Navy.38

Levy, the son of a Philadelphia merchant, ran away from home in 1802 when he was ten and took a job as a cabin boy on a vessel engaged in the coastal trade. Two years later he returned to his parents, determined more than ever to be a sailor. Wisely they realized that he was not to be turned from his decision and apprenticed him at the age of fourteen to a well-known Philadelphia merchant and shipowner. His indentures required that he serve four years and by the time the period was up he had become an experienced practical seaman, having worked already as a mate on one of his employer’s ships. While the Jeffersonian embargo on trade with foreign countries was in force, Levy’s employer sent the lad for nine months to an excellent naval school where he learned the elements of navigation, and before he was even twenty years of age he had run the gamut in the merchant marine from cabin boy to captain. In 1811—at the age of nineteen—he became captain and one-third owner of the schooner George Washington. Through successful mercantile ventures and by saving his wages, he had accumulated enough money to enter upon this partnership. While on one of his trips, at Tortola in the Virgin Islands, his crew mutinied and ran away with his schooner, carrying off a cargo of fine Teneriffe wine and a chest full of Spanish dollars. This was only the beginning of his troubles in the fateful year 1812; he was seized by a British press-gang and served for about a month before his identity as a native American was established and he was released by Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane of the British Navy. The captain of the British sloop of war on which he had served was so impressed by the ability and intelligence of this young American that he offered him the rank of midshipman if he would enter the Crown’s service. Young Levy had no intention of serving anywhere save under his own flag, but at that moment he was doggedly set on finding and punishing the crew who had scuttled his schooner and fled with his cargo. The young captain was successful in his search for the men and brought them to justice in an American court. One of them was executed; another was saved from the noose only by the intervention of President Madison.

All this had occurred during the year the war began. About six months later Levy volunteered for service with the navy and in 1813 was given a post as assistant sailing master on the brig Argus. To this crew was given the perilous task of carrying William H. Crawford through the British blockade to his post as minister in France, and after it had accomplished this mission it began its devastating raids on enemy shipping in the English and Irish Channels. Before the Argus was shattered by the accurate fire of the British Pelican, it had destroyed twenty-one enemy ships, inflicted damage amounting to about $5,000,000, and raised the insurance rate for English ships in the Channel from two and a half to twenty-five percent. Levy, who had been appointed an Acting Lieutenant by Captain William Henry Allen and had participated in the historic raid, was in charge of a prize vessel the day the American brig was captured, but he, too, fell into enemy hands and languished in Dartmoor prison for sixteen months before returning home. His experiences apparently only whetted his desire to carve out a career for himself in the United States Navy; in February, 1816, he received an appointment as sailing master on the U.S. ship Franklin.

It was during this tour of duty, lasting for about two years, that the prejudice manifested itself which would plague him almost to the very end of his naval service. The trouble started at the Patriot’s Ball in Philadelphia in 1816 when a Mr.(Lieutenant?) Potter, resenting the fact that Levy—only a warrant officer—was dancing with a girl in whom Potter was interested, jostled him several times, and when the latter remonstrated, Potter called him “a damned Jew.” Levy challenged the officer and the two met in a field on the outskirts of the city. Refusing to answer Potter’s fire, Levy directed his shots into the air several times and was quite willing to accept the suggestion of the seconds that the affair be considered closed. This was unacceptable to Potter, who was determined to kill the challenger, and when the seconds requested Levy to return the fire, he did so, mortally wounding his opponent. The court acquitted Levy, but the incident exacerbated the prejudice of a number of the commissioned officers, not only because he had killed one of their corps, but also because he had let it be known that he aspired to officer’s rank. Before the year was out he quarreled with an officer on board ship; both were court-martialed and sentenced to be reprimanded.

In 1817, Sailing Master Levy received a commission as Lieutenant in the United States Navy. This only added fuel to the flame of resentment that was already burning, and when he reported for duty on the United States, Captain Crane, the commander, refused to receive him and accepted him finally only at the stern request of Commodore Stewart. No fool, Levy at once sensed the tension and turned to the sympathetic Lieutenant, later Commodore, Thomas A. C. Jones, who gave him this advice: “Do your duty as an officer and a gentleman; be civil to all, however reserved you may be to any, and the first man to observe a different course towards you, call him to a strict and prompt account.” Apparently the new Lieutenant took this word of caution seriously. A quarrel on board ship in 1818 led to a second court-martial in which his fellow officers found him guilty, but Commodore Stewart refused to promulgate the findings of the court. The following year he was again court-martialed for denouncing an officer as a “coward,” “scoundrel,” and “poltroon,” because he had refused to meet the Jew on the field of honor. This time he was to be cashiered, dismissed in disgrace, and he actually remained suspended from duty for two years before President Monroe, refusing to accept the decision of the court, restored him to active duty in January, 1821. During the period of suspension, 1819–1820, the Lieutenant spent some time in Paris engaged in business, laying the foundation for a very substantial fortune, which made it possible for him later not only to publish his writings and to carry on his agitation against flogging in the navy, but also to employ eminent counsel to defend himself against the hostile clique determined to drive him out of the service. During the two years that he was absent from the navy Levy worked feverishly to counter the influence of those opposed to him; he was encouraged by the powerful Myers clan in Norfolk, by his cousin Major Noah, and by the sympathetic Mr. Homans, an important official in the Navy Department at Washington.

Less than nine months after his restoration to duty by Monroe, Levy was again court-martialed for denouncing a fellow officer who had refused to give him satisfaction. He varied the formula this time by calling his opponent a “damned rascal” and “no gentleman.” Though Levy was sentenced to be reprimanded, Commodore Bainbridge, obviously sympathetic to him, made the reprimand almost a ceremony of commendation and returned the unrepentant officer to his post on the Spark. It was at this trial that Levy made a poignant and moving remark: “to be a Jew as the world now stands is an act of faith that no Christian martyrdom can exceed.” Was Levy himself culpable? Might it not be assumed that a man who had been court-martialed four times in five years had no place in the navy? There is no question that he was proud and sensitive. Possibly he was unduly conscious of his want of formal education—for he had been serving before the mast ever since age ten. It is true he was no boor. He spoke French, some Spanish, wrote and published books and numerous articles in the press, and moved in the best Christian and Jewish social circles in Philadelphia, New York, and Virginia. But he was very much a self-made man. His enemies said that he was quarrelsome and turbulent; these men, fellow officers, were determined to compel him to resign. There were other reasons why they opposed him: he was a Jew; he was tough; he was an interloper who had come up from the forecastle; he was a Democrat in an age when his fellow officers were Whigs and whatnots; he had made a fortune in business between voyages; and he was belligerently opposed to flogging in a day when that form of punishment was deemed essential to discipline.

The course of his long career saw him spared few epithets and accusations. Those who hated him called him a coward, a liar, a forger, and, by implication, a thief. His friends in the service, and they were more numerous than his detractors, denied the charges, and never throughout his entire career was he found guilty of any act of immorality, dishonor, or moral turpitude. His offenses were of a technical nature or due to immoderate speech. Some of his friends would have admitted that he was vain—and he was—or that he was unduly sensitive, but they would have insisted also that he was humane, courageous, a man of strong character. In 1822, he risked his life to save a family during a devastating gale that visited the Carolina coast. Even his enemies never impugned his patriotism. U. P. Levy was not a man to be canonized, but his grit elicits admiration. Because he was proud and independent and refused to compromise he made enemies. As Commodore Jones said in later years: “A brave and independent man like Captain Levy who will neither feign, fawn, or flatter [was bound to] encounter trials and tribulations in the service.” He was resented because, as one who had risen from the ranks, he took away a promotion which might have gone to a midshipman. But worst of all he was a Jew, an alien. Not that Levy felt any sense of inferiority on that score. On his mother’s side he was a Nunez, a descendant of the Dr. Nunez who had come to Georgia in 1733, a few months after Oglethorpe himself; he was a fifth generation American, grandson of Jonas Phillips and a cousin of Major M. M. Noah. The ancestors of Lieutenant Levy probably landed in the colonies long before the parents of some of the very men who affected to despise him.

That the highest authorities in Washington realized that the accusations made against him were petty, that he was exposed constantly to provocation, and that he was a man of energy and ability is documented by the fact that in 1822 he was placed in command of gunboat 158, The Revenge, and was assigned to the job with others in his squadron of routing out piracy and slave-running in the Gulf of Mexico. This was one of his more eventful voyages. In December, 1822, while cruising on the Spanish Main, he was attacked by a Spanish warship, the Voluntario, but remained cool during the crisis and prevented what otherwise might have been a serious international incident. At the turn of the year 1823, he was poking through the islands and keys of the Gulf and the West Indies looking for the Lafitte brothers, the notorious smugglers, outlaws, and pirates. During this trip, in February, an unfortunate or incompetent pilot ran The Revenge onto a reef near Belize, British Honduras, and wrecked it. A Court of Inquiry held in June of that year exonerated Levy; no action was taken against him.

By June, 1823, he had already been court-martialed four times and in addition was facing a Court of Inquiry. It was this hounding of a man who happened to be a Jew that prompted a writer over a century later, in The American Mercury (1943), to refer to Levy as “The American Dreyfus.” But Levy’s was no Dreyfus Affair, though the two cases did have in common a bitter anti-Jewish prejudice. Almost every year seems to have brought a new problem to plague this officer who had long begun to believe “that man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). In December, 1824, while going out to rejoin the Cyane in the Mediterranean, he took passage on the North Carolina and ran into a situation very reminiscent of the one that had confronted him on the United States in 1818. The officers in the wardroom did not want to mess with him. Led by two marine officers, Carter and Randolph, they expressed their vigorous objection to the “damned Jew,” but were finally induced by Lieutenant, later Commodore, Isaac Mayo, to accept the transient. In 1825, he was serving on the Cyane at Rio when the news was brought that a Brazilian press-gang was making off with an American seaman and that an American naval officer, attempting to save the sailor, was under attack. Levy, among others, rushed to the scene of the scuffle and helped drive off the assailants, but was injured slightly in the attempt. Shortly after this fracas, the Brazilian Emperor, Dom Pedro I, visited the American squadron, complimented Levy on his zeal and bravery in rescuing a brother officer and a fellow seaman, a common man, and offered him command of a new sixty-gun frigate now being built for the Emperor in the United States. Don Pedro’s was an authentic offer and, as Levy pointed out, tempting to a junior Lieutenant who, surrounded by enemies, was being pursued in the service of his own country by narrow-minded prejudice. In later years, as he fought to save himself from being stricken off the rolls, he asked in bitterness of soul how many of his enemies would have rejected the Emperor’s invitation. The answer he gave the Brazilians in 1827 was that “he loved his own [American] service so well he had rather serve as a cabin boy in his own service than as a captain in any other service in the world”—brave words which he must have thought of with a rueful grimace as he faced his fifth court-martial that year in November. Two of his fellow officers had insulted him and he had challenged them to a duel. In the court-martial which followed, both of his opponents were chided for their provocative behavior; one of them was suspended for a year and Levy himself was again reprimanded.

In the 1830’s, already a man of wealth, he had ample opportunity to look after his business affairs during the long periods when he was without an assignment or a command. Because he so fervently admired Jefferson, he ordered a colossal bronze statue of the great statesman to be made by Pierre Jean David, of Angers, and then gave it to the United States (1834). Levy’s admiration for Jefferson lay in the Lieutenant’s profound respect for the Declaration of Independence. As one who had suffered bigotry and prejudice, he thought the Declaration of Independence particularly precious. Throughout the service he was known as an unflinching Democrat and in later years was said to have been one of the only officers of his grade who proudly boasted of his Democratic political affiliations. It was all the more regrettable, wrote Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, a Democrat, that no ship could be found for this “gallant officer” without marring the “harmonious cooperation which is essential to the highest effectiveness.” Though the liberal Bancroft vigorously denied that religion was a factor in refusing Levy a ship, he did not believe that a rejected Jew would make an acceptable ship’s captain. While the House was debating what to do with Levy’s gift of the statue by David, he was on the high seas bound for Paris. There, like other good Americans, on the Fourth of July he joined General Lafayette and other distinguished guests to celebrate the anniversary of American independence, and when a toast to President Andrew Jackson was offered, Levy rose and proposed nine cheers. To his intense chagrin, the proposal was greeted with groans and hisses by the assembled Americans, although they gladly drank to “The King of the French.” Levy, scandalized by this insult to his country and its chief magistrate, promptly invited one of the offenders to meet him the next morning on the Champs Elysées. The anti-Jacksonian American, a glove merchant, refused to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the naval officer, and a challenge to another of the demonstrators elicited a prompt apology in writing. Two years later Levy bought the house and grounds of Monticello, Jefferson’s old home; in his will, written in 1858, he offered it to the United States or to the State of Virginia on condition that it be used as an agricultural training farm for the orphaned children of warrant officers. Evidently he never forgot that he had come up from the crews’ quarters.

In 1837 Levy was commissioned a commander in the United States Navy. By this time he was something of an international celebrity in Jewish life. When in 1831 Francis Henry Goldsmid wrote The Arguments Advanced Against the Enfranchisement of the Jews [of England], Considered in a Series of Letters, he was careful to point out to the stubborn English, who still imposed a number of civil disabilities on the Jews of the realm, that Levy, in the free United States, had succeeded in becoming an officer and commander of a naval vessel. How ironic it is to note, that two decades later Levy, fighting to remain in the service, held up the example of English emancipatory efforts as a rebuke to the Judeophobes who he believed were responsible for his removal from the naval rolls. The solid citizens of New York certainly did not share the prejudices of the navy elite. Fond of the wealthy seaman, whom they now recognized as one of their most prominent citizens, they accorded him the freedom of the city in February, 1834, “as a testimonial to his character, patriotism, and public spirit.”39

Four years later Levy was given his first important job when he was assigned to the command of the U.S. corvette Vandalia. He was soon to learn that with larger responsibilities came larger troubles. The ship was nothing to brag about; it was vermin-ridden; the hull was in disrepair, and the men and officers, many of them dissipated and insubordinate, were apparently the bad boys of the Gulf squadron. He forced one of his officers to take the pledge; another fell overboard drunk and was lost; a third went crazy from drink. Yet Levy kept the boat spic and span, and for a time it was the flagship of the squadron. A problem on any ship in any navy was discipline. Grog was a standard issue of the ration; drunkenness was common; violence was frequent, and the men were often kept under control only by the dread swish of the cat-o’-nine-tails: on a single day at this time the men on the U.S. ship Delaware received 2,500 lashes. Levy, very much concerned about the welfare of his men, about their morals and their health, personally supervised the care of sailors who were sick; on occasion, he would even send them delicacies from his own table. He was strongly opposed to the lash as a corrective measure, and while he did not dispense with it altogether, he used it most sparingly. He wrote and agitated in the press against this abuse and in his own crew substituted forms of punishment which he believed psychologically more effective. He perfected his own method of handling drunkards: when they were intoxicated, he tied them into their hammocks and then put them to work after they sobered up. He fortified their repentance by putting them on a ration of watered grog which they detested. A habitual drunkard would be punished by being compelled to wear a black bottle around his neck on which was painted: “Punished for drunkenness.” Men who were constantly fighting he compelled to drink a pot of salt water. A circular issued by an earlier Secretary of the Navy to the effect that badges of disgrace should be substituted for the lash met with his full approval, and when one of his cabin boys mimicked a midshipman, the Commander did not order the usual twelve lashes, but tied the lad to a gun, had his pants pulled down, and daubed his buttocks with a spot of pitch and a few parrot feathers to betoken his mocking tendencies.

This last, as the commander was to find out to his sorrow, proved a grievous error on his part. The “law” did not specifically prescribe such a punishment. It would have been perfectly proper to lacerate the boy’s back with twelve strokes of the “cats”—but the bizarre new punishment devised was deemed “scandalous and cruel conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Aside from its other grievances, a certain clique among the officers resented Levy’s agitation against flogging and his exotic substitutes. He was trampling on the navy’s time-honored rules and regulations, substituting his own arbitrary will for the established provisions of the law. Yet he persisted in his reforms and believed—mistakenly—that he more than any other individual was responsible for the law which finally forbade flogging in the navy. His will specified that a full length statue of iron or bronze be erected over his grave and that it be inscribed: “Father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States.”

Levy was constantly under observation by men who were opposed to him or whose enmity he had incurred. They carefully treasured up every petty violation of the law and waited for the day of judgment. Always mindful that he was a Jew, they watched him closely to see what provision he would make for the religious care of his men, all of whom were at least nominal Christians. Since there was no chaplain on board the Vandalia, Levy himself undertook to provide for the religious edification of his men. All hands were required to be present at religious services every Sunday when he read a chapter both from the Old and New Testaments. Never, he asserted in later years, did he ever wound the Christian religious sensibilities of his officers and men—freedom of conscience was a right that he claimed and exercised for himself, and he insisted that this same freedom be accorded to others. “Remembering, always,” he said:

that the great mass of my fellow citizens were Christians, profoundly grateful to the Christian founders of our Republic for their justice and liberality to my long persecuted race; I have earnestly endeavored in all places and circumstances to act up to the wise and tolerant spirit of our political institutions. I have, therefore, been careful to treat every Christian, and especially every Christian under my command, with exemplary justice and ungrudging liberality.

Among those who watched every move that Levy made in 1839 on the Vandalia was a lieutenant whom he had been compelled to discipline. Three years later this officer preferred charges against him and raked up, among other incidents, the affair of the befeathered and bedaubed cabin boy. All this seems incredibly petty and silly today. It was no laughing matter in 1842, for the court-martial that tried the commander cashiered him from the service, and although President Tyler, the ultimate reviewing authority, returned the case to the court, asking for reconsideration because of the excessive severity of the sentence, the officers refused to reverse their judgment. They were determined once and for all to get rid of Levy, but this time, too, they failed when the President modified the sentence to suspension for a period of twelve months. Two years later Levy was made captain, reaching the highest grade possible in the United States Navy of the antebellum period.40

But in 1839, still in command of his corvette, the apprehensive Levy probably had no inkling of the determined effort that would be made in a sixth and final court-martial to get rid of him. He was busy doing his job from day to day. On one occasion off the coast of Vera Cruz, it was his misfortune to scrape a French sloop-of-war and to inflict minor damage on one of its projecting spars. The French commanding officer poured out his abuse on the offending American. After Levy made his apologies for the damage done by his ship, he later returned and, in the presence of two of his midshipmen who spoke French, grimly demanded—and got—an apology from the French officer. If it had not been forthcoming, he would have challenged the offender to mortal combat. Years later the commander’s widow explained why her husband had made his demand of the vituperative Frenchman. Receiving Levy’s apology for the damage done his ship, that officer had sarcastically remarked: “What else would you expect of a vessel commanded by a Jew?” In 1847, Capt. Levy volunteered to take a vessel with grain to the starving Irish and informed the authorities that he would contribute his pay to the relief fund. The offer was rejected. It was during these years, as war was being waged with Mexico, that he pleaded in vain for an assignment. The next decade brought joy and despair: there was joy in 1853 when he married his niece Virginia Lopez, a native of Jamaica—at the time of the marriage, the captain was sixty, his bride of eighteen would survive him by sixty-three years. The despair came in 1855 when, together with many others, he was unceremoniously dropped by a Board of Fifteen. Levy was convinced that religious prejudice was the prime reason for his being stricken from the rolls, and his counsel stressed this charge in arguments before the Court of Inquiry in 1858. Whether the Board of Fifteen dropped him because he was a Jew is moot, though it is true that some of its members disliked him. Protesting his dismissal, Levy proceeded to hire two of the most eminent lawyers in the United States—he could afford the best—and won reinstatement. Was it helpful that he was a Democrat during a Democratic administration? That very year of 1858, after being given a ship of his own, he joined the Mediterranean squadron; in 1860 he served as the flag officer of the fleet, if only for a few months before his retirement. Horatio Alger, Jr., a Unitarian, moved in the best Jewish social circles in New York City as did Levy. It is not improbable that they knew each other. The Captain was certainly a candidate for the Luck and Pluck series for he had come up from genteel poverty to very substantial riches. His was a distinguished career. Luck? He made his own luck.

During World War II, some eighty years after his death, a destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Levy, was launched. Foreknowledge of what was yet to come would surely have pleased him no end. At the time of the Levy’s naming, there were over 5,000,000 Jews in the United States; the ship was a tribute not only to him but to the numerous, influential American Jewry of the 1940’s. By that time, too, there was a relatively large number of Jewish generals and admirals in the armed forces; it was a far cry from the America of 1860. Although, as far as we know, no synagoguegoer, Levy identified himself with his religious group in a dignified, self-respecting manner; he belonged to Shearith Israel of New York. His loyalty to the faith in which he had been bred did not prevent him from adorning his walls with an oil portrait of the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mother. In later years, on his last Mediterranean cruise, he brought home a wagonload of Palestinian soil for the pious Jews of New York; contingent on circumstances, his executors were instructed to set up an agricultural training school for Jewish and Christian orphans. In this instance, it would appear, he was influenced by the proposed “Institute” of M. E. Levy, no relative of his. Uriah Levy also left a modest bequest for the New York Jewish hospital. On the whole, he was not particularly generous to the Jewish community.

Levy was keenly conscious of the significance of the anti-Jewish prejudice which he encountered. Though certain that it was not characteristic of the American spirit, he was equally convinced that its existence should have been faced frankly by the Secretary of the Navy, denounced and treated with the contempt it deserved. Had Judeophobia been exposed as the vice of a few, religious intolerance might have been dealt a vital blow. The benefit of such action, he pointed out, would not have been made manifest merely in the protection of one individual American, the Jew Levy; it would have served to add stature to the government and to conserve the rights of all citizens. The problem, he said, was not whether a Jew should be tolerated in the navy; it was his realization that the honor of America as a land of promise, of religious liberty and tolerance, was at stake. If the Jew fell victim to religious intolerance and bigotry, he said, no religious group, Catholic or Protestant, would ever be safe. Levy was conscious that he was fighting an historic struggle in which the issue was larger than himself. That in the hour of decision the President of the United States, Congress, and a majority of the officers in the United States Navy sustained Levy, proves that antebellum America was not akin to the anti-Dreyfus France of 1894. The important fact to bear in mind is that the anti-Jewish snobs in the service were not successful in their intrigues. Levy was consistently, however slowly, advanced despite all opposition; he ended his stormy career in a blaze of glory as a “Commodore” of the United States Navy.41



In 1860, as flag officer of the Mediterranean squadron, Captain Levy, the Jew, embodied in himself fulfillment of the promises inherent in the Declaration of Independence. But 1860 was not 1776. Prior to 1776, despite the 1740 English statute naturalizing foreigners in the colonies, the Jews had still remained second-class citizens. Naturalization conferred no political equality unless one was ready to take an oath “on the true faith of a Christian.” Under British rule, the Jews in the thirteen provinces had made no political demands; they were sure that their situation was better than that of any other Jewry in the world—and, in any case, complaints would probably have been of little avail to them. But, as events in the 1770’s demonstrated, once the Revolution started it became clear that the Jews had not really accepted their disabilities with equanimity. The Jews were certainly conscious that the new republic was denying them rights accorded others, and some of them were indignant. By 1777 they were fully aware that twelve of the thirteen states were denying them the right to hold high office.42

Moses Michael Hays told the Rhode Islanders bluntly that the Continental Congress and the states were ignoring Jews politically. This was in July, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. When, that same month, Jonas Phillips sent a copy of the printed Declaration to a relative in Holland, he made no comment about the future of the Jews in the newly independent country, but eleven years later this Revolutionary War militiaman communicated to the Constitutional Convention his indignation that Jews had bravely fought and bled for a liberty which was not granted them. Writing to George Washington in 1790, Charleston Jews emphasized their gratitude that the new privileges and immunities which by then they were enjoying had raised them from a state of political degradation. An obvious question is this: why had Jews in the last quarter of the century not united nationally, as an organized body, to fight for rights in all the states? They took no such action because in all likelihood they realized that Jews, pronounced individualists, could not work together as a group to secure political emancipation. A firm national organization of all the Jews in this land was never envisaged. Such unity in American Jewry was not even achieved as late as the turn of the twentieth century. Individual Jews, however, did fight for emancipation in the states of their residence—in Pennsylvania in 1783, in Maryland in 1797. These men fought because they resented discrimination; they fought because they had been influenced strongly by the libertarian teachings of the eighteenth century. When in 1803 Isaiah Isaacs, of Richmond, prepared to manumit some of his slaves, he wrote that he was “of opinion that all men are by nature equally free,” and the freedom that he had secured in the Virginia of 1786 he was willing to grant to others.43

What had American Jews gained by 1840? Why had they been emancipated? Who helped them? What had they gained in the early national period—freedom of conscience and the right to worship as Jews? No. These rights they had always enjoyed in the English colonies; indeed, these privileges were accorded them in most European lands, even in ruthless Frederician Prussia and in brutal Poland. Thus, are we to conclude that the Jews had “religious freedom” in the North American British colonies and in the United States? No. They could claim no genuine religious freedom because political rights were denied them as Jews. And when at last they were granted equality, what had they gained? On the federal level, the Jews had done well; the Constitution of 1787–1791 gave them formal equality—a great change: the thirteen English colonies were Protestant Christian, and Jews, consequently, had always been second-class citizens. That was no longer the case. Grateful, the Jews thanked George Washington in 1790; he had become the symbol of the new American egalitarianism though it may well be questioned whether the framers of the Constitution had deliberately set out to grant political equality to all whites regardless of their wealth and social status. But the Constitution was important; even Catholics were coming into their own. There was a Catholic general in the Revolution, a Catholic naval captain; two members of the Church signed the Constitution; priests were now permitted to celebrate the mass in public. For the first time in Diaspora history—at least since Emperor Caracalla’s edict of 212 C.E.—Jews were deemed part of the citizenry and accorded political equality. They were no longer to be a separate enclave, a corporate out-group with a specific charter or implied rights of its own. For the Jews the new Constitution was socially revolutionary giving them not only political and economic rights and opportunities, but also a new inner affective freedom.44

And the gains on the sub-federal, state level? On that level there was resistance to the granting of rights to the Chosen People; strong efforts were made to maintain the pre-Revolutionary status quo. America was a Protestant country, certainly a Christian one! Whether churched or not, most Americans believed in a trinitarian God; they wanted Christian chaplains and a national Thanksgiving celebration. They were determined to enforce Sunday laws, to accord tax exemption to churches, to further a nondenominational Christianity in public and in private schools. They believed in the Old and in the New Testament, in using tax-supported school buildings for Christian religious purposes. They punished people for anti- Christian blasphemy. Actually, the law recognized Christianity as the religion of the land. What political gains, then, had the Jews made on the state level by 1840? One must constantly bear in mind that not until 1937 were states forbidden by judicial construction to tamper with First Amendment rights. When Jefferson became president in 1801, only six of the original thirteen states had emancipated their Jews; by 1840, four of the original thirteen—Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and New Hampshire—still refused to abolish statutes withholding from Jews the right to hold important state office. It was not until 1790, fourteen years after the Declaration of Independence, that Jews were accepted as full citizens in Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia—all of them sheltering Jewish communities. The original constitutions in these commonwealths had to be rewritten or modified by statute. And when Jews were completely enfranchised, what had they gained? From that time on, they began to receive local, county, and state offices, but not always on the highest level despite the fact that there were potential Jewish nominees of competence. Jews were not elected to Congress till the 1840’s, and those elected were invariably men without any interest in the religion of their ancestors. By the 1850’s most Jews going to Congress had some ties to Judaism. Holding office was important for the Children of Israel. Their dignity, their status, their emotional wellbeing were at stake. Office and its emoluments spelled an opportunity for a career; in the lower echelons, an opportunity for a livelihood. Like other citizens, Jews too were eager to feed at the public trough.45

Jewish emancipation—never a public preoccupation as in Europe—underwent its own complexities. Why were Jews emancipated? What prompted the Christian masses and their elected leaders to accept Jews politically? Actually the lawmakers had little choice. Deists and evangelical sectarians alike realized that there could be no political peace as long as there were established churches. Separation of church and state was imperative; the different religious sects all had to be tolerated. It was not liberalism—it was fear of confessional strife—that impelled the writers of the new national constitution, for the first time on this continent, to bar any church establishment, to set up a wall, officially at least, between church and state. After a fashion, therefore, the political emancipation of the Jews as such was fortuitous, accidental. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly concerned with the political rights of a few thousand exotic infidels but those states with Jewish communities were ultimately compelled to face the challenge of their Jewish neighbors and to acknowledge them as political peers. Acceptance of Jews was hastened because, though a small minority, they were not an unimportant urban commercial congeries; some were merchants, members of the business elite. They were a literate group at a time when thousands among the farming masses were illiterate. Prior to 1801 and the ascendancy of Jefferson, many Jews, it may be assumed, favored the ruling clique, the Federalists. Jews wanted a strong central government able to protect their commercial interests; the national constitution upheld by the Federalists tolerated no disabilities, whereas the state constitutions were often discriminatory. There is also ample evidence that, by 1800, some Jews were Jeffersonians, politically and philosophically committed to egalitarianism. They, too, were mindful that the majority of the states had not yet emancipated them. Jefferson’s Virginia did not do away with religious disabilities till the promulgation of a new constitution in 1830. Even then, of the 41,618 who voted, 15,563 cast their ballots against this new organic statute.46

Who were the allies of the Jews? Who helped them gain rights and immunities? Certainly the typical observant churchgoer was not a conscious ally. He enjoyed his prejudices, which were reinforced weekly from the pulpits of most congregations. The separation of church and state for which most of the evangelicals opted was but a counsel of desperation; they were faced with the choice of mutual toleration or of constant civil strife. The Jews gained their liberties by stealing a ride on the coattails of the Christian dissenters. Intrinsically, many of the Protestants would never accept Jews as equals; today, two centuries later, they are still not completely reconciled. But most Protestants finally did accept the concept of the separation between church and state. The man in the street was flattered when Americans were praised abroad for their liberalism; he gloried when this country’s political contributions were magnified by patriotic orators. For many, toleration became a respectable tradition because it was part of the American ethos sanctioned by the Constitution itself, the most hallowed instrument in America’s holy of holies. But more than a decade before the Constitution was written, as early as 1776, the tradition of religious freedom was already so respectable, so strong, that even those states which retained the older disabilities paid lip service to it. Consistency was no virtue; hypocrisy no vice. The attitude towards Jews was determined by two disparate traditions, tolerance and antipathy. The anti-Jewish one was rooted in the gospel drama of the Jew as a villain; the post-Revolutionary tradition of tolerance—not too widespread to be sure—goes back to the Protestant England of Leonard Busher, Roger Williams, and Cromwell. Williams, a great liberal, preached both in England and America that religious practice was no concern of the state. Many years later, in 1714, the Deist John Toland had published his Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland on the Same Foot with All Other Nations, Containing Also a Defence of the Jews Against All Vulgar Prejudice in All Countries. On the title page of his pamphlet, Toland printed a verse from Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously everyone with his neighbour?”47

The golden thread of tolerance was to continue resplendently visible in the fabric of eighteenth-century Anglo-Saxon thought. Fortified by Deism, natural law, mercantilism, and the new colonial imperialism with its emphasis on commercial and industrial revolution, a new criterion for good citizenship made its appearance—taxability. Assuredly, Christian piety still remained a mark of good citizenship, but the merchant, the importer and exporter, the substantial ratepayer, assumed an increasing importance. Speculation in terrestrial wares engrossed men more than celestial salvation. Jews were now valued; they were imaginative entrepreneurs; they paid taxes. For these reasons they were encouraged to settle in the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America. This new tolerance, rationalized and ethically plated by the Enlightenment, had made itself felt in South Carolina by 1775. The rebel province was ready that year to accept a Jew as a delegate to a rump provincial assembly. The liberal political tradition now began to accelerate rapidly. The following year witnessed the adoption of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Ten years later Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom was passed; a year later the Constitution was written; in 1789 the French Revolution, already much influenced by North American events, sent its own spirit westward across the Atlantic to deepen and strengthen the social content of liberalism. In 1796, in a treaty with Tripoli, the Senate declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” a radical statement which offers strong evidence that America was prepared to accept Jews politically.48

In one generation, liberalism in this country had been catapulted forward. In such an atmosphere, anti-Jewish disabilities were destined to disappear. Gentile liberals in every American state now aided the Jews in their fight for political rights. One Congressman, Richard M. Johnson, in his reports on the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads insisted in 1829–1830 that the mail must go through on Sunday, that the church had no right to control the state. Two years later, David Moulton, a Gentile, and Mordecai Myers, a Jew, presented a report in the New York State Assembly opposing the support of chaplains from the public purse. If America’s anti-Jewish political disabilities were abolished in the century between 1777 and 1877, thanks are due primarily to Gentile Americans.49


The tradition of tolerance—not evangelical in character—was to dominate the republic’s leadership for almost two generations. The goals of acceptance and equality were reflected in the thinking and actions of the early presidents. Notable Americans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were dedicated to the concepts of equality, liberty, and justice—in principle at least, though on occasion they rejected individual Jews and showed no understanding of Judaism as a faith. They were not philo-Semites. To a considerable degree, the attitudes of the political leaders toward Jews were reflected in Washington’s correspondence. The constitutional recognition of the Jew as an equal before the law, he wrote, is a policy worthy of imitation among the enlightened nations of the earth. Here in America, he gladly acknowledged, Jews and Christians alike possess liberty of conscience and the immunities of citizenship; here we no longer speak of toleration; all citizens are equal. The President gloried in the mutual liberality of sentiment which, he wanted to believe, marked every political and religious denomination in the republic; this stands unparalleled in the history of nations! He and his secretaries were carried away by a passionate rhetoric, but their good will was real enough. Washington’s views on religious liberty and political equality were shared by Alexander Hamilton, the President’s aide-de-camp and later Secretary of the Treasury. It was Hamilton who drafted the charter of Columbia College in the 1780’s and saw to it that all clergymen were on its board, including Seixas, the local rabbi. On the anniversary of Washington’s birthday, the Venetian Jew, Lorenzo Da Ponte, one of Mozart’s librettists and then living in New York, eulogized the country’s first president:

Liberty, the best of heaven, then first dawned upon your skies,

And tyranny was crushed never to rise again.50


John Adams, addressing himself more directly to the Jews in personal letters to Noah, expressed the hope in 1818 that the United States would annul every narrow idea in religion and government and that Jews would be admitted to privileges in every country of the world. A little more than a decade later, his son, John Quincy, reiterated his father’s wish that the European states would give full equality to the Jews of Europe. Jefferson, even more than John Adams, was concerned with absolute religious liberty and never lost sight of the need to emancipate politically not only an infidel like the Jew but the Moslem and the skeptic, too. This had been in his mind as early as 1776 when he set out to do away with religious tests in Virginia, at the time the most important state in the new republic. As president, Jefferson considered appointing a Jew to his cabinet, and years later, when he set out to establish a university in his native state, he made it clear that he would tolerate no compulsory readings in theology. Long before this, Hamilton had hoped that Columbia College would not compel its students to study religious works to which they could not conscientiously subscribe. Religious freedom, wrote Jefferson to a Jewish correspondent in 1818, is the answer to religious dissension, and it is the glory of America that it was the first to proclaim this truth. Madison shared fully the views of his friend Jefferson. Writing to Jews in 1818 and 1820, Madison repeated what he had frequently preached, that every sect in this country was entitled to religious freedom. Here in the United States, he said, Jews have shown the world that the rights granted them have eventuated in good citizenship. Let this be an example, he intimated, to those European states who distrust and oppress their Jewish subjects. In 1840, Secretary of State John Forsyth, speaking for President Martin Van Buren, instructed the American minister at Constantinople to help the persecuted Jews of Damascus. It was an exceptionally strong statement, probably the most vigorous that any American administration ever issued on behalf of an oppressed Jewish group:

The President is of opinion that from no one can such generous endeavors proceed with so much propriety and effect as from the Representative of a friendly power whose institutions, political and civil, place upon the same footing the worshippers of God of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jews, and the Christian.51



Europeans were very much interested in the new American republic, its liberties and opportunities. Many of them became acquainted with it through Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was translated into Italian and French and reprinted in the monumental Encyclopédie. In July, 1789, shortly after the storming of the Bastille, an American in Europe wrote George Washington a brief but enthusiastic note implying that the fall of this symbol of autocracy was due to the influence of the American Revolution. European intellectual and political leaders were fully aware that the American Revolution was a cataclysmic event—that, for the first time in Christian history, men were accorded the right to hold office without regard to their religious beliefs. Certainly the American Revolution with its promises of liberty and happiness to all men attracted the attention of Europe’s Jews, everywhere second-class citizens, often segregated, and almost always denied political and social recognition.

The Revolution of 1775–1776 on these shores would have a profound impact on the French. They, too, revolted against the ancien régime and in a relatively short time emancipated their Jewish fellow citizens. Where Jews were concerned, indeed, the French moved with greater dispatch than their American exemplars. For most Americans the uprising against the English was primarily a political one, a reaching out for self-rule. The new North American republic still tolerated slavery, limited the suffrage, and more often than not blithely ignored disabilities imposed on Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers. The adoption of the federal Constitution in 1788 was not the end but the beginning of a struggle for the political, spiritual, and emotional enfranchisement of all minorities in the United States. Nevertheless the Constitution had a profound influence on the French, for in the space of months they, too, rose up and followed the Americans in separating church and state. The Bills of Rights adopted by several states were exemplary for the French in 1789, and when the Jews demanded freedom in France, they cited America’s new national constitution. Because the French took these protestations of equality seriously, they had no choice but to emancipate their Jews in 1791. Unlike the American federal government which lacked the power to give Jews all rights in the individual states, the French National Assembly freed its Jews with one stroke. French Jewry was given full political equality before its American counterpart. Unlike the Revolution in America, the one in France was social in goal and content; it set out to emancipate the individual—the Jew, too—in every sense of the word. And, in turn, giving Jews all rights in France was to speed the unshackling of American Jewry. France, one of the world’s great empires, had a host of admirers in the United States after the Revolution of 1789. The French experience suggested to many an American that work remained to be done in this country; America’s emancipatory task was not yet finished. In 1791, only five of the original thirteen states had given their Jews full rights.52


France was not the only land influenced by the American Revolution. Like all other Europeans, the Germans, too, were aware of the momentous changes which had taken place on the North American continent. They followed the progress of the Revolutionary War with keen interest; after all, thousands of fellow Germans, mercenaries, were fighting for the English crown. Yet the Revolution as such would leave the German people in their numerous principalities relatively untouched. Perhaps the Jews were more impressed because, much more than their Gentile fellow citizens, they knew themselves to be an oppressed lot. For many of them, literate and intelligent, the disabilities they experienced were intolerable. It may not have been mere happenstance that, in 1783, Moses Mendelssohn published his Jerusalem advocating the separation of church and state. New York’s constitution of 1777 had already moved to divorce the two; Jefferson’s Ordinance of Religious Freedom had been introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779. The promise of America was obvious to German Jewry. In the very same year that Mendelssohn wrote his eloquent plea for freedom in all matters religious, an anonymous German Jew wrote a letter to the president of the Continental Congress asking for permission to establish a Jewish colony in the American hinterland. The letter was probably never dispatched; it was certainly a ploy to emphasize the deplorable status of the Jews in the German lands, but it does evidence a knowledge of better conditions here—and this as early as 1783. Several years later, in 1807, a member of the new Berlin banking family of Bleichroeder wrote to his parents from New York telling them that the Jews in this country filled important posts in the army and in the civil service. Young Bleichroeder noted this at a time when Prussian Jews would have to wait at least sixty years to be given all political rights.53

It was at the turn of the century and during the following decade that Napoleon, the testamentary legatee of the American and French Revolutions, effected emancipation of the Jews in most of Western and Central Europe. If only for a brief few years, Jews in Switzerland, western Germany, and northern Italy enjoyed political freedom. By 1812, the Prussians and other Germans, trying to rebuild their shattered states after the defeats by Napoleon, were ready to admit Jews into their armies. As justification for this radical act, they cited Jewish heroism on the field of battle in the United States. That same decade, in 1818, Noah reminded his auditors that American liberties had helped free Jews abroad. In 1821, David Ottensosser (d.1858), a Bavarian scholar, published a History of the Jews in which he stressed the many opportunities open to them in the United States. Ottensosser leaned heavily on Hannah Adams’s History. Though he wrote his book in German, the script he employed was the Hebrew, not the Roman one. Thus German and East European Jews who knew only the Hebrew alphabet could read and learn about the United States. The book was bound to have an influence.54

Even in distant North Africa, Jews learned of the freedom that their people had achieved in the United States. Around the year 1800, many American sailors were seized by Barbary pirates and ruthlessly sold into slavery or held for ransom. The situation became critical for American merchantmen in the summer of 1801 when the piratical Regency of Tripoli declared war on the United States. In discussing this subject years later, Mordecai Manuel Noah said that the Americans had to fight back to save their ships, to abolish tribute, to free American captives, and, above all, to make the flag respected everywhere. These were the motivations, so Noah believed, that prompted Jefferson to send a small fleet into the Mediterranean to wage war on Tripoli. While engaged in this activity the armed schooner Enterprize, commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, seized the Paulina, a three-masted vessel, just after she had left Valetta in Malta with a cargo of goods. Commodore Richard V. Morris and his officers had no hesitation in ordering the capture of this ship for she was headed for Tripoli, a country at war with the United States; the captain of the Paulina was well aware that the Libyan port had been blockaded, if only by a paper blockade, and the cargo—so the Americans were reliably informed by a British consul—was owned for the most part by a Tripolitan subject. For these reasons the Enterprize seized the Paulina on January 17, 1803. The “enemy” Tripolitan merchant who owned the larger part of the cargo of raisins, figs, cheese, silk, etc., was a Jewish merchant in his twenties by the name of David Valenzin. Young David was held as a prisoner, his clothes and personal belongings were seized, his cargo was speedily confiscated and sold at auction. It was in all likelihood a forced sale, and the goods which he valued at seven to eight thousand dollars brought a net of something over two thousand dollars. The purchaser seems to have been a friend of the American consul at Malta, and one may well believe that the consul—who was no doubt in business himself—saw to it that the cargo was sold very cheaply.

Commodore Morris, who had ordered the seizure of this ship as a prize and the arrest of Valenzin, the captain, and some others on board soon discovered that neither the Maltese nor the Gibraltarian authorities would act as an admiralty court in this case. The Paulina was a Hapsburg vessel; its captain, a citizen of the German Empire. By June, the Commodore, using a face-saving device, had restored the ship to its owner, and because no English court of admiralty would try the case he had, perforce, to ship Valenzin, impoverished, depressed, destitute, still a prisoner and still untried, to the United States to stand trial. Some four months after his capture, Valenzin was brought to this country, but again there was no court to try him. The Commodore had bungled this matter as he had his whole expedition, and because of his general ineptitude and his Mediterranean failure, he was relieved of his command in June. That very month, the Secretary of the Navy freed Valenzin and offered to return him to the Mediterranean on a government vessel. No court was competent to hear the case because there was no boat, no cargo, no “corpus delicti,” to be presented in evidence. The Commodore and his eager men had arbitrarily taken action without submitting their prize to the decision of a properly constituted court. They could not legally justify the procedure to which they had had recourse. Valenzin, as it turned out, was what he had always said he was, a subject of the German Emperor, though he also carried Tripolitan papers. The family was originally Venetian, and therefore Austrian, but on the death of Valenzin’s mother, his father had moved to Tripoli and the sons had gone with him to live in that country as friendly aliens under German protection. When the boys reached their majority, they moved to Egypt, to Alexandria and Rosetta, but had kept in touch with their father commercially; this last cargo had undoubtedly been destined for Tripoli. Morris and the American consular officers should have tried Valenzin before a competent court before seizing and selling his goods. They should have determined his citizenship before imprisoning him. They had no right to rob him of all his personal possessions and to keep him destitute for a period of over four months before taking him to the distant United States. It is very questionable if they were even justified in taking him as a prisoner to this country. The American authorities here realized that it was all “irregular” and “illegal” and were willing to compound the case by freeing the young man and sending him back home—without restoration of his property, to be sure. He was now given every encouragement to go back to the Mediterranean.

Valenzin planned to go back, but sometime toward the autumn he made up his mind to stay and fight it out. It was a resolution of desperation. It is not improbable that he was given some help by Rebecca Gratz’s brother-in-law, Reuben Etting, who was now United States marshal for Maryland. Etting was a man of political influence and may have intervened, for we know that he was in touch with the unfortunate young Venetian. Early in November, Valenzin appealed to the House of Representatives for redress. His petition was read in the House on the 10th, but the congressmen, if they had listened at all, proceeded to forget about the whole affair. At first, the papers which Valenzin depended upon to substantiate his claims could not even be found; as a matter of fact, there is reason to believe that the officers who were cognizant of all the details preferred to stay out of sight. If Valenzin’s petition were granted, they would get no prize money! When, finally, the papers were produced, they were found to be in Arabic, in a Barbary-Italian dialect, and who was there who could even read these documents? Some believed that Valenzin’s story of German citizenship was false; he was a Tripolitan and got what was coming to him. Strangely enough, the members of the Committee of Claims of the House, usually “hard-boiled,” believed this young man and were personally eager to help him, even with funds. All of this sympathy, however, was insufficient to allay the fears of the frightened young man, rejected and alone in a strange country. All that he owned in the world had been invested in that cargo and now it was gone; he had no clothes, no real friends, and … he was cold. On January 20, 1804, despairing of a favorable decision, he committed suicide, stabbing himself to death.

Apparently his death made a difference; his petition was now given favorable consideration. A bill was introduced in Congress in March and passed less than two weeks later, indemnifying the people who had fed him and then buried him, and ordering the residue of his estate—the $2,000 prize money—turned over to his heirs. We have no doubt that it was finally paid out to his older brother Moses in Alexandria. But how did they ever find Moses? They are unlikely to have advertised for him. Almost a year after the suicide—in December, 1804—General William Eaton, the former consul to Tunis, was at Cairo talking to a Jewish merchant whom he had just met, a fellow by the name of Leon Reubin, when he heard the name Moses Valenzin mentioned. Further inquiry—an official deposition—elicited the whole story of David Valenzin’s life in Europe and North Africa and the existence of a brother in Egypt. Eaton at once sent the deposition and other details to his friend Congressman John C. Smith who had been on the original Committee of Claims in Washington. At first, when Eaton told Reubin of the death of the young Venetian, Reubin wept; later, when the General told him that the United States would surrender what was left of the man’s property to his heirs, the Cairo Jew turned to a Jewish friend who stood nearby, raised his eyes to Heaven, “and laying both hands gravely to his breast he exclaimed in Arabic, ‘Great God! What an astonishing country that must be where the government takes so much pain to render justice to a Hebrew! Even at this distance to inform his heirs of cash in deposit which might so easily have been concealed.’ ” Thus it was that the Jews of Europe and the Mediterranean world were convinced that almost halcyonic conditions prevailed in the United States at a time when their coreligionists were being actively persecuted in Eastern Europe and subjected to severe disabilities in most of Central Europe, Asia, and North Africa. But knowledgeable Europeans could also have retorted in 1804 that less than half of the original thirteen states had emancipated their Jews.55


The secession of the thirteen North American provinces from British rule was in a way the beginning of the process of decolonization; the British Empire had begun to break up. The English intelligentsia was profoundly stirred by the radical political departures in the new United States, yet it moved very slowly and cautiously before making any domestic changes. The Reign of Terror and Napoleon frightened Parliament. Dissenters and Catholics, annoyed by the disabilities imposed on them, finally secured relief in 1828–1829. Members of the British elite, fully cognizant of the value of Jews as citizens, were willing to work toward parity, but reserved the right to set the pace. They had stumbled once before in 1753 when they passed their “Jew Bill,” a naturalization act. At that time the forces of reaction, hysterical in vehemence, had compelled Parliament to repeal the law only a few months after its passage. Americans in London kept telling the English that it was no mistake to emancipate their Jews; as early as 1792 an American clergyman, preaching in the English capital, had reassured them. In 1829, the year the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed, the Jews began to push for the right to hold office, to abolish the test oath. The Jews and their Gentile allies did not fail to cite American precedents, pointing out that the Israelites of the United States enjoyed equality in all matters political; they were not subject to discriminatory oaths. This was the argument they used, though in fact it was only partially true. In order to influence English public opinion, at least four pamphlets were published during the years 1829–1838 listing the various offices held by American Jews. Beginning with the year 1830 the fight to eliminate the anti-Jewish disabilities began in earnest. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essay in defense of Jewish rights was published in the Edinburgh Review for January, 1831; in 1833, speaking in Parliament on behalf of Jews, he referred briefly to America’s grant of equal rights. The 1831 essay was later reprinted in French, Dutch, Rumanian, and Spanish versions in order to speed up the emancipation of Continental Jewry. A year later, in 1832, Canada opened all its offices to its Jewish citizens; the English campaign for freedom certainly helped. The rights accorded Jews in the United States undoubtedly influenced the English and the Canadians to grant immunities to their own Jews, but it was not until the early twentieth century that most disabilities were removed in Britain itself. One restriction remains in force: no Jew—and no Catholic—can ever hope to become sovereign of the United Kingdom.56

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