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From our account of the political gains by Jews in the United States it is evident that after thirteen years the Children of Israel—together with many others—were accorded all rights on the federal level as soon as the Constitution went into force in 1789. By 1790, Jews had been granted political equality in the five states where established communities maintained themselves; Jewish communities existed in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Newport? By 1800 the Jewish community there had vanished, the town itself began to decline during the Revolution. The important Jewish merchants whether Whigs or Loyalists, were dead or in exile. The long British occupation had been harmful; the wharves and docks neglected; the population in decline; the local industries, rum, molasses, and candles, were no more. There was no available capital. Now Providence overshadowed Newport; Boston was more attractive; New York was beginning to loom large. At a time when freedom and opportunity beckoned, Rhode Island remained politically conservative; the Jews were not to be emancipated there until nearly seventy years after the Declaration of Independence. Aaron Lopez, probably pre-Revolutionary Newport’s most notable merchant, had been drowned in Scott’s Pond in 1782. Had he lived, could he have saved the town? It is speculation, of course, but the man was so daring, so ingenious, that he certainly would have salvaged the community’s fortunes to some degree. Then again, had he survived the war, he might have been drawn to try his luck elsewhere.1

The change from British colonial rule to the condition of sovereign republic made a difference to everyone in America, particularly to Christians outside the pale of the established churches—and to Jews. Now no field of endeavor was legally closed to these erstwhile outsiders. Political offices and salaries were open to many; economic opportunities were easier to exploit; men of ability had a chance to forge ahead. Psychologically, too, Jews were freer; now they could do what they wanted to do, and this circumstance spurred them on. Mordecai Noah, who began life as a carver’s apprentice and as a peddler of sundries from the workshop, rose in New York City to become Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall and a journalist sufficiently influential to annoy the tenants of the White House. To be sure, there were no opportunities without problems. It was no light matter making a livelihood in those years which knew numerous periods of panic and depression; more than one-third of the years from 1776 to 1840 experienced economic decline. The currency was not always stable; bankruptcies were frequent. Yet there were also rewards. Business took encouragement from a gradually strengthened central government which favored commerce and trade. Individual Jews were eminently successful. By grace of the directory, the affluent Jew was dubbed a “gentleman.”2


“Gentlemen,” comfortably retired Jewish merchant-shippers or capitalists, were at the top of the Jewish socioeconomic ladder. At the bottom in pre-Revolutionary days had been indentured servants and “transports,” criminals. With the coming of independence, England could no longer dump her criminals on these shores; however, impoverished indentured servants and redemptionists, Jewish men and women seeking a new life in the new America, continued to come here. Sold to pay their passage, they had to serve three to four years. There is a story of an indentured servant in Philadelphia—Rachel was her name—who wept as she scrubbed the steps for her wealthy master, Samuel Chew. A passerby who asked her the cause of her distress was told that she wept because she was compelled to work on her Sabbath. The sympathetic inquirer, Aaron Levy, redeemed her and later married her. For years the portraits of this couple graced the walls of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. The story is not documented, but redemptions of Jews by fellow Jews were not uncommon. This very Aaron Levy did redeem a fellow-Jew, Isaac Solomon (Saliman), who was obligated to serve four years to pay off his passage, £19.10. When two bond servants arrived in Philadelphia harbor on the afternoon before the Day of Atonement in 1795, the congregation scurried around to raise the necessary funds to redeem them. Redemption was not invariable: in 1801, a husband and wife pleaded in vain with Shearith Israel to ransom them from service in a Gentile home. As late as 1818, Wolf Samuel had sold himself to pay for his passage to America, his land of opportunity. Writing back home, he boasted that he was working for a Jew worth a million, that he was overseer of ninety-four Negroes on a plantation, that he had only two years to serve, that he was given good food and clothing—in short, he was living “just like a gentleman.” So far the fantasy. The reality? He was working in York, Pennsylvania, for Gentiles who treated him so harshly that in despair he ran away. The master offered a reward for his capture and return. Such runaway “servants,” Jews, are documented in the advertisements of the country’s newspapers. By 1830, however, this system of financing one’s passage had died. A plethora of immigrants made it cheaper for employers to hire help as needed; purchasers did not have to advance the passage money to the ship’s captain.3


After their term of service expired, indentured servants frequently turned to farming, but there is no record that Jewish bond servants became tillers of the soil. There were always some Jewish farmers on this continent, but their numbers were insignificant. Farming was not foreign to Jews from villages and hamlets in Central and Eastern Europe where, though rarely themselves working the soil, they had done business with peasants and yeomen. Here, too, as shopkeepers in small towns they found much of their trade coming from the farmers, for the United States was largely agricultural until well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1790, city and town dwellers numbered little more than 3 percent of the population. Some Jewish merchants in the colonial years and later in the early national period owned farms and ran cattle. These were ranchers with registered brands, yet essentially they were businessmen. Mathias Bush, of Chestnut Hill near Philadelphia, owned a small farm of twenty some acres. Once a tavern perched atop a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding country, it was located on two main highways, had a large stone house, and a stone stable big enough to hold fifty horses; in addition, there were an orchard and a well fenced-in field. He tried to sell it and suggested that it would make a fine home for a gentleman. Farther west, in the Pennsylvania hinterland of the 1830’s, Secku Meylert (Mailert) farmed, speculated in land, and bought cattle to improve the breed. A decade earlier Jacob Mordecai, the educator, had purchased a farm near Richmond, Virginia, which he tilled with the aid of his slaves. It was his retirement project.4

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Hays clan farmed in Westchester County, New York, but they were active also as shopkeepers and politicians. They were yeomen, often with sizable holdings augmented by purchases from the confiscated estates of Loyalists. One of the Hayses, David (d.1812), was a tradesman of substance judging by the promissory notes his heirs had to collect. Most of his trading was undoubtedly done on credit, or do these notes imply that on occasion he was also a moneylender? David was a committed Jew who kept kosher, did his own slaughtering, and observed the holidays. One of his sons married out and lived as a Christian; a daughter also seemed inclined to defect, for the father threatened to cut her out of his will if she found a husband who was not of the “society.” Indeed, after his death she did marry a Gentile; her brother, who had already married a Christian, was not disinherited. Living in the country many miles from New York’s Shearith Israel, the Hayses were exposed to assimilation. Ben Hays, another member of the family, gave his neighbors land for a school. He was careful in harvesting his crops to leave something for the poor, following the injunctions of the Bible. In admiration for his sterling qualities his neighbors referred to Ben as “the best Christian in Westchester County.”5


Throughout American history Jews encouraged other Jews to become horny-handed sons of the soil. As tradesmen living in an almost completely agrarian milieu, they were apparently overwhelmed with a sense of guilt because they used their brains more than their hands—and their Christian neighbors, distrusting all traders, never failed to reinforce the feeling of guilt. The apologete Noah, addressing a congregation of Jews in 1818—and well aware that there were a few Gentiles in the audience—harangued his fellow Jews on the need to leave the “crooked paths of traffic.” Waxing eloquent, he reminded his auditors that agriculture was the “cradle of virtue and the school of patriotism.” The creation of Jewish agricultural colonies in this country had been envisaged by Jews since the decade of the 1810’s. M. E. Levy and Mordecai Noah attempted without success to settle Jews on the land in the 1820’s. Isaac Leeser followed their plans with interest. Jews turned to farming only as a last resort during the long years of depression beginning with 1837; the immigrant Jews had to make a living. In the spring of that year a group came together as the Association Zeire Hazon (Tender Sheep as Jer. 50:45 has it.) They hoped to establish a colony out “West” somewhere. The president was the well-known Jewish printer and publisher Solomon H. Jackson; the secretary, who served a local congregation as clerk, was Thomas Washington Donovan, married to a granddaughter of Haym Salomon and probably a convert.6

Were the Tender Sheep influenced by contemporary utopian communities? They certainly knew of these secular and religious communistic and cooperative efforts but it is difficult to determine the impact, if any, of Robert Owen, St. Simon, Fourier, and Christian religious enthusiasts upon the Jews. Some of the men who established the Association had been farmers and mechanics in Central Europe. They hoped, too, to create a congregation and thus maintain their group and religious identity. As a colony, they would be able to offer resistance to the assimilatory environment. The Tender Sheep were to be a cooperative, not a communistic, enterprise. It was their contention, part of their rationale, that farming would save them from vocations which did nothing to enhance the status of the Jew—peddling and possibly retailing in which haggling was a way of life. The Society died aborning; the New York congregations refused help. Class and other differences seriously impeded congregational cooperation in the city. Shearith Israel was Sephardic; many of its members were native-born; B’nai Jeshurun was Ashkenazic with a strong infusion of Englishmen; Anshe Chesed was a potpourri of Germans, Poles, and Hollanders. Driven by necessity rather than talk, the German immigrants in Anshe Chesed did finally establish a colony in Ulster County called Sholem or Sholom (“Peace”). They laid out a cemetery, created a congregation, the Keepers of the Covenant (Shomre ha-Brit) and went to work—but Sholem was not a success. The mortgages were foreclosed by 1841 and members started drifting back to New York, where some of them, men of culture, would make their mark in the Jewish community. American Jews were not destined to become farmers; farming was not their métier.7


The Sholem colony members who remained turned to crafts and trading—peddling no doubt. Cheap as land was, Jewish newcomers, lacking capital and agricultural experience, could not and would not, as individuals, take up farming. Living among Gentiles was no life for them. If they remained on the farm, isolated, it was practically impossible to raise a Jewish family. For a man without capital, one road was nearly always open. Like the last of the settlers at the Sholem colony, they could turn to peddling; there was always a Jewish supplier ready to give an immigrant a line of credit. Thus the aspiring new businessmen started out with a pack of notions, cloth, jewelry, and even an occasional gadget to attract customers. The whole world lay open before the peddler; he could peddle in the city or he could work in the backcountry, and that meant in almost every state of the Union. The frontier? The peddler went west, but he stayed behind the frontier; he needed customers, villages, farmsteads, a core town where he could replenish his stock of goods. Full of hope, he might start as a basket peddler and then after carrying a bundle on his back move up to a packhorse, to a team and wagon, or to a bateau on the bayous of the Mississippi. Sometimes a peddler joined forces with another plodder, a congenial sort; when a peddler saved a little, he brought over a brother and they teamed up together. In the year 1814, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts man found a pair of tefillin (phylacteries) in a field. Had some pre-Columbian Jew wandered to America? No, a distraught peddler in desperation had lost them or thrown them away. Leeser scorned peddlers in 1836 as “itinerant traders.” This was before the German Jews began arriving in substantial numbers in the late 1830’s and during the recession were compelled, for lack of anything else to do, to turn to peddling. Were there many peddlers? There is really no way of knowing; many took out no licenses. What about the directories and the congregational marriage registers? There the humblest itinerant portrayed himself as a trader or merchant. Were any of them notably successful? Some fell but rose again; others never ceased peddling. It was often a miserable life and never a highly respected vocation; the peddler was close to the bottom of the social ladder. He was Cohen, Levy, not Mr. Cohen, Mr. Levy. The hazards he faced were many: wars, depressions, illness, robbery, murder.8

For many, peddling was only a start. Benjamin Franklin, then president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, signed the peddler’s license of Solomon Raphael in 1787. After a number of years, Raphael had a shop, then a tavern, then a jewelry establishment of sorts. Between 1787 and 1796, he changed addresses four times—physical mobility and occupational change are intertwined. The 1790’s found him in Richmond, where he was arrested for stealing an indentured servant from her employer, Israel I. Cohen. Apparently domestic servants were at a premium. Later an auctioneer, Raphael called himself a merchant, and by the early nineteenth century he was a merchant of some means, for he owned a slave, Priscilla, whom he emancipated in the days of Jefferson’s presidency. Dr. B. J. Raphael, professor in a medical college in New York, who married into an assimilated Jewish family, was a grandson. Raphael’s record indicates the occupational and social mobility that typified many an American Jewish career. Raphael went up in the world, albeit slowly; his English letters tended to be gibberish and he was delinquent in congregational dues.9

Successful peddlers might and did become retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, even bankers. Jacob Elsas (Elsass) is one among many paradigms. Back home in Wuerttemberg, young Elsas had gone to work at the age of eleven, slaving for a cattle dealer and helping his brother, a weaver, become a cattle dealer himself. Finally, he left for America with a group of other young men. In 1839, when he arrived in New York at the age of twenty-one, he had fifty cents in his pocket. Selling the gold ring he owned, he was able to reach Philadelphia where a trusting wholesaler outfitted him. He peddled jewelry and even saved a little to send home to his mother and eight other relatives. Moving west, he peddled in Kentucky and southern Ohio till he had enough to open a dry goods and clothing store in Portsmouth, Ohio, at the southern end of the canal linking the Ohio and the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Prospering, he married, moved on to Cincinnati, became a wholesaler, amassed a fortune, and turned to industry as a builder, a tanner, a brewer. Like other entrepreneurs, Elsas was not always successful in his undertakings, but he remained wealthy enough to send fourteen substitutes into the army during the Civil War; he himself was not subject to the draft. As a good citizen, he helped erect a monument to the men who had died in battle; he accepted an appointment as city park commissioner and became a patron of the Cincinnati music festival, the Saengerfest. Cincinnati Jewry respected him for his efforts to establish its large cemetery and esteemed him as a cobuilder of its “cathedral” synagog and a dedicated worker in its philanthropic associations.10

What did the pack peddler carry? Some yard goods, notions, cheap jewelry. The wagon peddler, however, had an extensive inventory of dry goods and clothing, and this is where the profit lay. Were these necessities? For the isolated farmer or villager they were. For the children in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, during the 1820’s, what was more important—a piece of cloth or a snuffbox that played Yankee Doodle? There is no question; in the hinterland the peddler was an important convenience merchant. Let there be no mistake; he purveyed goods, not ideas. His occupation was—so he hoped—a transitional one as he sought to understand America, its language, its mores. There are instances of newcomers with some means who entered peddling deliberately to learn the American way of life. Folklore would have every Jewish peddler mouthing a German accented American jargon. That may have been largely true, but he often ended his life wearing broadcloth, with a gold watch in his vest and a respectable balance in the bank. Above all, peddling was the royal road to Americanization. The German peddler Louis Stix invited a farmer’s daughter to a party and, when ready to go home, left her there. The next day he returned to the farm and papa went after him with a pitchfork. His Americanization process was speeded up!11


Peddlers had often begun life in Germany as artisans. The Central European states, agrarian until well into the nineteenth century, pushed Jews into the crafts; artisans were given privileges. Consequently few Jews from German-speaking territories landed here without some skills; they were not day laborers. Some émigrés of the late 1830’s, landing during the depression, tried everything in order to eke out an existence. Ambitious and competent Jewish craftsmen, determined to improve themselves, soon turned to trade. How many skilled Jewish laborers kept to their craft is unknown. But this much is certain; there is hardly a skill which was not practiced by a Jew during the years 1776–1840. Philadelphia Jewry included craftsmen who produced combs, umbrellas, candles, saddles, watches, hats, trunks, shoes, brushes, cabinets, and embroidery. There was a furrier and a cap maker, a worker in leather, a bookbinder, a carver and a gilder. Tobacconists were found in many towns. Myer Derkheim of Richmond (d. 1818), a soapmaker, augmented his slender income as the town lamplighter and as a circumciser for East Coast Jewry. His travels to perform the sacred task took him from Maine to South Carolina. His circumcision record, now hidden away in some library, is important, for it documents the residence of Jews—loyal Jews—in the most distant towns and villages. New York had a chocolate maker and a copperplate artisan as well as a coppersmith, Asher Myers, whose brother, Myer Myers, a notable craftsman, was president of the Gold and Silversmiths’ Society of New York in 1786. Some of his beautiful pieces are still in existence. Myers, with a most appealing cultural ecumenism, fashioned silver ritual pieces for synagogs and churches. Most of the goldsmiths and silversmiths did as he did and ran jewelry shops; at times Myer included groceries in the wares he offered for sale.12

The scholarly Baltimore polemicist, Joseph Simson, was an outstanding lapidary seal engraver. Isaiah Isaacs in neighboring Virginia, probably the first permanent settler there to profess Judaism openly, was a silversmith who had emigrated from England; he speedily turned to trade. Michael Levy, another Virginia craftsman, was a clock and watchmaker who worked in both Baltimore and Philadelphia; his son was “Commodore” Uriah P. Levy. Still another Virginia watchmaker and silversmith, known through a fascinating letter written by his wife, was Hyman Samuel, who first appeared on the American scene in Petersburg; later he would live in Richmond, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston, too. Why he moved about so much is difficult to determine; he was a very skilled artisan, financially successful. His wife, a devout Jew, kept urging him to move to a large city where they could live among observant coreligionists. Out West, in Cincinnati, Joseph Jonas had no lust to roam. This English immigrant, Cincinnati’s first practicing Jew, did well as a watchmaker. An articulate leader of the Jewish community, Jonas ultimately became one of the city’s best known and respected citizens. One might think that immigrant Jewish craftsmen would stick to their trade. Artisans then had a relatively short working day in this country; by 1835 most skilled men did not put in more than ten hours on a shift. It was no fear of hard work that drew Jews away from artisanry. Hard labor, after all, was enjoined by Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” They were not lazy, but they were ambitious. They had made sacrifices to get here; they had dear ones at home in need of help. This is what impelled them to reach out when they saw opportunities to advance themselves.13

Many Jewish craftsmen, maybe most of them, were artisan-shopkeepers. They did not identify themselves with “labor,” but preferred to view themselves as prospective merchants. This will explain why they took no interest in the labor movement. They were looking to the future, to affluence. Witness the career of Baltimore’s Jonas Friedenwald (1801–1893), the patriarch of a family which lent lustre to the city through his descendants, notable physicians and academicians. Friedenwald, who came from the same village in Hesse Darmstadt which had given birth to Jonas Phillips, landed on a wintery Thursday night in 1831/1832. He went down the side of the ship and walked across the frozen river in order to find lodging for his family before Friday night, the onset of the Sabbath. A committed traditionalist, he began his new life in Baltimore as an itinerant umbrella mender. Later he opened a grocery and added clothing to his stock. He gathered old iron, collected and sold used nails after he straightened them, and finally became the proprietor of a hardware store. It is almost no exaggeration to assert that every Jew in those early days was an Odysseus whose fortune changed many times before he found an economic niche into which he could settle permanently. Jacob Ezekiel (1812–1899) is an example, important only because he is typical. Ezekiel’s family was Dutch; he himself was a native Philadelphian who learned to dye clothes and later to make watercolors and indelible ink. He sought a trade that would provide for him adequately. His parents apprenticed him to a Christian bookbinder with the understanding that he was not to work on the Sabbath or on Jewish Holy Days. On those days he ate with relatives. By 1833, he was in Baltimore, in the bookbinding business, eating his meals with a Jewish pawnbroker. The following year found him in Richmond where he would remain for decades, turning there to dry goods, to clothing, to clerking. For thirty years he served the Sephardic congregation as clerk. For fun and companionship he had his comrades in the Richmond militia; back home in Philadelphia he had run with a fire hose company. Following the Civil War which left Richmond but a shadow of its former self, he and his family moved to Cincinnati where he served for another generation as secretary to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College. His son, Moses, achieved considerable fame as one of the first American Jews to become a sculptor.14

Jacob Ezekiel never became a rich man; Friedenwald made a small but tidy fortune when he retired before the Civil War to devote himself to the Jewish community; John Moss of Philadelphia (1771–1847) was an artisan destined to become a very successful capitalist. A contemporary Jew who was not fond of Moss said that he was all wrapped up in business. The statement was probably correct; his absorption in his career may well account—in part at least—for his rise in the world. Moss began as an engraver on glass; it is hardly to be doubted that he learned his trade in London whence he had come to America at the age of twenty-five. After working at his craft, he turned to dry goods; it took him over a decade to get that far. Before long he was to become a merchant-shipper. One of his ships, the Moss, was a 330-ton vessel; the carved figure on the prow was said to be a striking likeness of Mrs. Moss, the daughter of a Dutch Jew who had married a girl in the little western town of Harris’s Ferry (Harrisburg). Retiring at the age of fifty-two was merely a stage in a new career for Moss. Now he became a capitalist-entrepreneur advocating and furthering the use of anthracite coal both here and abroad; his investments were made in canals, turnpikes, banks, railroads, and insurance companies. Masonry recognized him as one of its devotees; though no Irishman, he was flattered by his election to the Hibernian Society. Tradition has it that this was his reward for once having helped an immigrant from the Emerald Isle. The St. George Society, concerned with men of English provenance, elected him a steward; the town’s Jacksonians sent him to Council. His concern for the community at large was reflected in his generosity to a hospital and an orphan society; the Merchant’s Exchange received two marble lions, replicas of those which graced the tomb of Pope Clement XIII. During the Damascus crisis of 1840, when the Jews of the Syrian city were accused of ritual murder, he served as chairman of Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence and helped the Jews join with other Jewish communities in a protest against the renewal of medieval bigotry.15


Commercially, the postrevolutionary years were in one respect no different than the later decades. Jews found ways into the interstices of the economy in their effort to make a living. The political liberal Isaac Pinto, an accomplished linguist, “historian and philosopher,” served for a period in the mid-1780’s as the official interpreter not only for the Office of Foreign Affairs but for other executive departments and for the Congress. After the turn of the century, when Charleston was an important national depot, Jews were found among the interpreters, clerks, and auditors of the Customs House; they were inspectors of imports and accountants. In the early 1820’s Solomon Sacerdote (“priest,” Cohen?) owned a gambling house in New Orleans. Some Jews ran livery stables; others were appointed constables and police officers. America’s most famous Jewish guardian of the law was Jacob Hays, of the Westchester County New York Hays family. Hays defected from Jewry—he may not have become a formal convert—and raised a family of Christians, some of whom became notable figures in the commercial life of New York City; they include a president of a bank and of a railroad. Hays père was New York City’s High Constable for almost fifty years. The Common Council ordered his portrait painted and saw to it that it was hung; it was treasured in the City Hall collection. Councilmen and criminals alike respected this man. Relatively common were the inns, taverns, coffeehouses and boardinghouses run by Jews. In the 1790’s Moses Homburg, of Philadelphia, sold dry goods in his tavern; one of his claims to fame—if he has any—was that he was an ancestor of one of the Delaware Duponts. Levy Andrew Levy and his family ran a boardinghouse in Baltimore. Decades earlier he had been an Indian trader working out of Lancaster and Pittsburgh; during the French and Indian War the Indians had taken him captive, but had finally released him unharmed. Baltimore’s relatively small community included several boardinghouses kept by old-line settlers who catered to Gentiles; apparently it was a vocation of some dignity.16

What goods stocked the shelves of the early American shopkeepers? It is literally true that there is almost nothing that they did not handle: dry goods, groceries, drugs, notions, music, stationery, books, hardware, candles, saddles, combs, brushes, umbrellas, hats and caps, shoes, jewelry, watches, clocks, beeswax, lottery tickets, tobacco, china, glassware, liquor, and clothing. Second-hand clothing was nearly always sold in special shops, primarily in the larger towns. By 1840, Chatham Street in New York was known for its used clothing establishments. Most retail shops were small—one room sufficed—just large enough to do business. Some were owned by women. Sally Etting, of Baltimore, probably did not operate out of a shop but out of her home. She got her supplies, tea primarily, from a member of the family in Philadelphia and no doubt offered her limited wares to friends and acquaintances. Mrs. Philip Benjamin, Judah P. Benjamin’s mother, ran a small dry goods store in Beaufort, South Carolina, not too far from the Georgia line. Later, so it would seem, the family sold fruit in Charleston. The Benjamins were very poor, but they did pay their synagog bill—which was substantial. Savannah’s Esther Sheftall had a small shop with an even smaller stock, but she was not dependent on sales; she had means. In small towns like Easton, merchants sold for cash or country produce, which included lumber and staves. Barter was not uncommon. An egregiously unsuccessful businessman, Lorenzo da Ponte ran a small shop in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This man, famous today as Mozart’s librettist for the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte, hustled to make a living for his family; on occasion, he supplied grain to distillers. Once, when badly in need of goods which were at the time in short supply, he managed to replenish his shelves from the wholesalers of Reading, Pennsylvania; they confused the name da Ponte with Dupont, the munitions manufacturer, whose credit was excellent. The St. Louis pioneer businessman Joseph Philipson kept an account book which testifies to shelves well-stocked in 1807. Townspeople were offered an assortment: dry goods, notions, hardware, brandy, shoes. By 1839, Lewis Polock had already opened his place of business in Yerba Buena, a California village to be renamed San Francisco before another decade passed. Clothing and saddlery were very much in evidence.17

By 1840, there were Jewish retailers in almost every community of size all the way from New York to California. Running a shop and supplying the day-to-day necessities of urban dwellers, village neighbors, and farmers was the principal form of livelihood for many, if not most American Jews. The city directories are eloquent in their serried lists; the Jews were a nation of shopkeepers. They struggled; their capital was limited; there was always a heavy infusion of immigrants trying to keep their heads above water. American Jewry before 1840 belonged preponderantly to the lower middle class. The Jews as a whole were in no sense affluent. Numerically, the American Jewish population was inconsequential; for decades it was never to reach, let alone exceed, 1 percent of the total population. But their importance exceeds their numbers, for the Jews dwelt in urbanized areas which were disproportionately powerful in agrarian America. The handful of Jews in the towns and cities was to exercise considerable influence. There is not much difference between the shopkeepers of colonial and early republican days. They both sold hard, soft (dry) and wet goods. Trade in the two epochs is similar for the basic agricultural economy did not change. Shopkeepers in those days had little in common with the peddlers; the former carried larger stocks and sold on credit. The shopkeeper was a sedentary merchant; the people came to him; the peddler was itinerant; he came to the people; he had a small stock and he sold for cash.



If in colonial and postrevolutionary cities and villages the shopkeeper was at the bottom of the mercantile ladder, the merchant-shipper was at the top. This important tradesman was a retailer, wholesaler, importer, exporter, a domestic-household industrialist, even a banker of sorts. He was the dominant figure in the world of commerce and shipping in colonial times and in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. His eyes were fixed on the North American littoral, on the Caribbean, on Europe, even on the Far East. His back was to the American West. Up to the 1840’s, the oceangoing enterpriser was still to play a very important role in the commerce of the tidewater country. The West was filling up, but the masses were still east of the mountains. By 1840 the important ports were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. There were Jewish shippers of substance in several—but not all—of these towns; seven of these centers sheltered growing Jewish communities. American exports were cotton, tobacco, lumber, naval stores, indigo, rice, pig iron, furs, and provisions (Jewish merchants shipped kosher meat to the West Indies and to Surinam). Imports included woolen and cotton textiles, sugar, coffee, molasses, rum, and assorted consumers’ wares. From India and China came teas, silks, textiles, chinaware. For the shippers on the American coast, there were good times and bad times; up to 1807, there was prosperity in commerce and the carrying trade transporting provisions and raw materials. From 1807 to 1812 the Americans were faced with the problem of steering a course between the English and the French who were fighting in Europe for world empire. To avoid entanglements and harassments, the young American republic imposed embargoes in varying degrees; from 1812 to 1815, the country found itself at war with the English. Commerce here suffered, but merchants, with an ethics all their own, circumvented the laws and made an effort to supply their customers, even those in England. There were years when the lean and ill favored kine did eat up the fat kine; the occasional depression years between 1819 and 1840 were bad; but there were good years too. On the whole the years from 1815 to 1840 were at least tolerable commercially.18

By the 1830’s the domestic trade was becoming increasingly important, since settlers in large numbers had begun crossing the mountains into the Mississippi basin. Large sums were sunk into canals, turnpikes, steamboats, railroads, wilderness tracts, town lots, manufacturing, banking. Investors began turning their backs to the Atlantic and facing westward. The river and lake ports, steamboat towns, were growing; some of them were destined to survive. Important were Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The towns with a future shipped grain and provisions down the rivers to the plantations; foods and cotton were transshipped to the East Coast; cotton and tobacco in huge quantities reached European markets. Sensing opportunity in the new transallegheny towns, Jews began moving west, establishing communities of their own. By 1840, one-third of all the towns with Jewish communities were west of the Alleghenies; nearly one-third of all America had settled in the valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The Jews were slow to leave the eastern cities; they preferred the larger places where they could more easily develop communities and build religious enclaves of their own.19


Although there were probably as many notable Jewish merchant-shippers in the early national period as there had been in colonial days, this type of commerce declined in relative importance. By the 1830’s, the sizable increase in the general population and the expansion across the mountains toward the Mississippi made domestic trade more valuable. Jewish merchants, adhering to their colonial pattern of foreign and domestic trade, continued to ship goods out of the Atlantic ports and later out of the Gulf ports. Newport was the only East Coast harbor to decline. After Lopez’s death, his family continued to trade with the Islands and with the English, but primarily by way of New York City; thus they were really jobbers, not merchant-shippers. The Mark brothers, Jacob and Philip, quondam purveyors for the Hessian troops in British-occupied New York, remained in town after the war as merchant-shippers importing dry goods from Amsterdam on their own brig. Samuel N. Judah, related by marriage to New York’s best Jewish families, engaged in the South American trade and then turned to banking. Hayman Levy, fur trader, army purveyor, merchant-shipper, Whig patriot, synagog president, continued his sizable mercantile activities for several years after the Revolution. Less than a decade after his death, his son Isaac sailed for Madras and Calcutta. He started out in January, 1798, and in July, still on board, celebrated the Fourth; it was not until the spring of 1799 that he returned home. Like Levy fils, Jews were beginning to move into the India trade. Solomon Simson (1738–1801) was trading with India in the 1780’s and with China, too. This Revolutionary War militiaman, candle manufacturer, and political liberal was an imaginative, successful businessman. The China trade lured many after the Empress of China sailed into New York’s harbor with a cargo in 1785. Philadelphia was particularly interested in a trade that promised to be lucrative. The second generation of Gratzes, as venturesome as their forebears but far more successful, tried their luck in the Far East. After the routes to China had been well established, the Baltimore Ettings became specialists in this Oriental traffic. Solomon Etting was one of the first men in town, if not the first, to subscribe heavily for shares in the Baltimore East India Company (1807). The family was active in this trade for a long generation. Ben Etting, Solomon’s nephew, made seven trips to Canton as a supercargo. In one trip, in 1832, he made the return voyage in the record time of 98 days with a cargo of shawls, satins, and 2,000 boxes of firecrackers (there were forty packs in each box).20

Judging by the range of his interests and his successes, Solomon was the best business brain in the Etting family. Born in York, Pennsylvania, he married into the Simon and Gratz clan and moved on to Lancaster and to Philadelphia before finally settling in Baltimore, where one of his first ventures was a hardware store. Not long thereafter, in the 1790’s, he turned to shipping, commerce, and banking. The account book of Rutter & Etting of Baltimore for the years 1796–1802 throws light on Etting’s career as a merchant-shipper. In ships of their own or freighting on those of others, Rutter & Etting dispatched cargoes to tidewater America, to Germany, to England, and to their favorite market, the Caribbean. Heavy exporters of flour, they bought and sold a variety of wares and food: tobacco, cigars, cotton, dry goods, India textiles, hides, whiskey, brandy, and marble, too. All was grist for their mill. It was their good fortune that a local bank gave them a generous line of credit. This was probably the Union Bank; the Ettings were stockholders. Etting helped establish the first water company in town, and as councilman in 1827–1828, represented the city when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was chartered. In 1830, as chairman of a committee of the Baltimore Infirmary, a local hospital attached to the university, he negotiated with the federal government, offering to admit seamen and others. His prices seem to have been reasonable; private patients were to pay $4 a week; those who died could be interred for $2, at most $3. When the city set out to expand its borders, it appointed Etting member of the committee charged with this task and later rewarded him by naming a street after him.21


Isaac Moses (1742–1818) was a large-scale merchant who left New York City when the British occupied it. Like many other Jews in that city, he made his headquarters in Philadelphia during the Revolution. There, as Isaac Moses & Company, he distinguished himself as one of America’s best known merchant-shippers and blockade-runners; like others, too, the firm was ruined when prices collapsed after the war and debtors ignored their obligations. At the time Isaac Moses & Company found itself insolvent, 1784–1785, the firm had already returned to New York. After the dissolution of the old company, Isaac Moses set out to recoup his fortune. A new firm under the name Isaac Moses & Sons rose speedily to prominence. As enterprising merchants they reached out wherever there was a prospect of profit; they, too, followed the China and East India trade. Moses and his sons were commissionmen, brokers, retailers, wholesalers. They were ready to deal in any commodity: foods, furs, mahogany, liquors, jewelry, furniture, and cotton of course. They acted for others and often on their own account. Money was dispatched abroad; thus, in a very small way, they functioned as bankers. Isaac Moses owned bank stocks and was a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce. While serving the firm as resident agent in Europe, Joshua, a son, attended the coronation of Napoleon I.22

There had been at least two other partners in the original Revolutionary War firm of Isaac Moses & Company—Samuel Myers and Moses Myers. Because the firm was insolvent, many of its papers are extant: successful men leave no papers, bankrupts do, hence the availability of Moses Myers’s account books and correspondence files for the 1780’s and for the second decade of the new century when Myers was again bankrupt—in 1819 when the economy entered a depression that lasted for years. Moses Myers’s life story is limned here briefly in order to show the range and reach of an American merchant-shipper in the first decades of the 1800’s. He was typical in the multiplicity and variety of his commercial interests. Actually it is difficult to compare merchants of stature for no two were exactly alike; each was a personality sui generis; each had his own collection of customers and his own way of doing business. Moses Myers was the son of the Canadian trader Hyam Myers who had once served as the shohet for New York’s Shearith Israel. As a young man, Moses Myers enjoyed years of prosperity as a partner in the international firm of Isaac Moses & Company, but the firm’s postwar collapse left him no choice but to start life over again. By that time the two intimates, Samuel and Moses Myers, had lost faith in Isaac Moses, whether justly or not is difficult to say. The two Myerses, continuing their partnership, finally picked Norfolk as the seat of their new establishment; they believed the town had a future, but after a couple of years Samuel Myers went off on his own and soon became a rich merchant. Petersburg and Richmond were the scenes of his success; his way up the ladder was certainly eased by his marriage to a daughter of Moses Michael Hays of Boston.

Moses Myers, too, rose rapidly after his move to Norfolk. He married a Canadian widow with money; her husband had been captured by Indians during the French and Indian War and had barely escaped being burnt at the stake by his captors. Just four years after Myers settled in Norfolk, he built a beautiful Georgian mansion, still standing, distinguished by its Adam style interior and graced by Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Myers and his wife and a Sully portrait of their son John. Like his erstwhile partners, Isaac Moses in New York and Samuel Myers in Richmond, Moses Myers’s trading was characteristically diversified. His packet boats engaged in coastal shipping, plying the Bay between Baltimore and Norfolk, but he also traded extensively with the Islands and Europe. As a commission merchant, he served Stephen Girard of Pennsylvania. Myers bought and sold ships, retailed and wholesaled merchandise, sat on the board of a bank, and performed banking services for his clients, among them some of the outstanding planters of the Old Dominion. Throughout the years of war and peace, he handled prizes seized on the high seas, speculated in Washington real estate, served as an agent for the French, Dutch, and Danes, and sent his sons abroad to keep an eye on his commercial interests. His exports before Jefferson’s imposition of an embargo were typical: tobacco, lumber, iron, naval stores, indigo, rice; he imported dry goods, sugar, rum, and coffee. Like many another, this firm, too, known for its dignity and integrity, went down in the panic year of 1819. All American shippers had been harassed beyond endurance. Trading with Europe was forbidden or restricted during the years of the Napoleon-British war; the futile 1812–1815 struggle with the English dislocated overseas shipping; the postwar decline in prices—as the English swamped the markets with finished wares—disrupted trade and brought chaos in its wake.23

Merchant-shippers, the town’s elite, were burdened with responsibility, though favored with opportunities. The colonial hangover of deference to “gentlemen” brought obligations. Moses Myers as citizen became a president of the Lower Branch of the Common Council and enjoyed high rank in the local militia. In a way, all this was his due. Without means after his failure, he turned for relief to the government and became a customs collector and an agent of the Marine hospital. Before receiving this political plum, he had to surmount considerable opposition. As Congressman Stephen van Rensselaer said, opposition to Myers rose because he was one of the first honest men in that collectorship. Unfortunately for Myers, now an old man of almost eighty, Jackson came to power and replaced him. This Norfolk merchant had an unhappy life. Some of his children did not live beyond infancy; others grew up only to die young. One of his sons, a midshipman in the navy, perished at sea. His wife bore him twelve sons and daughters; only three married and—this is not altogether typical—they married Jews. His children were attractive and well educated, a superior lot. John, the oldest, was an active member of the firm. During the 1812 War he served on the staff of a Virginia general of militia. It was John who had organized the local voluntary fire department and served as its chief. In March, 1820, Commodore Barron, the unfortunate commander of the ill-fated Chesapeake, called on his friend John Myers to borrow his dueling pistols. At Bladensburg, outside of Washington, there followed the tragic encounter in which Stephen Decatur lost his life. Samuel, three years younger than John, graduated from William and Mary and became a lawyer. On hearing that a local man, Richard Bowen, had severely beaten his father with a cane, Samuel ran for his gun and shot Bowen to death. The family and his influential in-laws managed to save him from the gallows, but for many years he lived in voluntary exile in Pensacola and in Richmond. These two sons, John and Samuel, predeceased their father; Myer Myers (d.1877) survived all his siblings to recoup the family’s fortune. He was all business; while in Stockholm on a trip for the firm the father wrote and said apologetically that his letter “smells of the shop”—to which young Myer responded, “the shop and its odors are honorable.” Myer did not identify with Jews and Judaism but he never became a Christian; his wife, a born Jew, converted to Christianity after her husband’s death. Her father Joseph Marx was a religious radical.24

When Moses Myers passed away, one of the local newspapers said that in his day he had been one of the most important merchant-shippers south of the Potomac. This may not be an exaggeration; the painter and dramatist William Dunlap, who visited Norfolk in 1820, wrote that Myers had been one of the outstanding merchants of Norfolk. Dunlap added that the family were “Jews, well informed, genteel, and uncommonly handsome in the younger part of the family.” Moses Myers’s loss of his fortune apparently did not lessen the confidence his friends reposed to him. That same year, Moses Elias Levy, who had been in the West Indies, brought his young son David to Norfolk and placed him there in the care of his trusted friend Myers. Young David remained in the city under the tutelage of this cultured gentleman till 1827 when he again rejoined his family in the territory of Florida which David would one day represent as its first United States senator. Moses Myers was a typical merchant-shipper in his all-embracing mercantile outreach. He had once been a partner of a firm that in 1775 advanced a very large sum in specie to Congress to help finance the Canada expedition despite the fact that Jews were still denied political equality in the new America. Even though his career ended in failure, it demonstrates that the tidewater merchant-shipper was still important in the American economy during the first third of the new century.25


We have just read that each large merchant-shipper was sui generis. This was certainly true of the Pragers of Philadelphia. In many respects they were not actually merchant-shippers. They had no vessels of their own nor did they charter ships, but they did ship goods abroad and they imported wares. What did they buy and what did they sell? Who were they? To a degree they were different from other American Jewish merchant-shippers. All the others maintained firms whose roots were here; not so the Pragers who are interesting because theirs was the only American Jewish firm based in Europe; these Philadelphians were a branch of a business originally established at Amsterdam in the 1740’s. Still another branch, the most important one in fact, was in London. During the Revolutionary War, in the years 1781–1783, there was also a short-lived segment of the firm in Ostend. Set up to bypass London which was at war with the United States and Holland, the Flemish branch made it possible for the Londoners to do business with the United States and the Continent. The London branch, established in 1762, was very important in the late eighteenth century; it was run by Yehiel Prager, the most daring member of the family. Two of his brothers, Jacob and David, remained in Amsterdam. The firm name in London was Israel Levin Salomons—Yehiel Prager’s secular name. After his death in 1788 the London firm was continued under the name of I. L. Salomons’s Widow & Prager. Eight years later, Yehiel’s wife decided to close the business. The Amsterdam-London nexus had been broken in 1794–1795 when the French occupied Holland. The English would have no truck with the French, their traditional enemy. The London branch did some business in bills of exchange, though it did not specialize in that field; occasionally it even dabbled in securities and bullion. As an international firm in need of extensive financial services, it turned to bankers in Holland, Germany, and France, non-Jews for the most part. The Londoners, who enjoyed an excellent repute in the city, were primarily commission merchants exporting and importing wares and raw materials from North America, the West Indies, and the Far East. By the 1770’s, Yehiel Prager, eager to make a “killing,” had set out to become a dominant force in the diamond, drug (camphor and cassia), and Maryland tobacco trade, but was not notably successful in these monopolistic speculations. As had been true for Lopez of Newport, much of the business carried on by the Londoners depended on the liberal credit extended them by others.

In 1783 when the war with America was over, the Prager brothers sent three of their children to Philadelphia to establish a minor branch there. Philadelphia was chosen because at that time it was the country’s outstanding city—the de facto capital of the United States. There was another reason why this business pied-à-terre was set up; there was a real need to find jobs, opportunities, for the younger Pragers. The clan was numerous; the three brothers, two in Amsterdam and one in London, could boast of at least fifteen sons and ten daughters. Now that America was independent, the family thought there would be a better chance to carry on trade; bypassing England, raw materials from America could be shipped directly to Holland and other parts of the Continent. The name of the Philadelphia firm for the years 1783–1789, was Praegers, Liebart & Co. After 1789, the Philadelphia branch became known as Prager & Co. From 1783 on, three of the younger Pragers—Yehiel Jr., Meyer, Sr., and Meyer, Jr., sons of the two Amsterdam partners—ran the business here. Meyer Sr., was probably in charge up to 1787, when he transferred his activity to the London branch. Yehiel’s secular name was probably Michael; the two Meyers bore the secular name Mark. Michael was one of the founders of the Insurance Company of North America. Though the Philadelphians did some business on their own account, they functioned essentially as agents of the parent company, the partners in Amsterdam and London, and were substantial importers. Like all merchants, they bought and sold on commission and dealt in bills of exchange, a common medium of payment. Among the wares they handled were drugs, alum, copperas, lead for paints, pepper, stationery, steel, tin, sailcloth, shot, coffee, and indigo. For a time they were engaged in shipping back large quantities of Maryland tobacco; Yehiel, of London, in all probability employed them to help him corner the market in that commodity. They apparently carried on no China trade, although they were quick to report the return of the Empress of China in 1785 with her cargo of Oriental wares.

Men of culture, patrons of the theatre, well-educated, the Pragers wrote a good English letter. One of them, Mark (Meyer, Meyerke), was a social acquaintance of Washington and dined with him. He seems to have been a Deist; at all events, he disclaimed any interest in Judaism. Yehiel, Sr., in London had given the young men a letter of introduction to the Gratzes—distant kinsmen—but it is doubtful whether they had much, if any, contact with the Jewish community. There is reason to believe that the Amsterdam parents of the three Philadelphia Pragers would have wished their sons to associate with local Jews. Though not devout, the Amsterdam parents did maintain kosher homes, and when the three younger men sailed in 1783–1784 for Philadelphia they, too, carried their own kosher provisions. How many Jews in the United States refused after landing to identify with their people? The Pragers may have reflected a significant pattern.26


The available details on the trading of the Pragers’s American branch shows how difficult it is to fit all merchant-shippers to the same procrustean bed. Very few Jewish businessmen were actually merchant- shippers of the scope represented by Isaac Moses and Moses Myers. On the other hand, many Jews did call themselves “merchants.” There was no guild, no police state, to hinder them. In the 1786 New York directory, most Jews listed described themselves as merchants, though many were no more than shopkeepers. The noun “merchants” appealed to them; it advertised a status proudly claimed by the smallest storekeeper and the wealthiest transoceanic shipper. In the course of time it would become the title of almost any retailer. A distinction must be made between the merchant and the merchant-shipper. On the whole, the former’s outreach was more limited, he had less capital or manipulated less credit. This period also saw the emergence of the Jewish trader who, neither shipper nor merchant in the colonial sense, was on his way to becoming a mercantile specialist. Even as late as 1840 many merchants—and of course Jews among them—were merchandisers ready to perform any commercial service which promised a profit. This they had in common with the transoceanic shipper. Much like the shippers, exporters and importers, a substantial merchant sold at both retail and wholesale, offered banking services, bought or sold on commission, and occasionally even exported or imported a cargo of goods. Still, he was not primarily oriented to the transoceanic trade but was more a large shopkeeper concerned with domestic traffic. Internal commerce was assuming increasing importance as hundreds of thousands of settlers crossed the mountains and floated down the streams that fed the Mississippi. The line between the large-scale shipper and the merchant was often a thin one. More and more the typical Jewish businessman tended to be a storekeeper who sold hard, soft, and wet goods at retail in a local market. If he had a growing clientele, he employed clerks. Clerking offered an opportunity to learn a business and ultimately to achieve economic independence. Many Jews turned to clerking; by 1840, it was an alternative to peddling. The Rev. Isaac Leeser began his American career working as a clerk for an uncle in Richmond until his cultural and religious interests impelled him into the clergy—an unusual career switch, but Leeser was an extraordinary man.27

Abraham N. Cardozo clerked for Gentiles in a Virginia coal business in 1797. Later, so it seems, he became a merchant, for he left a very substantial estate. Jews demonstrated a tendency to reach out almost anywhere to make a dollar. There were merchants who sold powder and shot, liquors and wines. Selling groceries and hides in 1786, a New Yorker offered to rent out a storehouse and a dwelling. Naphtali Phillips began as a shopkeeper, but turned to journalism and politics; during the undeclared war with France, Benjamin S. Judah offered to buy cannon for the government; Judah Moses, of Richmond, tried to make a deal with the Prussian government bartering tobacco for textiles, porcelain, and hardware. Stationed in Philadelphia, Samuel Etting, a son of Solomon, kept in touch with the firm of Robert Garrett, of Baltimore. As a purchasing and sales agent, he had been trying to sell whiskey for the Baltimoreans; he suggested purchases, quoting prices on teas (eight different types), pepper, nutmeg, indigo, coffee, and French brandy. The New York importer Solomon Moses—still another member of the Gratz clan—offered his customers East Indian soft goods, Guatemalan and Louisiana indigo, and sugars. Later, as the Anglo-French wars made ocean trading difficult for Americans, he took up the auction and commission business.28

It is difficult to determine whether the metropolitan tidewater Jewish merchants were more specialized than businessmen in the hinterland. Certainly merchants in the inland cities, as in Richmond, tended to be generalists handling a wide assortment of wares if we are to judge from Marcus Elkan’s advertisement in the Virginia Gazette for October 11, 1787: dry goods, hose, shoes, hats, saddles, dishes, hardware, bar iron, powder and shot, wines and beer. He sold for cash, for country produce, or public securities. By the turn of the century, the largest mercantile establishment in Richmond appears to have been that of Cohen & Isaacs. Isaiah Isaacs (1747–1806), a silversmith, first married a Gentile; after her death, he found himself a wife in the well-known Hays family of New York. In the 1780’s, he and Jacob I. Cohen established a partnership with many interests: they owned a tavern, slaves, Dismal Swamp tracts, and other lands in several Virginia counties. Yet they were not primarily speculators in acreage; land warrants which they received from soldiers and others served simply as a medium of exchange, a sort of currency in the 1780’s. When the warrant box was full of this scrip, the partners sent it to their surveyor out on Virginia’s western frontier. That is how Daniel Boone came to lay out 10,000 acres for them on the Licking River in what is today the state of Kentucky. In submitting his bill, Boone warned them that if the messenger carrying the money was killed by “Indins,” the responsibility would be theirs.29

It was Isaiah Isaacs who gave the fledgling Richmond congregation, Beth Shalome, ground for the first cemetery; earlier, even before Beth Shalome’s founding, he had made a generous gift to the building fund for Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. Cohen, then, not yet a partner and with his fortune still to be made, could spare little for the Philadelphia synagog. After their partnership was firmly established, Cohen spent much of his time in Philadelphia, probably as a resident buyer, and met there the widow Esther (Elizabeth) Mordecai, originally a convert to Judaism. Impoverished after the death of her husband, she was dependent, to a degree, on the largess of Mikveh Israel. What could a widow do in those days? Her three teenage boys, so it would appear, could help but little. Cohen wanted to marry her, but as a “cohen,” a priest, he was forbidden by Jewish law to marry a proselyte. He ignored the warnings of the congregation and with the moral support of some of the outstanding Jews in town—they signed his wedding certificate—espoused “Queen Esther,” as one of her admirers called her. In effect, Cohen thumbed his nose at the synagog authorities. Less than two decades later, he was elected president of that very congregation. His generosity to it documents his affection for Mikveh Israel, for he gave the synagog a Scroll of the Law, a manuscript parchment of the Book of Esther, a copper utensil to make unleavened bread for Passover, and a sum of money to endow the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Esther’s death.30


Cohen & Isaacs, like many other merchants of the 1780’s, assembled and sold almost any commodity, all under one roof, extended long-term credit, and accepted payment in almost any salable medium. Quite different was the approach characterising the trading activities of Joseph Marx (1772–1840) who flourished in Richmond two or three decades after Cohen & Isaacs had passed its zenith. As merchants, Cohen & Isaacs had faced the eighteenth century; Marx faced the nineteenth. This newcomer represented a new, less parochial type of business. Working closely with Virginia’s elite, he emphasized finance, did business on a grand scale, and ultimately amassed very substantial wealth. Although some of his clients were ruined in the 1819 panic, he managed to survive; it was an achievement not to be dragged down with them. Marx, a German immigrant, came to Virginia in 1791, a year before Cohen & Isaacs finally dissolved their partnership. By the second decade of the new century the brilliant, thoughtful Marx had already made a place for himself. He worked closely with his son Samuel, a well educated young man with an M.A. degree. In later years, Samuel helped organize a canal company and served as the president of a bank. Another son, Frederick, studied abroad and returned to practice medicine. Here one can see the emergence of a pattern that was to become more prevalent as the decades passed: the first immigrant generation managed to survive and even made money; the children, highly acculturated, turned to the professions or continued with distinction the commercial successes of the parent. The papers of Joseph Marx have not yet been studied in detail; they merit analysis, for Marx was an important merchant who carried on a varied, extensive trade and served some of Virginia’s most notable citizens. Working closely with a brother in London, Marx and his son carried on a brisk import and export trade, even though their countinghouse in the piedmont was ninety miles from Chesapeake Bay. Speculating in land, Marx acquired large grants; he shipped grain to Europe for plantation owners, served as their factor, financed them, and worked closely with a local bank which he had helped establish. This immigrant had gone far; he became a cultured American, wrote an excellent English letter, and learned to think for himself, to evolve his own approach to traditional Judaism.31


The Marxes of Virginia were not country merchants; they traded on an international scale and in a sophisticated fashion. In the early nineteenth century, Charlottesville, Virginia, sheltered at least two shopkeepers, David Isaacs, a brother of Isaiah, and Isaac Raphael, a son of that Solomon Raphael (Raffald) who had started out as a peddler. Isaac Raphael’s wife was a fine musician known for her mastery of the piano and the organ. On occasion Raphael would serve as a banker for Jefferson in nearby Monticello. The Raphael store, under the name of Raphael & Wolfe, tended to be an outfitting enterprise, specializing in groceries and liquors for the nearby farmers and plantation owners. Wilmington, Delaware, in 1815 could boast of a Jewish merchant who emphasized his role as a wholesaler, advertising that he was prepared to send goods to village merchants at Philadelphia prices. There was no need, therefore, to make the trip to distant Philadelphia, he said, but do not come on a Saturday; that is my Sabbath and my business is closed. Still farther north in Easton, Pennsylvania, Michael Hart, the Indian trader—not a fur merchant—had succeeded in opening a shop in 1773 shortly before the Revolution. There his wife and his fifteen children enjoyed life on the profits of the store and a grist mill. Hart never acquired wealth, but he owned a stone house, kept a kosher table—he was his own shohet—collected some silverplate, had a servant (a slave), and by the first decade of the new century had bought a warehouse where he stored country produce, lumber, and hops which he bartered for almost anything a man or woman might wish: stockings, buttons, knives, hats, playing cards, iron pots, pepper, and whiskey—in hundreds of gallons. After his death in 1813, there was not enough cash laid by to support the widow and her numerous young ones. She moved to Philadelphia and opened a boardinghouse. These are the short and simple annals of a Pennsylvania country merchant.32

Some Jewish merchants in small towns like Wilmington or Charlottesville serviced outlying villages and farmers, shopkeepers and plantation owners throughout the county and even beyond. By 1840, there were Jewish stores in many county seats, often no more than villages. By the 1810’s, Jews had begun to settle in the Ohio backcountry. After wandering about in the young state, a Jewish peddler might well make his home in a village and invite the custom of his neighbors and the nearby farmers. Store buildings were often small, at times no more than log houses. Dry goods and liquor were important items in the small inventory. The shops might even double as saloons. Country produce was accepted in barter.33



Specialization set in, albeit slowly, in the course of the nineteenth century when the country became more populous. The shopkeepers in colonial days had been generalists. Indeed it is very much to be questioned whether the so-called fur traders of the eighteenth century were specialists limiting themselves to the buying and selling of furs; they seem rather, to have been merchants who accepted furs as a medium of payment; they would have preferred good paper money or specie. In the last third of the eighteenth century, it is true, Pennsylvania merchants such as the Simon-Gratz group were oriented towards the West. They did business across the mountains, anticipating the “Great Migration” of later days. Their customers were the French on the Mississippi and the English to the east, on the lands between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Father of Waters. Though there were Jews in the early days who took out Indian traders’ licenses, some of them probably did not traffic directly with the Indians, but supplied the traders who did. As the nineteenth century approached, fewer Jews manifested any interest in this traffic; the Indians were rapidly pushed westward. Many town and country merchants were always ready to accept furs, skins, and hides in payment for goods. Savannah’s Mordecai Sheftall in his postbellum days was trafficking in deerskins and raccoon pelts. His brother Levi and the New York merchant Jacob Mark were in an allied trade, selling Indian goods to the government for distribution to its wards. It was said that Phineas Israel (Johnson) was trading with the Indians in Indiana about the year 1817, though by that time Indiana had already been admitted as a state and before very long the Indians would be removed by the national authorities.34

John Hays had originally settled in the French settlements of the Illinois country as a fur buyer before he turned to other gainful pursuits. Hays, reared in Montreal or Quebec, certainly knew his fellow Canadian, the fur trader Jacob Franks; there were fewer than 200 Jewish souls in all of Canada. The Jews met in Montreal’s synagog, if only on the Passover and the High Holy Days. By the 1790’s, Franks was stationed at Green Bay in what was later to become Wisconsin Territory. In all probability, he was distantly related to the distinguished eighteenth century American-Jewish merchant family bearing his name. The recurrence of the given name Jacob would seem to imply descent from a common ancestor. Thus the Canadian Indian trader came from an Anglo-Jewish family whose members were scattered all the way from Green Bay and Mackinac to Canada, the East Coast of the United States, England, and the distant East Indies. The urge to make a living and to get ahead in a generation when virtually everywhere Jews suffered political and economic disabilities compelled them to seek out the hazardous peripheral areas in order to advance themselves. About the year 1789, one of the Franks girls, who had married an army officer, Capt. George Lawe, accompanied him on a mission leaving behind a number of children, among them a young boy of nine. This boy, John, was brought to Canada, by the Frankses, no doubt, and educated in Quebec; by the time he was seventeen or eighteen, he had made the trek to Mackinac and then south down Lake Michigan to Green Bay, where Uncle Jacob had already set up his trading post. Travelers who visited this outlying settlement described Franks and Lawe as Jews. According to rabbinical law, John was incontestably a Jew—even though he had been baptized as a Protestant at birth and was a member of the Episcopalian church. When John came to this village in 1795/1797 the only thing American about it was its location. The people were largely French, many of the traders English, and all were oriented in their sympathies to the lands of their provenance and their supplies: Canada and England. It was no whim that had brought Franks to Green Bay; the town was very strategically located: except for a short portage at Fort Winnebago, it was on a complete water route from Montreal and Europe to the Mississippi and New Orleans by way of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.35

Here it was that Jacob had settled, at first as an agent for others, but in a few years he was out hustling on his own account. He built the first saw and grist mill and the first blacksmithy in this part of the Old Northwest, and it was at this frontier outpost that John Lawe spent the rest of his life. He became a skilled Indian trader, learned the fur business, and like any other loyal Englishman—he had been born in old York—fought for his native land in the War of 1812. But after the war started, Uncle Jacob had gone back to the civilization of Mackinac and finally to Montreal itself to enjoy the fruits of his hard-earned labors. His stock of goods, his lands, and even an assortment of children he had begotten in the wilderness were turned over to John Lawe; Jacob was now ready to live on what he had and on what his nephew would send on to him. It was an excellent arrangement; Franks forwarded the supplies and marketed the furs, Indian mats, and feathers that came through. Jacob’s wife, Mary Solomons—one of Levi Solomons’s daughters—served as her husband’s clerk, keeping John in touch not only with the best prices but also with the latest murder trial at York (Toronto) and the state of the Queen’s health.36

The two decades before the War of 1812 were the halcyon days for Franks and Lawe; the coming of the Americans to Green Bay about 1816 only brought trouble. The soldiers in the local garrison, Fort Howard, took advantage of the Anglophile traders; John Jacob Astor, determined to win a monopoly of the fur trade through his American Fur Company, had Congress pass a law restricting traders’ licenses to American citizens; that made it difficult for Lawe to do business though it is true that he had served as a judge in the territory. Later, however, he was naturalized and received the coveted right to trade. But let there be no mistake; it was not the rudeness and the petty pilferings of the American troops that hamstrung the trade of Franks and Lawe; it was the disappearance of the frontier. As the settlers poured in, game became scarce; the Indians still had to live; they still needed whiskey, blankets, cloth, knives, traps, and guns, supplies they secured on credit against the furs they were going to bring in. In the meantime, Lawe and others were now compelled by circumstance to draw their supplies from the American Fur Company, a vast mercantile octopus which offered a liberal line of credit to the traders, but closed in on them when they fell behind in their payments. When there were no furs, the traders were in a desperate plight, besieged on the one hand by the Indians, who had to have their food and supplies, and on the other hand by the American Fur Company, which had paid the traders modest prices for furs, charged them steep prices for their supplies, and was now demanding that its accounts be settled. On the whole, the American Fur Company had consistently made handsome profits; the traders grew progressively poorer unless they had other sources of income. By 1823, John Lawe claimed that he owed the company $10,000, a huge sum in those days. He was never to enjoy affluence. The company held mortgages on his lands. Some historians are of the opinion that he failed to take advantage of the opportunities which the Wisconsin frontier offered him.

His wife, Theresa Rankin, was the daughter of a Chippewa woman and an English trader. His eight children, who grew up in his rambling one-story house behind a nine-foot cedar picket stockade, probably spoke better French than English and were all Catholics and churchgoers. Mama saw to that and made sure that papa was given a Catholic burial. One of the sons married into the John Adams’s family. John Lawe was a devoted father, pathetically eager to educate his youngsters and to integrate them into the social and religious life of his friends and neighbors. If there had ever been anything “Jewish” about him, it had long since faded. The only Jewish reference in his correspondence was a sneering remark by his sister Rebecca Franks Kemble about their kinsman Henry Joseph, of Berthier: he has too much of the “Jew blood” in him, she said, to assist the Levys who were in distress. The few Jewish families in Canada were often feuding; it gave them an opportunity to vent their frustrations.

As a young man, John was lithe with a twenty-some inch waist line; in later years, he was huge, weighing about three hundred pounds. Although Uncle Jacob, toward the end of his widowed and impoverished life, bitterly denounced John as a scoundrel because he would not—probably he could not—aid him financially, the nephew was known to all as a man of generosity and integrity. One recorded incident shows that he had great physical vitality and courage, too. In 1845, one year before his death, John was sixty-five; he was at Lake Poygan as the annual Menominee Indian payment was being made. Constantly, for two nights and a day he was on the alert, and as the Indians collected their silver dollars, he and other traders stood there collecting their debts. When it was all over, he had $9,000 in silver, which he put in a locked chest and loaded onto his Mackinac bateau. Settling his huge bulk on the chest, he ordered his Scotch voyageur and his two Indian boatmen to climb in and then started for home. They kept going all that night with only an hour’s rest, shooting the rapids, plunging over Grand Chute Falls, a sheer drop of six feet; when the bow of the boat was cracked, they slapped a blanket against the sides to hold back the water, but always kept moving. Down they went by the light of the moon through the Kakaling Rapids, a drop of fifty feet in one mile, and when at dawn they reached the Lawe homestead, the Indian boatmen fell exhausted to the earth, but John and the voyageur carried the locked chest into the office where the trader now sat down at his desk ready for the day’s work. He had gone seventy miles since the onset of night, sped through five lakes, hurtled himself on top of his chest over three dangerous falls and thirty miles of treacherous rapids, all amidst the fitful shadows of the moon-streaked Wisconsin night.37

As the frontier moved west, the fur traders moved, too. Throughout the 1830’s, there were always Jewish buyers looking for pelts and hides in the valleys of the Mississippi and the Missouri. Most of these men seem to have been small-scale buyers, some of them Germans who had learned the business back home in Europe where they had been in the cattle, hide, and wool trades. Among them was one large-scale buyer interested in purchasing furs for the European market, primarily for the Leipzig fairs which attracted merchants from all parts of Europe, especially from Poland and Russia. The buyer was Martin William Oppenheim who had come to this country in 1835. His name suggests that he was a Jew. In 1836, Ramsay Crooks, the head of the American Fur Company after Astor withdrew, received a letter from this immigrant asking for a job. Oppenheim was no uncouth German village yokel ready to take the first job that turned up. He was a skilled fur expert who had learned the business from his father in Germany and had rounded out his training in London and in the United States. He was a valuable man; he had experience in the Russian markets and knew the ins and outs of the Leipzig fairs. His knowledge of the German market, so he believed and said, could be very useful to the American Fur Company. Ramsey Crooks thought otherwise; he wrote Oppenheim that he had all the help the business required. It would be interesting to know why Crooks refused to employ him. It is likely that Crooks meant what he said—he had all the help he needed. Agents of his sprawling company were found everywhere, in Canton, China, in London, in Leipzig. Perhaps he distrusted the young man’s motives; he was too good; he knew too much. The German may have been interested in penetrating the American company. This much is known: Oppenheim later worked for a rival German organization, a competitor of the American Fur Company.

Crooks was bent on controlling the American supply and the London sale of furs. The one thing he and his associates feared was a direct connection between Leipzig and the American fur traders which would block his efforts to establish a monopoly. That this German and other competitors were not spectres conjured up by Crooks is demonstrated by a letter sent him in 1839 by Pierre Chouteau, Jr. This season, the latter wrote, there is not a town on the Mississippi and Missouri that has not been infested with buyers of furs and skins, Poles, Germans, Jews, Yankees. Agents from New York and Detroit show themselves at every corner and watch every wagon that pulls into St. Louis; it is hard to get skins. What Chouteau did not know was that some of the Poles and Germans he saw were also Jews. In 1845 a sumptuary law of the autocratic Czar Nicholas I forbade Russian Jews to use fisher pelts; the decree shook the American market.38


At best buying and selling furs was not much of a business in the early nineteenth century. The Jewish part in it was small; this is equally true of the slave trade. Slowly slavery became very important in this country with the invention of the cotton gin, the development of cotton planting, and the improvement in weaving machinery. Where the traffic in blacks was concerned, Jews were always on the periphery. Few Jews planted tobacco, cotton, or sugar; they were not employers of mass slave labor. Jews in all parts of the country, particularly in the South, frequently purchased blacks to serve as domestic servants. Personality conflicts were common; slaves were sensitive human beings; tragedy was inevitable when estates were settled, and slaves were treated as chattel. Solomon Jacobs of Richmond was widely known as a kind master; his personal letters and his tombstone testify to this. In his love letters to his wife he described in detail how the servants were faring; for him they were members of the family, but after his death his wife sold them; they were mean to her, she said. With very few exceptions, brokers, commission merchants, and shopkeepers deemed slaves an article of commerce. Captain Abraham M. Seixas, the Charleston shopkeeper who kept a supply of men’s and women’s furnishings, bonds, notes, and slaves, wrote verse praising the virtues of the blacks he offered for sale. Back in colonial days Lopez and his father-in-law Rivera had carried on an import of slaves from the West African coast; it was a trade which Rivera continued into the 1780’s, just a few years before his death. The Monsanto brothers in Natchez and New Orleans were slave traders on a modest scale; they had other interests. Living under the Spanish crown on the Lower Mississippi in the days before “Louisiana” became American, Jews were officially not tolerated; they had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Even so, everyone knew that the Monsantos were Jews; it was an open secret and the authorities made no effort to harass them. In later decades, a number of Jewish merchants throughout the South specialized in slave trading. It is estimated that 3 out of the 74 slave traders in Richmond were Jews, 4 out of 44 in Charleston, and 1 out of 12 in Memphis. The largest among the traders was the Davis clan of Petersburg and Richmond. The family began as peddlers and then specialized in this particular commodity. The sales of all Jewish traders lumped together did not equal that of the one Gentile firm dominant in the business. If Jews in larger numbers were absent from this traffic, it was not necessarily because of scruples; there is little or no evidence to this effect. Most Jews lacked the capital to pursue what was after all, a hazardous, speculative business.39


Slave dealers were specialists; so were the dry goods men who now made their appearance and limited themselves to the sale of soft goods. The 1830’s already found a few entrepreneurs of this type in Philadelphia, a metropolis; the larger the city, the more likelihood that businessmen would limit themselves to specific branches of commerce and trade; they could appeal to a wider clientele. One of the most notable owners of dry goods emporia at this time was Lyon J. Levy, who enjoyed presidential patronage. He sold French and English dry goods, Irish linens, children’s embroidered robes, silks, shawls, boy’s clothing, and mourning attire. Advertising that he carried the latest Paris styles, Levy, it is quite clear, catered to the carriage trade. His place of business was magnificent; indeed there were not many merchants of his calibre in those days. Stores such as his were very probably precursors of the department stores which would emerge in later decades. The part that Jews played in post-Civil War days in the transition from large dry goods magazines to the department stores is yet to be determined. Department stores owned by Jews did not begin to appear on the scene until the last quarter of the century.40

The conspicuous specialists among the Jews were the auctioneers, the brokers, and the commission merchants, commissionaires, if you will. Brokers were men who for a fee negotiated transactions, contracts, between buyers and sellers. Auctioneers sold parcels of goods to the highest bidder. The wares at times were their own, not those of others who had authorized their sale on a fee basis. This was a good business; auctioneers were licensed by the government; the appointment more often than not was a political plum. In the early nineteenth century several Jews were found among the privileged few in New York City. One of the city’s auctioneers in the 1830’s was Aaron Levy (1771–1852), the well-known militia votary and land speculator. He owned an art gallery where he auctioned off old masters. The appointment was his reward for enthusiastic support of the Jacksonian Democrats. Among those fortunate enough to be licensed in an earlier day was Levy’s father-in-law, Isaac Moses, the merchant-shipper; Captain Mordecai Myers, the 1812 War veteran, Benjamin Seixas, the stockbroker, Ephraim Hart, the land speculator, and young Raphael Moses of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Raphael Moses, grandiloquent Southern orator, lawyer, and politician, started life as an auctioneer. Before he became one of Georgia’s notables, he was a bookkeeper, a peddler of watches, the owner of a “cheap cash store,” a dry goods merchant, a speculator in stocks, secretary of a pioneer railroad company, and even a banker for a short period. When he finally decided to go into law, he studied for six weeks and passed the bar examination. Auctioneering was a common method of doing business wholesale in the generation before and after the year 1800. It could provide a very respectable living; one firm in New York paid a tax of $1,000 on its auction sales; in 1796 Jacob Jacobs of Charleston, an auctioneer, left an estate that included ten slaves, horses, carriages, notes and bonds. Jonas Phillips of Philadelphia, one of the unlucky aspirants for a license, protested against this monopoly—it was unconstitutional, he insisted. For him a legal circumvention was justified. He advertised heavily that he would send carriages to meet prospective buyers and drive them to a ferry boat which would land them across the Schuylkill, outside the city limits, where he would auction off the wares entrusted to him.41

David Lopez, Jr., and his brother Aaron, members of Newport’s numerous Lopez family, had moved south to Charleston after the Revolution when that city rose to prominence; there they became auctioneers and commission merchants with a warehouse of their own. In a limited sense they were brokers. The word broker is a term that has no specific denotation. After the Revolution, the term and the calling became popular among Jews. Brokers made their appearance, sometimes in relatively large numbers, in all the towns of the country, from Boston south to New Orleans. In a way they were variants of the colonial merchants and merchant-shippers, for brokers were ready to consider any kind of mercantile or financial deal. Unlike their colonial forebears, they had no fixed clientele, no established trade routes, no substantial traffic in raw materials or imports. They were particularly in evidence at Philadelphia, for some twenty-five years the de facto when it was not the de jure capital of the country. Men turned to this type of commerce for, requiring little capital, it was primarily a job of working for others; the rewards of the brokers lay in the commissions they charged. Indeed most merchants and merchant-shippers were happy to function as commissionmen or brokers. Samuel Myers, of Petersburg, and Moses Myers, of Norfolk, handled chores for Stephen Girard; Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, bought tobacco for the Rothschilds; the wealthy Harmon Hendricks, of New York, did not disdain a chance to sell goods for a London correspondent. On occasion, a broker would employ a client to dispose of wares; the client who thus became the consignee was always willing to make a commission.

The Dutch immigrant Lazarus Barnett, scarcely a year in this country, found himself a partner and announced that he would do business as a broker. An analysis of his accounts demonstrates that he sold at auction, operated as a wholesaler, and disposed of consignments on commission; all the transactions were on short- or long-term credit. Barnett’s firm specialized in dry goods and gin. Curiously, despite the substantial amount of business the firm did, Barnett—and possibly his partner too—suffered bankruptcy in less than a year. To escape imprisonment for debt, Barnett fled to London. No two brokers operated in the same fashion, since they were dependent on fortuitous commissions and adventitious commercial opportunities. What all did “brokers” do? They served as employment bureaus, as suppliers and vendors of goods; they provided information on domestic and foreign markets. They bought and sold shares in turnpikes, canals, railroads, and manufactories; they dealt in bills of exchange, bought and sold real estate, often farm lands; they chartered, purchased, and disposed of ships, solicited freight, made remittances abroad, lent money. There was no merchandise which was not grist for the broker’s mill.42


One of the most famous commission merchants in the United States was distinguished not for his buying and selling but for his charities. More or less accidentally he became American Jewry’s outstanding antebellum philanthropist; Judah Touro (d. 1854) was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on April 28, 1775. Dr. Hunter, who attended Mrs. Touro, charged forty-two shillings for the delivery. The father, Isaac Touro, hazzan of the Newport community, was a Loyalist and died an exile in Jamaica in 1783. Mrs. Touro’s brother, Moses M. Hays, assumed the burden of supporting the widow and rearing the three surviving children. The two sons, Judah and Abraham, were trained in the business; both were to do well. After Judah had served as a supercargo to the Mediterranean he returned to New England but soon, in 1801, left for the Franco-Spanish town of New Orleans. Not improbably, as he sailed south, he may have stopped off at other towns to see what they had to offer him. Why he left Boston is not known. There is a tradition that he had fallen in love with one of his cousins and that his suit was not viewed with favor by his uncle. This may have been true, but the woman—so it is believed—upon whom he had fastened his affections was six years older and probably sickly; she died shortly after he arrived in New Orleans. Touro may well have been looking for opportunity and saw it in the Mississippi River port where he spent his remaining years. After Touro was wounded in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans, his Gentile friend, Rezin Davis Shepherd, brought him home and nursed him back to health. It was this man Shepherd, who became Touro’s residuary legatee. Touro never married; indeed in New Orleans he apparently never displayed any interest in women; he was a strange, difficult person.43

Not very much is known about the nature of Touro’s mercantile activities. The extant notarial records have not been adequately researched; they are bound to throw more light on his beginnings and his rise to wealth. He may have started as a shopkeeper selling New England goods like soap, candles, and codfish. There is reason to believe that he was essentially an agent buying and selling for others. What may be typical of his activities was a consignment from Christopher C. Champlin of Newport, who shipped Touro a cargo of Swedish iron and American-made bricks. Touro set out to sell the goods—which had come to a very bad market—and then loaded Champlin’s chartered vessel with bales of cotton for Liverpool. When Touro hit his stride he probably ceased functioning as a shopkeeper, but in no sense was he ever one of the town’s important merchandisers. He had a small office with but one clerk. Nor was he a merchant-shipper, although in 1849 he sent a vessel of his own, the Judah Touro, with a cargo around the Horn to California. The voyage took over 200 days—quite a venture for a man of seventy-four, a commissionaire normally very cautious in his dealings. How then did he acquire the fortune—hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks, bonds, mortgages—which he left on his death in 1854? He invested in shipping; the commission business was lucrative and entailed little expense, though he did have to maintain warehouse facilities to store consignments for which he had no customers. As a freight agent, he dispatched goods as far east as Calcutta. Even all this may not explain his wealth. The answer may be simpler. Touro inherited two very large estates, one from his brother Abraham and one from his sister Rebecca. (The Rev. Theodore Clapp said that Touro gave his sister’s estate to charity but there is no available evidence to support the preacher’s statement.) Touro built commercial buildings, avoided litigation, and invested his surplus funds in local real estate. (During the fifty-two years of his life in New Orleans, the city grew from about 10,000 in population to a metropolis of well over 150,000. It became a boomtown, one of the most important ports in all America; he, perforce, grew with it. The town helped make him rich, even though Touro was no daring speculator. A bachelor with few expenses, he was frugal. One is tempted to say that he saved a fortune.44

For most of his half-century in New Orleans, Touro avoided Jews. When he first came to town, very few of his coreligionists lived there. New Orleans was Spanish and Catholic; the Code Noir was thought to be still in force, blacks were kept down, Jews were kept out. Technically, this Sephardi was returning to Spanish territory as a Marrano, a Christian of Jewish ancestry. Actually, no one bothered him; although it had not been made public Louisiana was already a French dependency. Napoleonic New Orleans soon became a fast-growing town attracting all sorts of unattractive adventurers, but Touro would have nothing to do with them. Jewish newcomers began pouring in only after the city became American in 1803. Touro avoided them, too, it appears. They were not his equal; he was shy, unsociable. Perhaps he evinced little interest in local Jewry because he had come from Boston, where in his childhood there were probably not a half-dozen Jewish families and where Uncle Moses Hays associated with Christians. When New Orleans’s Congregation Gates of Mercy was organized in 1828, Touro gave the synagog a donation, but would not join it. This notable Louisianian became a philanthropist relatively late; he was not prepared to cope affectively with his older sibling, Abraham, one of America’s outstanding Jewish philanthropists. (Abraham’s only rival in philanthropy was Harmon Hendricks.) Touro’s brother was initially the wealthier of the two; he had a shipyard at Medford, Massachusetts, was an officer in a turnpike corporation, and owned stock in toll bridge companies and canals. His chief business was maritime insurance; he was both an underwriter and an insurer.45

Abraham Touro was generous; he built a wall around the Newport Jewish cemetery where his mother lay buried; it was, after all, the burying ground of the synagog his father had served. By 1819, the New Englander had lent money to Sephardic Shearith Israel in New York on condition that the interest be employed to bury indigent Jews, to succor the poor, and educate impoverished children in the ancient Palestinian homeland. In his will, Abraham made a most generous bequest to Shearith Israel and, at the same time, left substantial sums to maintain the Newport synagog even though the Jewish community there had ceased to exist; money was also set aside to pave the street leading to the Newport Jewish cemetery. This same final testament made very liberal provision for three of Boston’s outstanding philanthropic institutions; Abraham’s was the first such substantial gift from an American Jew for non-Jewish charitable purposes. His Jewish bequests were limited to Shearith Israel of New York, to the defunct congregation in Newport, and to the Jewish poor in Palestine. Because of his munificence to Jews and others, Richmond’s Beth Shalome sought Abraham’s help in building its new synagog. Disturbed by his own losses in the depression years of 1819–1821, he warned the Richmond suppliants not to “ride a free horse to death,” but he would contribute his “mite.” Why did his will ignore the Sephardic congregations in Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah? There can be no question of Abraham’s devotion to Jewry. In 1816, he had gone to the Boston town clerk and had made a formal statement that he was a Jew. The intent here was to comply with amended Article XI of the 1780 state constitution; Abraham refused to pay taxes to a local church.46

Judah Touro died in 1854. After his death, mythical stories began to circulate retailing the Louisiana Touro’s quiet but extensive generosity during his lifetime. There was the account of a gift to a drunkard who had come down in the world, of magnificent help for an impoverished widow left helpless with a brood of children. There seems to be little substance to these reports. Such myths tend to cluster around all deemed notable in their postmortem years. It does seem true that Judah Touro rallied to the help of a destitute fellow-worker who had once clerked with him in Boston. Whatever the reason, Judah did not want to compete with his more attractive brother as a philanthropist, but when Abraham died in 1822, Judah began to demonstrate a desire to help people, in a modest fashion, to be sure. Thus when his sister Rebecca passed away in 1833 and there was no one left in the blood line, the “timid shrinking old man” must have bethought himself. When Leeser and Touro met in New Orleans, the merchant told the Philadelphia cleric that he was “a friend to religion.” He once, in 1819, owned a pew in an Episcopal church—whatever that signifies—but he was no Christian. Touro supported Presbyterians, Catholics, and Unitarians. His gifts to them were generous but when the Jewish newcomers turned to him, they seem to have been given a mere pittance. He spent thousands aiding the town’s Presbyterian congregation led by Parson Theodore Clapp, a liberal; when Clapp’s church was about to be dispossessed in 1822 for lack of means, Touro bought the building at an auction and permitted the congregation to remain at a most modest rental. He could have torn the building down and erected a business structure that would have paid off handsomely. Because of his affection for Clapp, he subsidized him over the years. In 1850 or 1851, the parson’s church burnt down, but Touro provided another sanctuary rent free. He was fully aware of the fact that the established Christian community—Roman Catholic—would under no circumstance help these Protestant heretics.47

Touro was reputed to have established a Free Library in Parson Clapp’s church. The library, an institution of no consequence, was probably named after him with the hope that he would support it, but there is no evidence that he did. When many in Mobile were burnt out in a devastating fire, he did respond to their cry for help. That was in 1839, and from that time on his charities became more numerous. He rebuilt the wall around the Jewish cemetery in Newport, helped refurbish the Rhode Island town’s Redwood Library, and endowed an annual gold medal award at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane). As late as the 1940’s, these gold medals were given for excellence in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Ancient History. Touro’s most notable gift was made in 1839 when Amos Lawrence, merchant and philanthropist, said that he would give a $10,000 matching gift to complete Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument. Though the cornerstone had been laid in 1825, the memorial to the men who had fallen in battle at Bunker Hill was still unfinished. Touro matched Lawrence’s gift. There is some reason to believe that he may have answered Lawrence’s appeal because he thought himself born with this country. The battle of Bunker Hill was fought on the 17th of June; Touro thought that he was born on the 16th. He was wrong if the account book of his accoucheur is accepted: Judah was born on April 28, 1775, a few days after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. Most probably Touro confused the two anniversaries. When the monument in Boston was finally dedicated and a banquet was held in Faneuil Hall, these lines praising Lawrence and Touro were read:

Christian and Jew, they carry out one plan,

For though of different faith, each is in heart a man.48

In 1824 Judah Touro had made a generous grant to the new Mikveh Israel synagog of the Sephardim in Philadelphia. Living though he did in Christian New Orleans, he never forgot that he was a Sephardi. That may explain his disinclination to identify himself more closely with New Orleans’s Congregation Gates of Mercy, most of whose members were Ashkenazim and of humble origin. By 1847, however, the seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pioneer had begun to think “Jewishly.” Did he want to make his peace with his “Jewish” God? In 1845 a congregation to be governed by the Sephardic rite had been founded in town; it called itself The Dispersed of Judah (Nefutsot Yehudah), a name which could well have served a double purpose. The name was a compliment to old Touro; taken from Isaiah 11:12, a verse messianic in character, it voiced the hope for an ultimate return. Two years later Touro bought an Episcopal church for the new Dispersed of Judah, renovated it, added a schoolhouse, and himself started going to services. It was only with reluctance that he had joined the new congregation, but once he made up his mind he became a “good Jew,” observing the Sabbath meticulously.

Savannah Jews documented Touro’s entry into the ranks of Jewish leadership by asking him in a letter for funds to hire a minister. When Leeser came down from Philadelphia to dedicate the New Orleans synagog in 1850, Moses N. Nathan came up from the Caribbean to serve as hazzan. Touro paid most of Nathan’s salary, but when the congregation refused to carry its share of the load, Touro reduced his gift and Nathan left. In the early 1850’s Touro increased his giving; he helped the struggling Ashkenazic Gates of Mercy, supported the Hebrew Foreign Mission Society in its effort to aid the Chinese Jews, and established an infirmary for his fellow citizens who were constantly facing yellow fever epidemics. The Touro Infirmary charged for its services. The local Hebrew Benevolent Society sent some clients there, though the Infirmary was not intended to be a Jewish charity. After Touro’s death, when the Infirmary was bequeathed to the Jewish community, it was continued as a pay hospital, treating slaves among others, and later became a hospice for indigent and sick Jews, for widows and orphans.49

The gifts that the New Orleans philanthropist made prior to his death were a foreshadowing of his will. This instrument, dated January 6, 1854, distributed a very large estate. Generous gifts were made to numerous relatives and friends, Jews and non-Jews. Substantial bequests amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to Jewish and Christian institutions. Like his late brother he was concerned with the old Newport cemetery and synagog and saw to it that there were ample funds for both. It was his hope that the Jewish community there would one day be reestablished. And it was. A large sum given for the poor of Palestine was to be administered by England’s Moses Montefiore. Bequests too were made for the Chinese Jews. Over $140,000 was given to American Jewish schools, congregations, and confraternities in twenty different towns. The bulk of the testamentary gifts was willed to Christian communal institutions, Protestant and Catholic, in Boston, Newport, and New Orleans. Included among them were six orphan asylums and an almshouse.50

If Touro was a “good” Jew during the last seven years of his life, who or what was responsible for the change? No one can dredge up an indisputable answer. This much is known: Gershom Kursheedt directly and Leeser indirectly worked on the vacillating Touro without letup. Touro could always have left everything to his Christian friend Shepherd and to distant Jewish relatives. It was Kursheedt, a most ardent Jew, who finally induced the aged merchant to leave substantial sums to Jewish institutions. Touro’s experiences with his own Sephardic Dispersed of Judah may well have soured him. Kursheedt, grandson of Seixas and son of I. B. Kursheedt, was a New Orleans businessman, communal leader and journalist. Reflecting Leeser’s hopes, Kursheedt sought money to finance the founding of a structured American Jewish community with a seminary and a publication society. Leeser long before, in 1841, appealed to America’s congregations to meet in conference and organize themselves to establish national religious and cultural institutions, but his was a voice crying in the wilderness. Fortunately, Shepherd, sympathetic to Jews, was on the sidelines coaching Kursheedt. Touro’s was a simple mind: Jewish congregations and institutions had to be helped—as long as they were Orthodox. Kursheedt hammered away at Touro for about a decade, presenting Jewish lists to the old man, who made the final decision. Shepherd, the Gentile, helped Touro decide which Christian institutions and societies merited bequests. In the long run, Touro was right, though he was never to realize how wise he was. American Jewry in the 1850’s would never have found it possible to organize nationally to build the religiocultural schools and associations which would, in effect, have established a total, integrated Jewish community ruled by a national Jewish board of ministers and laymen. Touro patched up Jewry in every important town; he did the same more or less for the Christians. He wanted to help Jews, and he wanted to be a good citizen and serve the larger public, though his gifts were in no sense motivated by a desire to win public acclaim; he was anything but vain.51

Touro never set out to become a philanthropist; it was not in him. A captious Jew in New York wrote Leeser: what choice did Touro have?—he had no close friends; he wasn’t really much of a philanthropist. But the New Yorker was wrong; Touro turned out to be very much of a philanthropist, a truly important historical figure because of his generosity. By the 1850’s, the Germans who had been streaming in had set up a host of congregations, societies, and welfare agencies, but few of them were well established. The masses of immigrant Jews were poor. Despite their growing affluence, many of the newcomers were not habitually charitable; they had sweated too hard to make a dollar. Touro’s money put numerous organizations on a firm basis; his substantial gifts helped Jewish communities throughout the country entrench themselves. He set an example for American Jewry and for the country as a whole through his nonsectarian benevolence. Cumberland’s Benevolent Hebrew of 1795 was reborn on American soil.52

Gentiles were very much impressed by his gifts. Longfellow certainly knew what the Touro brothers had done to keep fresh the memory of their Rhode Island home; in the poem “Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” he wrote:

Gone are the living, but the dead remain

And not neglected; for a hand unseen

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

The last testament of the New Orleans recluse was translated into a number of European languages and published in Italy, Germany, and France as well as England. Jews overseas were impressed. Touro’s gifts to Jerusalem touched them. American Jews were no longer uncouth frontiersmen; they were brethren of the House of Israel. Touro was no Jewish George Peabody. The wealthy Peabody set out to establish a host of institutions in this country to raise America’s cultural niveau. Peabody had a dream of the infinite horizons that could be envisioned through the furtherance of the arts and sciences, through education and the humanities. All this was beyond the ken of the New Orleans merchant. Touro was an unusually modest, retiring man thrust posthumously onto the stage of Jewish and American history. He was no strong-willed notable of heroic stature, but myth made him the ideal American Jew, the generous citizen, the committed religionist.

The Monument

Touro was given a public funeral in Newport and buried in the old synagogal cemetery. The bells of the churches in town tolled and the shops closed. Eight rabbis were present at the graveside where the preachers painted a moral. In New Orleans while his memory was still green, it was proposed to erect a monument to him, but the enthusiasm soon evaporated and nothing was done. Six years later the proposal was taken up again, and the rabbi of Gates of Mercy, James K. Gutheim, still Orthodox in his views, made no objection, though the Second Commandment had for millennia been deemed to forbid Jews to make graven images or likenesses (Exodus 20:4). Isaac M. Wise, Max Lilienthal, the radical Reformer, David Einhorn and the world traveler, I. J. Benjamin, all objected to this break with tradition. The whole subject was finally referred to important scholars in Europe; their opinions all indicated that there would be no objection to an obelisk, but a statue was completely unacceptable. In the meantime, the Civil War broke out in 1861 and the matter was forgotten. Touro’s legacies are his monument—more eternal than bronze. There is no question that the inscription on his tombstone is apt: “The last of his name, he inscribed it in the book of philanthropy to be remembered forever.”53

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