publisher colophon




No man is of one piece; no man is of one epoch. Touro, born in 1775, belongs to the colonial past; his death in 1854 documents his antebellum modernity. He was a commission merchant and a shipper; more importantly, he was an investor in urban real estate. The population explosion in New Orleans and the city’s rise as the great port of the Mississippi Basin poured money into his coffers. All he had to do was to sit on his haunches and watch his unearned increment make him a rich man. The pre-Revolutionary merchant could not master or administer the manifold varieties of business in a land where the population doubled frequently. By the end of the eighteenth century, mercantile specialists had become an imperative necessity. The successful revolt against Great Britain ushered in a commercial revolution, a new economy: extensive land speculation, banking, buying and selling of stocks, bonds, government obligations; building “rapid” transportation; expanding international trade—as far as China—unhampered by English navigation laws; introducing maritime, life, and fire insurance; developing large-scale cotton planting and even turning to industry. The new commercial fields were serviced by a swiftly growing body of professional administrators, lawyers preeminent among them. The new economy was sparked in large part by the New West. It would not be long before the transallegheny trade would be more important than the transocean traffic. Beyond the tidewater, new opportunities beckoned; thousands moved westward, impelled by land speculation. First came the farmers, then the hamlet builders and peddlers, and finally the shopkeepers, who dreamt of fast growing towns and substantial wealth. The changing economy was concerned not only with the masses who tilled the ground, but with the towns and their potential. Jews, too, played their part in all these revolutionary changes—a modest role, to be sure, befitting their modest numbers.


By the late eighteenth century, many land speculators looked to the West. No longer could Great Britain hinder the westward thrust. This push across the mountains towards the ever retreating horizon was not new. Jews had always been a part of it. As early as 1702, a London Jewish businessman was among the proprietors of West New Jersey; for all such early proprietors, as for later investors, land was a commodity from which they hoped to profit. By 1708, a South Carolina businessman owned a 1,000-acre parcel. Isaac Levy, of the eighteenth-century Levy-Franks family, had large holdings in the Catskills and in the Georgia Sea Islands. From the 1760’s on, the London and Philadelphia Frankses together with their satellites, the Simon-Gratz clan of Lancaster and Philadelphia, were involved both directly and indirectly in the huge colonial enterprises of “Indiana,” the Grand Ohio, Vandalia, and the Illinois-Wabash companies. Millions of acres were at stake. In the end, none of these colonies was established, since the wary English would tolerate no settlement beyond the tidewater and the range of their cannon. Like the British, the new United States, too, would not recognize Indian titles to huge grants, and the apprehensive states insisted that the western lands become part of the national domain; the pre-Revolutionary Jewish speculators lost their sizable investments.1

The proclamation of an America republic in 1776 did not in any sense lower the land speculation fever; if anything, it raised it. Operating within the framework of the states and territories, enterprisers could hope to secure good titles. That was important. Lobbying for grants shifted from imperial London to the national and state capitals. The Yazoo land rascals were given 25,000,000 acres by state legislators before the sale was revoked. While speculators planned and intrigued, often successfully, to secure large wilderness parcels, urban real estate promoters bought and sold town and city lots. Jews had been freeholders in New Netherland ever since the 1660’s when Asser Levy made a purchase in Albany despite the barriers erected by the pious Peter Stuyvesant. Wherever Jews dwelt—and in all periods—they bought homes for their own use, purchases generally not prompted by speculation. In 1805, Bernard Hart, of New York City, was dickering with John Jacob Astor for some town lots and getting the worst of the bargain, but Hart was not averse also to largescale purchases. His South Carolina holdings totaled more than 60,000 acres. Isaac Moses, Hart’s contemporary and fellow Shearith Israel member—they both were presidents of the congregation—owned lots, houses, a warehouse, and half of a wharf. The total Moses holdings were valued at about $135,000. Some of his lands had been the attainted property of the Loyalist De Lanceys, kin to the Jewish Frankses. Moses Lopez and Mordecai Myers, both of New York City, ran land offices; they were professional realtors, buying, selling, exchanging properties, and remitting taxes to distant western states. Charleston’s Mordecai Cohen (d.1848) was reputed to be one of the largest owners of real estate in the city. Having made his fortune in business as a cotton factor for plantation owners, he retired at forty-six in order to devote his time to good works. Because of his wealth and integrity, a railroad put him on its board; the city made him a commissioner of markets. His favorite charity was the local, non-Jewish orphan asylum on which he showered money and devotion. David Judah, of Richmond, was one of that Virginia town’s early urban developers.2

All through this period, Jewish merchants dreamt of town and country settlements across the Alleghenies as far west as the Mississippi and as far south as Florida. They never gave up the hope that land speculation would make them rich. Lt. Col. Aaron Levy pushed his town development in Warren County, New York; it was called Mt. Levy; Isaac Franks, together with Dr. Benjamin Rush and others, owned a Pennsylvania tract of 18,400 acres; David Franks, the former British army purveyor, died possessed of large parcels of land in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Illinois country. His cousin Moses Levy, a “Philadelphia lawyer”—one of the best—was partner in a land company interested in developing the Ohio country, and the merchant-shipping Myerses of Norfolk owned 5,000 acres in the new state of Illinois. Some speculators nursed inflated visions of what their petty holdings would do for them. The French immigrant, Benjamin Nones—in and out of a variety of vocations—owned a few western Pennsylvania acres in 1786. Nostalgically, he called it Bayonne; his rabbi Jacob R. Cohen, was the proud possessor of 301 acres in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh; this was to be the future city of Cohensburg. David Nathans in 1817, fathered the hamlet of Nathansville. The site of present-day Wilkinsburg, in the same area, was once called Jews’ Town or the Jews’ Land.3


One entrepreneur succeeded in establishing a town that has lasted. This was Aaron Levy (1742(?)–1815), merchant, small-scale army purveyor, and Revolutionary War militiaman. As a land agent for others, he looms large, buying as he did hundreds of thousands of acres for Robert Morris and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. On his own, Levy attempted to develop Levyburg, Levy’s Delight, and Levy’s Grove. His one success, if it may be deemed such, was Aaronsburgh (Jews’ Town) in Centre County, Pennsylvania, laid out in 1786. One part of town was called Aaron’s Square; another, which bore his wife’s name, was called Rachel’s Way. In order to attract buyers, he sold lots by lottery and set aside land for schools, churches, and cemeteries. The Salem Evangelical (Lutheran) Church was given a lot and a communion set; the German Reformed Church was treated equally well. Levy bore no grudge against the Reformed sectarians because they had remonstrated successfully in Philadelphia when Mikveh Israel prepared to build a synagog near their church. Levy hoped that his town, in the center of the state, would become the capital but it never succeeded even in becoming the county seat; he was further disappointed when the east-west highway failed to run through Aaronsburg. Nevertheless, this settlement founded by and named after a Jew is the first to survive to the present day, if only as a village.4


Having no children, Aaron Levy made Simon Gratz, son of Michael, his heir. Levy transferred his lands, over 100,000 acres, to this scion of the family. Levy was close to the Gratzes. Whether they liked it or not, the Gratzes had been in the land business for almost two generations, ever since the 1760’s when they first bought a 9,000-acre tract in New York’s Mohawk Valley. This was the beginning of their involvement with the West, an involvement which would continue till Simon’s brother Benjamin died in the 1880’s. Even before the Revolution, the aspiring firm of B. & M. Gratz—Barnard and Michael—thought big; two companies, in which they were partners, once claimed a total of some 60,000,000 acres in the Illinois and Wabash country. They worked closely with their kinsman Joseph Simon, the dean of the Pennsylvania Jewish fur entrepreneurs. Through a partner of his—one of many—Simon was interested in the site of the city of Louisville.5 The Gratz brothers, of Philadelphia, and Cohen & Isaacs of Richmond, had substantial holdings in Kentucky, once part of Virginia, whose lands then had extended westward to the Mississippi. These firms had acquired acreage by buying up land warrants issued to Revolutionary War veterans in lieu of cash. Henry Hart, of New York State, a brother of Aaron Hart, the Canadian “seigneur,” was in the business of buying and selling such warrants in his part of the country. He owned a farm, grist mill, and potash works.6 In the late eighteenth century, Isaiah Isaacs, Jacob Mordecai, and other Virginians were given by Governor Patrick Henry a patent to over 12,000 acres in the Dismal Swamp. One wonders what they thought they could do with those wetlands. Through the purchase of scrip, the Gratzes, too, came into possession of large parcels. As merchants, they bought and sold land and warrants on their own account, in partnership with others, or on a commission basis. In the years 1783–1785 they had patented over 100,000 acres in their own name; together with partners, they controlled another parcel of over 320,000 acres. The family holdings were largely centered in southwest Virginia and the upper Ohio basin, areas once Virginian but later to become part of Kentucky and, following the Old Dominion’s secession, of West Virginia. When Michael died in 1811, he himself owned large plots in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, among other places.7

The prepossession—mania?—of speculating Americans to acquire large parcels of land and to settle them must be taken into account if one is to understand Mordecai Noah’s attempt to establish a Jewish colony on Grand Island in the Niagara River. Despite his ancillary motives, he was but one of hundreds who were moving to open the West in the hope of making a fortune in a hurry. Like all other speculators, the Gratzes of the first and second generation had high hopes. They gave their name to various land parcels, post offices, railroad stops, and hamlets in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In the 1940’s, a post office in Kentucky and a town in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, were still named after them. Did the Gratzes after two generations reap the benefit of all their purchases and surveys? The younger Gratzes may have sold off their acreage at a substantial profit. It remains to be determined how fortunate they really were; their firm was bankrupt in 1826.8


Much of the speculation in gargantuan tracts was concentrated in Virginia lands because of the state’s enormous size, but Jews, like others, were willing to invest anywhere if they could make a profit. Thus individuals turned to the Old South and the New Southwest. By the 1830’s, Texas attracted their attention. It was said that the Jewish banking firm of J. L. & S. Joseph was tied in with Samuel Swartwout, who proposed to buy millions of acres in Texas and neighboring Mexico. Swartwout, an intimate friend of Aaron Burr and involved in his schemes, was, as it turned out, a crooked politician. There was a great deal of public discussion, especially in that decade, about freeing Texas and, incidentally, making its enormous acreage available to American businessmen. This agitation had the support of the Josephs and Mordecai Noah of the Evening Star. Farther to the east, Richmond’s Joseph Marx invested heavily in the Alabama-Mississippi lands of the Chickasaws; Col. Mordecai Sheftall, of Savannah, owned a 2,000-acre plot in Camden County, Georgia, near the Florida border. As soon as Florida became part of the United States (1813–1819), venturesome Jewish businessmen began buying large tracts as investments.

In all likelihood, the largest Jewish speculator was Michael Lazarus, of Charleston, scion of a notable family. Grandfather Lazarus had been a founder of Congregation Beth Elohim; Michael’s father, Mark, was a heroic veteran of the attack on British-held Savannah in 1779. Michael himself was the vice president of America’s first liberal synagog; brother Joshua married into the English Yates-Samuel family from which Sir Herbert Samuel, later High Commissioner for Palestine, would emerge. When in 1844 the governor of South Carolina called on the citizens of the state to celebrate Thanksgiving by offering up their devotions to Jesus Christ, Michael Lazarus chaired the public meeting called by Jewish citizens to protest this disregard of their sensibilities. Lazarus, a politician and entrepreneur, was one of the first Jews to inaugurate steamboat traffic on the Savannah River, thereby opening up markets to the settlers in Georgia and in the South Carolina outback. By 1820, he had purchased over 156,000 acres north of present-day Miami, land for which he paid one dollar an acre. This was sheer speculation. He could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that Miami would one day rise in South Florida, a city with well over 250,000 Jews. When Lazarus acquired his acres, there were in all the United States fewer than 5,000 Israelites.9

Very few of the Jews who hazarded their cash and credit were themselves interested in settling on the soil. Moses Elias Levy was a notable exception; he was a pioneer Florida planter and colonizer. In 1835, one of his plantations was raided by the Indians and had to be abandoned. Anticipating his son David, Moses Levy was active in politics too. Eager to further his own views, he ventured into journalism, occasionally writing under the pseudonym “Yulee” which his sons were to adopt as their family name. He had trouble with his two boys; they were very frequently in conflict with him. He was weird in his outlook; no one who has read his writings can doubt that. About the year 1818 he brought his sons to the United States; one was sent to Harvard; the other, David, who in later years would become a representative and senator from Florida, went to live with the Myerses, the Norfolk merchant-shippers, but instead of “minding the store” he buried his nose in books. Neither David Levy Yulee nor his brother was to evince any interest whatsoever in Jews or Judaism. Their sister Rahma married Jonathan Da Costa, of St. Thomas, and became the mother of two notable Americans, Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa, the physician, and Charles Da Costa, a member of the New York bar. Both of these younger Da Costas, like their uncles, lived as Christians. Moses E. Levy managed to salvage his investments; most Jewish speculators holding large parcels do not seem to have been so successful. Their capital and credit were often limited; they could not make the necessary improvements—good roads, for instance; they were delinquent in taxes; they overextended themselves. Depressions were frequent; loans were called in. Nevertheless, together with others, they did help open frontier areas wherever they lay, on the Ohio in the 1760’s and in the Florida wilderness during the 1820’s.10


M. E. Levy was exceptional among Jewish land speculators in that he was a planter, indeed one of Florida’s pioneer large-scale cultivators. He owned farms on both the east and the west coast of the peninsula. Jewish dirt farmers were rare in the country; even rarer were Jewish plantation owners in the South. It is difficult to determine how many Jews did choose farming as a way of life because of a desire to return to the soil. Very likely some Jewish plantation owners (there were some) turned to the land because it promised them a degree of social status, political leverage. Such planters wanted to upgrade themselves. If Jews were rarely found on the soil, it was due to lack of interest, the fear of isolation and social rejection, a want of capital. If we include Salvador, who had been killed by Indians at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, there were probably not more than twenty large- and middle-scale Jewish planters in the South in the period from 1776 to 1840. Considering the relatively small percentage of plantations and substantial farms in the South and the miniscule number of Jews in that region, we may venture to guess that the percentage of Jewish planters would probably compare favorably with that of the non-Jews.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s, Polish-born Mordecai Cohen, of Charleston, owned at least two plantations, later turned over to his two sons. Had he bought them as an investment or had he acquired them in the course of business and held on to them? His sons made the plantation a way of life. Cohen, who ran the farms himself for a brief period, was primarily an urban businessman, as was Nathans, another planter who served at one time as president of the Charleston congregation. In many respects Chapman Levy (1787–1850) was outstanding among the Jewish planters; he was typically “Southern.” Admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen, he practiced law successfully, took the oath as a militia officer during the War of 1812, accepted a commission as colonel on the governor’s staff, served in both houses of the state legislature, and gloried in his belligerent Unionist views during the parlous days of Nullification. Levy, known and respected in Washington, moved west like many other South Carolinians to the new cotton lands of Mississippi where he ran a plantation, apparently one of substantial size. What part did his plantations play in providing him with a social and political background? The available sources betray no Jewish interest on his part; his sister and daughter both married out.11


Some, if not most, Jewish planters were also successful businessmen or lawyers—which is what makes so unlikely any dedication to the role of dirt farmers. Whether farmers, lawyers, or traders, they were influenced by and participated in the new economy as it made its way in Charleston and other large towns. By the 1830’s, Jews in the South Carolina metropolis were already moving into the field of insurance. Individuals were directors of companies. In this same decade, Hyman Gratz, of Philadelphia, assumed the presidency of the Pennsylvania Company for Insurance on Lives and Granting Annuities; in 1818, he had gone on the board of this the first corporation to deal exclusively in life insurance. Hyman’s brother Joseph was a director of the Atlantic Insurance Company in the 1820’s. Jews had begun buying shares in the Pennsylvania Company as early as 1809 when it first opened its subscription lists. The interest of Jewish traders in the new insurance corporations goes back at least to 1792 with the organization of the Insurance Company of North America, the first marine insurance firm in the United States to offer its stock on the open market. Michael Prager was one of the original founders. A portrait presumed his once hung in the company’s rooms in Philadelphia, but it is a fake—a copy of a portrait of a marquis which now adorns the walls of the Louvre. An enterprising artist had provided a series of portraits of the founding fathers of this venerable company; six of them were not authentic or were questionable. Corporate instant respectability! Michael was reputedly an Irishman from County Cork. For the Philadelphia shippers of the 1790’s, much of the insurance on their export cargoes had to be underwritten in London or even in Amsterdam, a cumbersome affair and a great nuisance. It was obvious why Michael in the American branch of Prager frères would want American underwriters. Michael’s purchase of shares in the new enterprise was very probably a personal venture rather than a Prager company investment.12

In the early 1800’s, Judah Touro’s older brother Abraham was engaged in marine and fire insurance in Boston and environs. For the most part he was an agent—not an insurer—securing underwriters for only the limited amounts for which they assumed responsibility. Occasionally Abraham ventured and became an insurer also. If a company was established, the company as a collectivity would be responsible, not the individual insurer; losses could be shared, reduced, which is how maritime insurance companies came to be established in Massachusetts in the last decade of the eighteenth century. One of the pioneers in this new corporate approach was Abraham Touro’s uncle, Moses Michael Hays (1739–1805). Like many other Jews who grew up in the British colonies, Hays began as an artisan, a watchmaker; this made possible his acceptance as a freeman in New York City. He moved on to Newport, then in its heyday, opened a shop with a partner, failed, and started over again in 1772. His was a typical store, offering its customers groceries, hardware, textiles, and hard liquor. With the British occupation of the town he moved on; by 1781 he had decided to settle in Boston where he remained for the rest of his life. Turning speedily to fire and maritime insurance, he himself became one of the organizers of companies in this field. As a pioneer in underwriting marine and fire insurance and furthering the establishment of companies in this new sphere of business, Hays was in reality no specialist. It is very much to be doubted whether prior to 1840 there was any Jewish businessman who devoted himself exclusively to selling insurance. Hays was a colonial tradesman who suffered bankruptcy in 1772, but then adjusted himself enthusiastically and profitably to the post-revolutionary economic challenges.13

When he made a new start in Boston in the front room of a coffeehouse on State Street, he became another American Jewish omnibus businessman, a broker. The multiplicity of his proffers and doings is fascinating. He supplied foreign and domestic intelligence in the areas of commerce; apparently he was well acquainted with market conditions in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and South America. When Paul Revere needed iron for his foundry, Hays sent him to Providence with a note of introduction to Brown & Benson, guaranteeing any purchase Revere might make. Hays also sold insurance, discounted notes, lent money, and bought and sold real estate, bills of exchange, and ships too. Indeed, he was an honorary member of the Boston Marine Society in 1789. In the role of a dealer quick to turn an honest penny at anything, he secured freight for China and encouraged the establishment of a bank. As a New England merchant—and he was that, too—he bought and sold fish, whale oil, salt, candles. He had an office on the Long Wharf and traded with the West Indies and the Gulf ports. Hays was thus something of a new man, a colonial merchant redivivus with a vision that reached as far as the China sea.

In chronicling this man’s life, it is a pleasure to point out that he died a man of wealth. It is no pleasure for the historian nourished on Horatio Alger pap to inter his heroes in the bankruptcy courts. Hays, a native American of good stock, was accepted socially in the better Christian circles; if there were Jews in town—there must have been some newcomers—there is no record that he associated with them, though religiously he was no defector, but a dignified, loyal Jew possessing even a Jewish library, mostly in Hebrew—liturgical works no doubt. Hays was a good citizen: he furthered the local theatre, bought shares in the Boston Athenaeum, contributed to Harvard, and stood out as one of the country’s important Masons. The inventory of his holdings testifies eloquently to his involvement in the new economy; he owned lands, bank stocks, shares in turnpikes and toll bridges. In an ethically-tinged letter sent in 1796 to his son Judah about to set sail for France, the father urged him to maintain the principles of rectitude and honor at all times. His personal letters to his grandchildren manifest an understanding of their psyche; like a child himself he enters into their very special world, embracing it and them with kindliness, affection, and insight.14


Moses Michael Hays was the first customer of the second bank to be established in the United States (1784), the Bank of Massachusetts. He realized its importance, and if not one of the prime sponsors, he was among the businessmen who helped bring it to birth and solicited subscriptions for it. Jews were interested in the first three banks established in this country in the early 1780’s, for they bought stock in all three. As the broker who handled much of Morris’s official financial transactions, Haym Salomon was a substantial customer of the Philadelphia Bank of North America. Though constituting only about 1 percent of New York’s population, the Jews bought about 2.5 percent of the stock of that city’s first bank; they were interested, but they were small fry. They were still licking the financial wounds incurred in their exile from British-held New York and the postwar depression. It is odd that Isaac Moses was able to buy four shares and yet be bankrupt the following year. It may well be that, as he struggled to survive in the bad years that followed the Revolution, he was eager to fortify his credit at the bank.15

As urban businessmen, the Jews had much to gain from establishing and supporting banks: financial transactions in the colonial period, juggling bills of exchange, evaluating American and foreign currencies posed many problems. The establishment of banks, it was hoped, would solve many difficulties; financial independence must follow political independence. Despite the break with England, the United States continued to turn to that country for financial aid. By the 1820’s, the Rothschilds—already a legend in the United States—were doing business in this country; by 1840, they had agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In three of these cities their agents were Jews, J. L. & S. Joseph & Company in New York, Robert and Isaac Phillips in Philadelphia, and the Cohen brothers in Baltimore. It was the politically influential Cohens who helped the Rothschilds receive the appointment as agents for the Department of State in 1835. After 1837, August Belmont became the Rothschild’s chief agent in the United States, particularly in the decade of the 1840’s. Even before coming here, he had worked for these international bankers at Frankfort on the Main and Naples. It was the consensus of Belmont’s contemporaries that he was a good banker; he survived the panic of the 1830’s to become rich and influential.16

Like many others, the New York Josephs and the Philadelphia Phillipses went down in the 1837 crash. No one knows the extent of the losses of the Joseph brothers; estimates run from $2,000,000 to $6,000,000. They dragged down others; Europeans were affected, since the Josephs had connections abroad. There were at least four partners in J. L. & S. Joseph & Company: Joseph Lazarus Joseph (1797–1858), Solomon I. (or L.) Joseph (1799–1860), Jacob Levy, Jr., a Jamaican who was also a director in a local bank, and M. Henriques. Levy was a kinsmen; Henriques, so it appears, was also related. The two Josephs were from Richmond. As teenagers they barely escaped with their lives on December 26, 1811, when a theatre fire took a heavy toll. It was then that the two brothers swore solemnly that they would observe that anniversary as a special Purim—as a holiday of salvation—fasting all day to the eve and ending with a frolic. They would never again go to a theatre, so they said. After they grew up, they moved on to Philadelphia and then to New York, the scene of their labors and misfortunes. There, as Sephardim, they joined Shearith Israel. Both brothers made good marriages; the one tied himself to notable London families distinguished for their wealth and communal prestige; the other to the New York Harts, Seixases, and Hendrickses. It is questionable how important such marriages and connections were, but one can hardly doubt that they were helpful. The Josephs were involved in New York City real estate urban subdivisions; they had borrowed heavily, and when their loans were called in, they lost everything; at least there were no assets. Contemporaries in their posteventum criticisms maintained that they were not competent bankers.17

As bankers, the Baltimore Cohens were more successful. These German immigrants began life modestly; two brothers, Jacob I. and Israel I., came to the new United States sometime in the 1770’s. Jacob was the Cohen of Richmond’s Cohen & Isaacs; Israel, also a Richmondian, opened a small store in the effort to make a living for his wife and numerous children. (He had fathered ten children in fourteen years, nine boys and one girl.) After his death in 1803 his widow and the children moved north to Baltimore; there they were to become the most respected Jewish family in town. The sons, able men, made their way, first as grocers, then as lottery agents. From lotteries they moved into domestic banking, although they did have some international connections. By 1834, Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., the head of the company, had become a member of a local organization dedicated to the commercial furtherance of the city. When the great depression struck three years later, the Cohen bank paid off in specie; it had survived—no mean achievement.18

The Cohens made their money in the lottery business, the great American pastime in colonial and early republican days. It was a popular Jewish business; selling tickets augmented the income of many a Jewish tradesman. Buying tickets often helped the purchaser combine good citizenship with profit, for the sale of tickets provided the cash needed to support charities, build wharves, advance cultural organizations, and help churches and synagogs, too. In 1808, Mikveh Israel, always in financial distress, sponsored a lottery offering a grand prize of $10,000. In Wilmington, Delaware, J. S. & D. Solis advertised the lotteries which it favored. Like the Cohens and about 200 others, the Solises also had a lottery office in metropolitan Philadelphia. Cohen’s Lottery and Exchange Office was one of the largest businesses of its genre in the United States. One of the drawings it ran in 1817 offered a grand prize of $100,000—an enormous sum in those days. Individual tickets sold at $50. The Cohens published a paper of their own, Cohen’s Gazette and Lottery Register, a business publication listing and describing lotteries, stocks, bank notes; there was even an occasional news item. The company did a mail order business and offered a variety of services to the public in the branches which it had opened in the country’s major cities. In 1831 it moved into stockbroking and banking. The intense competition in lotteries and the burdensome regulations impelled the Cohens to divest themselves of their lottery interests; the business was no longer as profitable as it had once been.19

The Josephs and the Phillips brothers were among the better known Jewish private bankers in the North. (There were certainly others, but historians have yet to trace their records, if any have survived.) The Cohens of Baltimore stood out in Maryland; in New Orleans the Hermanns were important. When the Josephs and their banking associates closed their doors, they helped drag down the Hermanns. The “domino theory” that the collapse of one involved others certainly applied to many in 1837. For what it is worth, rumor had it that when the New Orleans house was stricken in the panic of 1837, its losses amounted to $10,000,000. After his arrival in America about the year 1804, Samuel, the head of the Hermann family here in the United States, settled down in New Orleans, married a Catholic girl, opened a shop, and gradually increased the scope of his trading. He trafficked in slaves, dealt in real estate and stocks, advanced money to the planters on their crops, moved into the export business, and with ships of his own extended his reach to Europe, the West Indies and Mexico. Somewhat like Hays in Boston, he was in effect a merchant banker but, unlike the former, lived in grand style. For one of his parties in the prosperous 1830’s, he sent out 350 invitations. Three of his Christian-reared sons helped him in the business; they were directors of banks, gaslighting companies, marine and fire insurance companies. Two of the Hermann granddaughters made brilliant marriages. One became the wife of Senator Francis Gifford Newlands, of Nevada; the other married Chauncey M. Depew of New York, the railroad president, United States senator, and famed raconteur.20

In North Carolina, Aaron, one of the Rhode Island Riveras, was cashier of the Bank of Fear in Wilmington. North Carolina—sandwiched in between the far more developed Virginia and South Carolina—was not an important state in the first half of the nineteenth century, nor did it shelter a Jewish community. One of Aaron Rivera’s neighbors in this most populous town in the state was Aaron Lazarus, an able merchant capitalist, more successful than Rivera whose own career was in no sense notable. In South Carolina—Charleston, primarily, but also in Georgetown, Cheraw, Columbia, and Hamburg on the Savannah—Jews served as presidents, directors, and cashiers of banks, especially in the early decades of the 1800’s when Charleston was one of the country’s most prosperous towns and sheltered a sizable and wealthy Jewish community. In Virginia, as in other states before the establishment of banks, individual merchants offered their clients banking services; it was not uncommon for merchants to discount bills of exchange. Indeed, in a primitive fashion they served as banks of deposit and discount. The more affluent Jewish businessmen in the state were early invited to become administrators and officers in the banks or branches that were opening in a number of towns, in Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond.21

It was almost inevitable that Solomon Etting, one of the leading citizens of Baltimore since the 1790’s, would be interested in banking. In that decade he was one of the organizers of the Union Bank, in which he and his family held stock. This was an institution favored by the Jews. Like their colonial predecessors, Jewish merchants were strongly dependent upon long-term credits. Solomon’s kinsmen, the Gratzes of Philadelphia, were tied in with the Philadelphia banks. Simon Gratz was a prime organizer of the Schuylkill Bank; brother Hyman was to become a director of the prestigious Girard Bank. By the 1790’s, even the conservative Rhode Islanders saw fit to charter the Bank of Rhode Island; Moses Seixas, subsequently Grand Master of the state’s Masons, was appointed cashier of the new institution. He and his son, a teller, ran the bank five days a week but never on the Sabbath. On that day these observant Jews refrained from labor; they turned their keys over to a Gentile lad, who in turn gave them to a non-Jewish clerk, thus the religious amenities were served. For his labors the boy was rewarded with delicacies, unleavened bread on Passover and “Haman’s ears”—bonbons in this case—on Purim.22

Throughout the early years of the century, New York sheltered Jewish private bankers but these men played no role of any consequence in the economic life of the community. In this city and in other towns too, individual Jews were moneylenders and mortgage dealers. Thus, in effect, they were in banking. A petty capitalist of this type probably appeared in the local directories as a “gentleman.” Jewish banking talent had a better chance to display itself in smaller towns; Jews were never to play an important part in New York City’s larger banks; their role was limited to private banking, although on occasion an individual might be appointed a director or even president of a commercial bank. In the late 1830’s when the Josephs’s offices were about to be padlocked and when August Belmont first made his bow, a new financial figure appeared on New York’s business stage: Philip Speyer, who began his career in this country as an importer of consumer goods, though even then he dealt in bills of exchange. With the new decade of the 1840’s, the firm began to turn to foreign and domestic exchange and brokerage in all its branches. It is obvious that the New York Jews of 1840 with a population of a paltry few thousand in a community of 300,000 represented no real financial power. There were a number of wealthy men, but they were not the city’s financial elite; the economic fortresses had been manned for generations by Gentiles. The Hendrickses of course had money, but it is very much to be doubted whether they were comparable to the town’s tycoons.23

In its essential form, pawnbroking both here and abroad was, is, banking. The Jew is the stereotyped pawnbroker in literature and folklore, so it is curious that not many Jews were active in that field during the early nineteenth century. The reasons for this avoidance are not clear. If they were deterred, was it the stigma attached to the enterprise? Pawnbrokers were often suspected of being fences. Yet Jews did not avoid the second-hand clothing trade, dealing in renovated garments. The denizens of Chatham Street in New York were not admired. However, the need for money or credit is universal. The impoverished resorted to the pawnbroker; the merchants and merchant-shippers manipulated their suppliers or turned to the banks; they were grateful for the ferment of the market revolution, for an institution established to supply them with funds in an orderly fashion. Jews were on the whole adept in finances, although during this period they were not invited to exercise their talents. They were familiar with the techniques of exchange; they had respect for capital; they had commercial relations with fellow Jews in foreign markets; economics was for them no dismal science. As early as 1839, E. Levy, to judge from his name, a Jew, living in the Ohio River town of Madison, Indiana, wrote a twenty-four page brochure offering a new method to establish a stable currency. He entitled his essay, The Republican Bank or the Present System of Banking. Later, as the depression persisted, he sent a copy to President Tyler. Throughout the country Jews were given modest jobs in the state banks, and even in the national bank. Haym Salomon’s son Ezekiel served as cashier in the New Orleans branch of the rechartered Bank of the United States; Col. David S. Franks was assistant cashier in the main office of the prestigious national bank. This was a political appointment for a man who merited consideration because of his army service and his need for a job. When commercial banking became a vital part of the American economy in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, Jews found it very difficult to secure a foothold in this important financial institution. It was increasingly difficult even to maintain the banks that they had already established. The closing decades of the twentieth century found them still excluded from the executive suites of great American banks.24


Private bankers were always interested in the buying and selling of stocks and bonds, an important source of income for them. The Josephs were members of the New York Stock Exchange. Security dealers among the Jews made their appearance no later than the Revolution; stocks and obligations of various sorts were commodities which these brokers handled. Moses Cohen, of Philadelphia, advertised in 1782 that he not only bought and sold houses, farms, lots, carriages, and ships but also bills of exchange and Continental and state certificates—and this in addition to an employment bureau. By 1784, there were several such Jewish brokers in the city; by the 1790’s, the national assumption of the war-incurred public debt led to increased speculation in government paper. It would take decades before brokers would leave off dealing in merchandise in its multifarious forms and begin limiting themselves to securities. As they emancipated themselves from the British, American businessmen floundered about for years before fashioning instrumentalities to regulate financial dealings. Among the devices they adopted was the stock exchange where securities could be traded in an orderly manner. Thus it was that an association of dealers met together in 1791 at Philadelphia, the financial capital of the country, to establish a trading center for securities. Embryonic exchanges had already existed for decades in the larger cities of the country. The following year a group of over twenty New York curb brokers—three of them Jews—gathered together in a hotel and set down the terms on which they would buy and sell “public stock.” This was the beginning of a formal stockbrokers association in New York; in 1817 it called itself the New York Stock and Exchange Board. Then, of the twenty-eight members, two were Jews. By the early nineteenth century, people were investing in government securities, in the stocks of banks, in insurance and transportation companies; the first railroad stock was listed in 1830. There had always been Jews on the exchange and by 1824 they were exercising authority as officers. Jewish membership in the nineteenth century was never large, particularly in view of the fact that the city ultimately sheltered thousands of Jewish businessmen.25

One of the brokers who helped organize the loose confederation of New York security traders in 1792 was Ephraim Hart (1747–1825), a native of Fuerth in Franconia, who came here in the early 1770’s. A number of his fellow countrymen had already settled in New York and other colonies; one of them may have encouraged him to emigrate. Hart sided with the Continentals during the Revolution, went into exile, and was present in 1782 at the dedication of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. He gave no gift to the building fund; probably he had very little but later, as he prospered, he would be generous to his New York congregation, Shearith Israel. When the war was over, he returned to New York and soon prospered as a stockbroker, a real estate speculator, a moneylender, and a dry goods dealer. His marriage into the Noah family linked him with well established Jewish families, the Phillipses and the Seixases. By 1794, a man of some means, he was elected president of the congregation; he had come up in the world in the space of a decade.26

Ephraim Hart was on the 1792 stock exchange. A fellow member of Shearith Israel, bearing the same family name, was Bernard Hart (1763/ 1764–1855). It is not known whether the two were related; Hart is one of the commonest Jewish surnames in the eighteenth-century British colonies. Bernard Hart, London-born, first went to Canada and did business there for a time before making his home in New York City. After he moved south of the border, he may have served briefly as a resident agent for the Canadian merchant Aaron Hart of Three Rivers. There is every reason to believe that he continued to trade and to travel in Canada, where in 1799 he married or had a liaison with a non-Jew, Catherine Brett; their son Henry was the father of the American writer Bret Harte. After Hart’s removal to New York, he married a daughter of Benjamin Seixas. Thus like Ephraim Hart he was accepted into the tight little social circle that ruled the local Jewish community. By 1808, Bernard, too, was president of the synagog.

In 1795, during a yellow fever epidemic, he worked day and night helping the sick and the dying. In common with many other American Jews, enjoying the camaraderie of militia service, he enlisted early and by the time of the second war with England was a divisional quartermaster with the rank of major. Very much the social animal, he joined the English ethnic organization, St. George Society. He was the “Father” of the Friary and president of the House of Lords or Under the Rose, a business association that met daily in a Wall Street tavern; as in the Newport Jewish club of 1761 and similar organizations, the amount of liquor permitted a member at a single sitting was limited. From 1831 to 1853, Hart served the reconstituted stock exchange as its secretary in an honorary capacity. Like other affluent Jewish businessmen in the city, he dealt in securities, real estate, and insurance. His economic interests were wide and diverse, for he remained a traditional merchant, buying and selling for others on commission, speculating in real estate, auctioning off job lots, and providing insurance for those who turned to him. One of his many sons was Emanuel B. Hart, a merchant, broker, and realtor like the father, but also a politician who went to Congress in 1851, the first of the New York Jews to serve in the national legislature. In Baltimore, the wealthy Cohens loomed large on the local stock exchange. They were among the founders; one of the brothers, Benjamin, was to serve as president. They were so influential that they were not fined for non-attendance on the Jewish Holy Days; brokers were expected to be present daily when the list of stocks was read and the bidding began.27


Among the stocks which the brokers traded were those issued by companies operating turnpikes, toll bridges, canals, and railroads. Jewish businessmen in the cities and small towns were advocating better roads even before the break with England; shopkeepers at both ends of a proposed turnpike knew they would be well served. Thus the handful of Jews in Lancaster wanted to be linked to Philadelphia; merchants who belonged to the metropolis’s Mikveh Israel wanted to freight consumer wares to Joseph Simon and to expedite the return of country produce. When the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike Company was finally organized in 1792, shares were bought by at least five Jews, including Simon, who twenty years earlier had sought to tie the two towns together by a King’s highway or “publick road.” A great step forward was made that same decade of the 1790’s when canals were dug. By the 1830’s the populated areas of the United States were being rapidly linked together through a system of canals tying the Mississippi to the East Coast. The participation of Jews in canal investments and administration was impressive. Abraham Touro of New England was the largest shareholder in one canal and vice president of another; Jacob Gratz, of Philadelphia, was president of the Union Canal linking the Susquehanna to the Delaware River, the Bay, and the ocean; other Pennsylvania Jewish enterprisers were directors of a canal that joined Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. In the Old Dominion, one of the Richmond Marxes was in 1835 an organizer of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, which penetrated nearly 200 miles into the West. In Georgia, Col. M. Myers, a state legislator, was director of a similar waterway that set out to link together three of the most important rivers in the state. These men who hazarded their fortunes on this type of transportation were courageous, astute speculators. Antebellum Savannah numbered several Jews who, respected members of the general community, were distinguished for their leadership in commerce and law; among them were Col. M. Myers, Solomon Cohen, and Isaac Minis. The first sailing ship to use an auxiliary engine in making its way across the Atlantic in 1819, the Savannah, was owned by the Savannah Steamship Company whose incorporators included Minis. It took time before steamships were accepted on the ocean and inland highways. Jews were not numerous among the firms which pioneered this form of transportation. A notable exception was the capitalist and speculator Michael Lazarus, of Charleston.28

Canals offered advantages over the turnpikes, but in many respects the railroads were far superior to the canals as carriers of men and goods. Railroads were faster, could be used at night, and could move forward in almost any weather. As early as 1825, Richmond’s Jewish merchants, among others, petitioned for a canal and railroad to carry coal from a nearby mine to the James River. That was before the steam locomotive had been perfected; the cars on this railroad were to employ mule power. Baltimore was well aware that same decade that New York and Pennsylvania, through their system of canals and portage railroads, were tapping the resources of the West and leaving Baltimore far behind commercially. This fear and the need for economic survival impelled the Baltimoreans in 1829 to start building a trunk line west to the Ohio. Thus was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad born. On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, broke ground for the new road. That same year Solomon Etting was elected a director, representing the city of Baltimore; several years later Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., was put on the board. In 1830 when the B. & O. first began transporting passengers, horse power was used. Cohen, an aggressive capitalist, was active as director and vice president of another railroad which set out to link Baltimore with Washington to the south and with New York to the north.29

Aaron Lazarus, one of the three notable sons of Sergeant Major Mark Lazarus, was among the first directors of a railroad that moved north across the state of North Carolina connecting with one that kept moving north to Petersburg and Richmond, thus tying the two states closely together. Another road tying the state capital Raleigh to the Wilmington & Weldon—on whose governing board Aaron Lazarus sat—was the Gaston & Raleigh. Its president was George Washington Mordecai, son of Jacob, the former Warrenton schoolmaster. Rails for this line were imported from England by George’s brother Samuel, then a merchant in Petersburg. Like Baltimore and Wilmington, Charleston—justly concerned about its economic future—was determined to maintain its hold on and divert the products of the South Carolina backcountry eastward rather than down the Savannah River to the rival Georgia port at its mouth. Michael Lazarus met this threat by dispatching his steamboats south to the Savannah and then up the river. But railroads can go where ships cannot. The Charlestonians built a railroad across the state westward to Hamburg on the Savannah. The road when finally completed in 1833 was the longest one in the world; the first steam locomotive built in the United States was used to make the run. Jewish participation in the building of the line has not been documented, but Jews used it. The town of Hamburg had but one bank and a Jew was on its board, and when the Hamburg Volunteers sailed south to do battle with the Seminoles, they included the warrior S. Hyams. Young Philip Phillips, the lawyer, made the trip over the road that same year bringing his sixteen-year-old bride to her new home in Mobile. After the newlyweds crossed the river to Augusta, Georgia, it took them seven days by stagecoach to reach Montgomery on the Alabama River where they could take a steamboat to Mobile.30

The early national period—the years from 1775 to 1840—was marked by a revolution in transportation as the tidewater towns were linked together and the transappalachian lands penetrated. Men like Abraham Touro, the Cohens of Baltimore, the three Lazarus brothers, and George Washington Mordecai were not engineers or technicians; they were administrators or promoters, investors, financiers, entrepreneurs, representing local businessmen trying to advance the communities in which they lived. If their towns prospered, they too would prosper. Obviously the tiny Jewish settlements could play no vital role in these epoch-making innovations, although there is ample evidence that imaginative businessmen realized the economic significance of rapid transportation. They were eager to stimulate the economy and further their own well-being by shipping wares from the towns in which they lived and collecting the products of the hinterland. They were constantly aware that the improvement of travel and transport would mean immigrants, new towns, new Jewish communities which they would certainly welcome. It is worth noting that every inland Jewish community was organized after the beginning of the transport revolution.



In the late 1840’s Joshua Lazarus, in the role of an industrialist, brought gaslight to Charleston but in general Jews were not pioneers in American industry. The new post-colonial government established corporate forms of business structure; new industries were pioneered with the hope that Americans would emancipate themselves from England and the Continent and thus be in a better position to compete with merchants abroad. The United States began to make advances in labor-saving devices; power machines were developed. Industry was harnessed to steam; transportation by turnpike, canal, and railroad stimulated trade and agriculture and urbanized the East, creating new markets for the West. Finished wares began to pour out of the cisallegheny factories—machinery, implements, clocks and watches, foodstuffs, and liquor. With this came mass distribution in domestic and transoceanic markets. By 1840, what part did Jews play in this economic upheaval?31

Jewish artisans had been common in colonial times. These craftsmen were also found everywhere among the few “transports” who have been identified as Jews. The trades they practiced were diverse. Even in industry, such as it was, the Jews were not missing. Large-scale candlemaking in factories of a sort was a favorite Jewish industry. Jews played an important part in the manufacture of this commodity and in the short-lived cartel that the manufacturers set up in 1761. Though American industry became an economic factor of some significance after the War of 1812, its growth was gradual. As late as 1840 more cloth was made in homes than in factories. By and large Jews did not turn to industry; they had no industrial tradition and no skills. Under the European guild system, Jews had found it very difficult to secure expert training; they rarely had capital for hazardous new enterprises. American Jews seemed to have preferred speculation in land, in stocks; basically they were conservative. Thus we find no Jews in the making of arms, textiles, or machinery, even though there were dozens of small cotton and woolen mills. (But one “Jewish” name does appear among all these cloth factory owners—Moses Judah, who, despite his doubly Jewish name, was a Gentile.) Textile mills had been built in the South ever since the 1780’s, but Jews apparently evinced no interest, and this in a day when cotton was king. In their investments in the new economy, they tended to opt for transportation securities.32

There is some evidence that during this early national period there were a number of small-scale industrialists. Like Aaron Lopez, the Newport merchant-shipper, they manufactured a variety of wares and commodities by the put-out, the home, the domestic system. Some no doubt had small factories. David G. Seixas, one of the New York hazzan’s several sons, manufactured sealing wax, printers’ ink, and enamel-coated visiting cards. He opened a brewery, pioneered in making crockery, and experimented with daguerreotype photography. There is no question that he was a skillful technician; it is equally true that he was egregiously unsuccessful in everything he undertook. Another clergyman’s son, Abraham H. Cohen—his father was the hazzan at Mikveh Israel—manufactured seltzer water and proposed organizing a mineral water company. He wanted to sell stock in his enterprise; his Hygeia Fountain was to be an urban spa (1807–1808). Samples of his wares were sent to President Jefferson, but the scholarly Virginian refused to lend his name. Cohen was successful, however, in securing a recommendation for his product from Benjamin Rush, the eminent practitioner of medicine. George David Rosengarten, who had come from Germany in the 1820’s, became a manufacturing pharmacist; the firm he founded, Rosengarten & Sons, was highly respected in the industry. It still existed in the late twentieth century as part of Merck & Company. Another pharmacist and scientist of sorts was Lewis Feuchtwanger, a learned German who not only imported but manufactured metallurgical products. He invented an alloy which he called American Silver Composition. During the panic of 1837, when small coins were scarce, he crafted tokens made up of his “silver”; they were used in his own business and by other firms on the East Coast and in Cincinnati.33

The Dyers in Baltimore were meat packers, but not for the Jewish trade. In the larger communities, a small number of Jews were active in the kosher meat industry preparing their products for local consumption and for foreign export. During colonial days the export of kosher foodstuffs, beef, cheeses, poultry, sausages, had been a steady source of income to shippers doing business with the Islands, South America, and even the East Indies. Planters growing sugar cane in the Islands had no pastures for grazing. These exports in a diminishing degree continued, replete with a kashrut certificate to satisfy the scrupulous. Intensive studies of the occupational activities of antebellum Jewish businessmen may well reveal that some were engaged in industry. This is certainly a field for research that merits cultivating. Many small enterprises are already known. Jews made pens and quills, manufactured paper, and ran tanyards, sawmills, and grist mills. Others had factories in which they produced oil, silk, chocolate, starch, hair powder, copal varnish, harness, and brogans for sale to humble laborers and slaves. Obviously the line between artisan and manufacturer was still a very narrow one.34


The Gratzes and their associates had been shipping kosher meat into the Caribbean since 1767. This enterprising family sent a young member, Benjamin (1792–1884), to look after their interests in Kentucky. A university graduate with an M.A. degree, Benjamin was a lawyer and had served as a cavalry officer in the War of 1812. Lexington, where he settled, was before long to recognize him as one of its most respected citizens. Gratz helped establish a bank and was involved in the building of a macadamized highway and a railroad to the Ohio River. The Lexington & Ohio Railroad, which he would guide later as president, did not reach its destination, the river at Cincinnati, but the goal indicates Gratz’s enterprise in the attempt to compete with Louisville, which had overshadowed Lexington with the coming of the steamboat. Lexington had no navigable river. Gratz and his partner were manufacturers of hemp rope and bagging used in the baling of cotton. At the time Gratz and other manufacturers produced millions of pounds of the product; it was the town’s prime industry. When this nonagenarian passed away, a young girl paid tribute to him in the following verse:

How beautiful appears

The memory of a noble life like thine.

Whose countless virtues round so many years

Like clustered jewels shine.35

Gratz was probably the only Jew in the hemp rope and cloth industry; there were more Jews in the garment industry, but here there is a problem of definition. Who is a clothing “manufacturer”? If a man makes a garment for a customer, he is a merchant tailor but if, through home industry he makes garments to be sold off the rack, he ranks as a manufacturer. Unfortunately, the term clothier does not inform the researcher whether he is dealing with a tailor or an industrialist. Jewish merchant tailors were certainly not uncommon. In fact, quite a number were to be found in the colonies no later than the second half of the eighteenth century when Isaac Nunez Cardozo—ancestor of a line of American notables—advertised in Newport that he was a “tailor from New York.” Why not “from London,” where he had learned his trade? Cardozo’s ad appeared in 1774, only a year before Lexington and Concord; the English were anything but popular in America. In the early nineteenth century, Jews began to make their presence felt in the old clothes industry in New York City. They bought and sold, cleaned and renovated the garments they purchased from the gentry. Chatham Street was a center for this traffic. As a contemporary said ironically: “We Gentiles take our religion of the Jews second hand, why not our clothes.” Jews had been manufacturing cheap garments for sailors, slaves, and other laborers since Lopez’s time in pre-Revolutionary days. During the war for independence, Hayman Levy had made garments for the troops; no machine-made garments, of course, were to make their appearance until the 1840’s and 1850’s when sewing machines were perfected. Apparently it was not until the late 1830’s, at the earliest, that some Jews began manufacturing clothing for the growing market. They still employed the put-out system and depended on town and country women. By 1840, the city directories contained frequent entries of Jews in the clothing trade, but there is no way to determine whether these merchant tailors and clothiers were primarily craftsmen or manufacturers. By 1841, eighty-six factories—small ones no doubt—were making garments in Cincinnati; clothing was the largest industry in the city. It is probable that some Jews were manufacturers; some were certainly wholesalers; others were retailers. This much is certain: by 1842, a Jew, A. Tentler, had copyrighted a work, New System of Measuring and Cutting Ladies’ Dresses, Cloaks, Collars, Caps, Yokes, etc.36


The evidence now available indicates that as late as 1840 not many Jews had become clothing manufacturers, but there is ample evidence that Jews were interested in the production and distribution of hard liquor. Jewish distillers had made their appearance in the colonies no later than 1739. The Hebraically-learned Mordecai M. Mordecai had made an effort in 1775 to eke out a living distilling whiskey on the western Pennsylvania frontier; his stills were on Sukes Run near Pittsburgh. Mordecai functioned as a small-scale manufacturer as did his neighbors in the Monongahela Valley who were to rebel later in the Whiskey Insurrection of the 1790’s. Jews made their appearance as distillers in 1807 at Easton, in 1817 at Richmond, and in the 1820’s at Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Manuel Judah, the Richmond distiller—he called himself a merchant—was the bondsman when Sophia Wolfe was appointed administratrix of the estate of her late husband, Benjamin Wolfe. Judah went her bond for $50,000. When she was appointed guardian of her seven sons and one daughter, Judah again went security for her. Sophia’s sons established here in the United States and in Europe a liquor business that became one of the largest in the world. One of Sophia’s sons, James, was probably the first Jewish lawyer in Virginia; Nathaniel (1810–1865), another son, was a politician and lawyer living in Louisville where he was recognized as one of Kentucky’s outstanding criminal lawyers and entrepreneurs. He was president of the Louisville Water Company. After helping secure the acquittal of an accused murderer, he was compelled with his fellow counsel to go underground for a brief period to escape the anger of an outraged mob; it was said that the jury had been bribed. The mob satisfied itself with burning him and Senator John J. Crittenden in effigy. Two other brothers, Udolpho and Joel, moved on to New York where they went into business as partners and on their own; they were in the wine, gin, and hard liquor trade with a distillery of their own. In the 1840’s, Udolpho became an international whiskey manufacturer shipping his products all over the world from a warehouse in Germany. A contemporary said that he spent more than a million dollars advertising in American newspapers. Intermarriage seems to have been the rule in this family though several were members of Shearith Israel in the 1830’s.37


During the Revolution and in later decades, a number of Jews evinced interest in the mining and production of iron, though they remained very much on the fringes of the industry. New York’s Sampson and Solomon Simson were substantial merchant-shippers, whalers, and cartel candle manufacturers. Sampson’s brother Solomon (d.1801), early protagonist of a government mint and president of the radical Democratic Society, was an incorporator of the Associated Manufacturing Iron Company of the City and County of New York in 1786. This company, seemingly, never went beyond the planning stage. In any case, Jews were far more interested in copper than in iron. Asher Myers, brother of Myer Myers, the silversmith, was a coppersmith and brazier. In the 1790’s, the quondam Hessian troop purveyors, the Jacob Mark(s) Company, were very active in the copper trade; Jacob Mark controlled the output of a copper mine in New Jersey and was active in both the ferrous and non-ferrous metal trade. Haym M. Salomon went into the copperplating business but accomplished nothing; he was no technician and from all indications was not a competent businessman. (This may explain why he was so eager to cash in on a reputed unpaid loan owed his patriot father.)38

The Hendrickses, of New York, were merchants who made a name for themselves as industrialists specializing in copper. Uriah Hendricks (d. 1798), the founder of the family on this side of the Atlantic, was a merchant and ironmonger. All the Jewish shopkeepers in this country from the earliest days stocked “hard” goods on their shelves. The Hendricks family for decades remained general importers and exporters, carrying on trade with Europe and the West Indies by freighting their goods. The family business expanded under a son Harmon (1775–1858), who had begun to work with his father when only a youngster. At an early stage they began importing bar iron, pig iron, and copper products. They were suppliers and commission agents for Paul Revere’s copper firm. After his father’s death, Harmon Hendricks continued the transoceanic trade, importing consumer goods of all types and exporting tobacco, iron, cotton, molasses, pearl ash, logwood, and sugar. In this country he did business through a network of agents. More and more Harmon turned his attention to the copper trade, which offered rich opportunities, since the metal was used in stills, soap boilers, kitchen utensils, and as sheathing for ships. A foundry was purchased for reconverting old copper, and it was not long before Hendricks was recognized as America’s largest copper importer though he was not averse to dealing in brass, tin, and lead as well.

Harmon, deciding to lay more emphasis on his copper trade, induced his brother-in-law Solomon I. Isaacs to go into business with him. Isaacs, a fifth-generation American, might well be called an aristocrat; his great grandfather had served in 1691 as a militiaman in King Williams’ War. The new firm established in 1814, carried the name Solomon I. Isaacs & Soho Copper Works. The war with England was still going on and copper was in demand for the building of ships. Thus Isaacs and Hendricks, his junior partner, became refiners and manufacturers. Later Harmon was to become the dominant partner; his children were the sole owners. Harmon died a very wealthy man, but it is by no means certain that he made most of his money in the metal business. He had inherited substantial wealth and increased his legacy as a merchant-shipper. When he needed funds on short-term loans, he could always turn to Jacob Levy, Jr., the banker. Hendricks reached out in many directions; he discounted notes, invested in banks—he was a director of one—and bought government bonds, stocks, and mortgages. He put his money into canals, turnpikes, bridges, ferryboats, steamship lines, and insurance companies, into industry and real estate. During the War of 1812, Hendricks subscribed most liberally—$60,000—to the national war loans. Father Uriah had made his peace, one way or another, with the British in New York; the son was an ardent patriot. Harmon and his generation processed copper to build sailing ships and steamers; his son, the third generation in the business, supplied and helped finance Mathias Baldwin, who built locomotives used both here and abroad. In a day when business ethics often left much to be desired, Harmon certainly maintained his integrity. When a correspondent in London hinted that he lend himself to smuggling, he refused the suggestion. For generations the family members were known and respected for their devotion to the traditions of their fathers; they did no business on the Sabbath, closed their mill on that day, and kept a kosher kitchen. When they traveled, they were ready to live on bread and rice if kosher food was not available.39


The purchase by Isaacs and Hendricks of a copper rolling mill in 1814 was in a way an industrial declaration of independence from Great Britain. It would not be long before America attempted to emancipate herself culturally as well from the onetime mother country. Literary magazines were beginning to make their appearance in America; important publishing houses would soon rise. Jewish publishers played their part in the drive to provide books for the American reading public. At first they reprinted books that had already come off the presses in England; later they began publishing books by Americans for Americans. Once more Jews were to become “a people of the book.” With the exception of the candle manufacturing of the 1760’s and copper processing in the early nineteenth century, publishing was one of the few major industries in which American Jews were to play a part. The works which Jewish printers, booksellers, and publishers produced and sold were, with rare exceptions, of general rather than Jewish interest. Benjamin Gomez (1769–1828), a brother-in-law of Harmon Hendricks, was the country’s first Jewish publisher. In the early 1790’s, Gomez ran a book shop, sold stationery, and bound books. He advertised that he would sell at wholesale or retail but this pretentious gesture was typical of many retailers; actually their inventories were usually small. Beginning in the early 1790’s, Gomez published more than twenty works either singly or jointly with Naphtali Judah. One of his “Jewish” publications was David Levi’s answer to the invitation John Priestley had given the Jews to hold an amicable discussion of the evidences of Christianity. That same year, 1794, Priestley’s original appeal to the Jews was also reprinted by Gomez, who was clearly no innovator; both books had already appeared in England. During the years 1792–1802, Gomez published the following works, among others: Female Policy Detected or the Arts of a Designing Woman Laid Open, Goethe’s the Sorrows of Werter [sic], an abridged Robinson Crusoe, the New Testament, the Book of Common Prayer, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws, and Fielding’s Tom Jones. Obviously he was much less interested in furthering American literature than in printing staples that would find a ready market. In later years, B. Gomez, Bookseller and Stationer, would also handle groceries and tobacco; apparently book publishing was not a lucrative business. Significant is the fact that this eighteenth century Orthodox Jew had no scruples selling Christian religious literature.40

One of Gomez’s kinsmen was Naphtali Judah (1774–1855); he too had married a sister of Harmon Hendricks though the latter, who disliked Judah, did not brag of that relationship. Paper, stationery, had its attraction for Jews. At one time Judah owned a small interest in a paper mill; David Nunez Carvalho, the father of the artist and explorer, Solomon Nunez Carvalho, was a paper manufacturer in Baltimore, if only for a brief period. Judah, like his brother-in-law Gomez, was a shopkeeper, and a stationer-cum-publisher. Neither man had a press of his own; each made contracts with local printers to reprint standard works. There was no problem of foreign copyright; it was simply ignored. Beginning in 1795, Judah reprinted over thirty works, among them the poems of Joel Barlow, Webster’s American Spelling-book, dramas of the German playwright August F. F. von Kotzebue, David Levi’s Defence of the Old Testament (against the strictures of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason), and Seixas’s Discourse, a sermon delivered in the synagog on a “day of humiliation” when open war with the French appeared imminent in 1798. As a political radical, Judah had no hesitation in publishing for the Democratic Society and the Society of Tammany; he was a member of both organizations; nor did his leftist political views deter him from serving as president of New York’s conservative Shearith Israel. This was true, too, of other contemporary New Yorkers. Membership in a congregation did not necessarily imply a theological commitment; it was more frequently a form of social and ethnic identification. Both Gomez and Judah were concerned primarily, if not solely, with the general market, though it is always possible that reprinting David Levi’s apologetic works may have been prompted by Jewish loyalties. They had an eye on a market that numbered millions, not on the at most 1,000 adult Jewish readers in all of North America. Judah’s list was more America-directed than Gomez’s. Was this intentional?41

Naphtali Phillips, one of Jonas Phillips’s numerous sons—his wife gave birth to over twenty children—followed in his father’s footsteps as a merchant, but turned to publishing, journalism, and politics. He was the owner of the National Advocate (1813-ca.1820), the first general newspaper to be owned by a Jew. Phillips’ nephew Noah edited this paper for several years and on occasion published a work on his own. Another Jewish printer and publisher, not without distinction, was the convert David Aaron Borrenstein, of Princeton, N.J. He had been converted to Christianity in London and trained as a printer in the press established by the London Society for Promoting Christianity, the organization in which the proselyte Joseph Samuel Christian Frederick Frey (né Levy) was active. Borrenstein was or became a man of learning and culture. Frey had immigrated to America where he set up societies to convert American Jews and may have encouraged Borrenstein to come here. This was no later than 1823, for by that year Borrenstein had already published an Aramaic grammar in New York City. The following year a number of works began to appear at the press which he had established in Princeton; among them were a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus and a German New Testament, which he peddled among Pennsylvania’s “Dutch” farmers. Notable among the books he printed were Paradise Lost and a volume of poetry. Sometime in the 1830’s he went back to England where he issued the complete works of Robert Burns. It is not unlikely that he left Princeton because he had been detected in a fraud and had been suspended by his church. Men like Frey and Borrenstein, who came to the United States fleeing from trouble, if not poverty, were unfortunates to whom the fates had been unkind. Some of the converts who fled to these shores were men of outstanding ability. Overeager to make a career here, individuals among them not infrequently sailed close to the wind.42

On occasion, a Jewish shopkeeper or would-be entrepreneur, looking for a quick profit, issued a volume he thought would find a ready sale. One can hardly call these men publishers. There is every reason to believe that Solomon Henry Jackson (d. 1847) was the first printer and publisher determined to issue Jewish books. Jackson, an English Jew of good education in both Jewish and general fields, came to the United States in the late eighteenth century. Settling in Pike County, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, he married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Was he a convert to Christianity? Is his later ardent and constant preoccupation with Jewish religious institutions to be explained as an unending effort to expiate guilt? This much is known: when his wife died he took his five children to New York City and reared them as Jews. All of them seemed to have taken Jewish mates, including his daughter Lydia (Eliza), married to Dr. Thomas Washington Donovan, an Irishman and an Orthodox Jew. Was he originally a convert? In 1823, Jackson began publishing The Jew, a monthly anti-missionary periodical; in 1826, he translated and printed a Sephardic English and Hebrew prayer book; eleven years later came an edition of the Passover Haggadah. The latter two religious works had never been printed in this country. Jackson also experimented with interlinear texts to the prayers and the Pentateuch. In the course of time he became the “Jewish” printer par excellence turning out constitutions, tickets, notices, wedding certificates, and dedication programs. Jackson was very active in New York synagogs; he taught the readers, clerks, and others how to keep their records and conduct sessions along orderly lines. Thus he was an early Americanizer. This deliberate approach to Americanization did not wait for the Jewish settlement houses in the ghettos of the nineteenth-century metropolises; it began no later than 1782 when the new Philadelphia synagog constitution laid down the basic rules of parliamentary procedure. The Central and East European émigrés of the late eighteenth century were called to order!43

Unlike B. Gomez and N. Judah, Jackson was not a bookseller or stationer; he was a printer-publisher. Benjamin Levy (1786–1860), of New Orleans, was all these and a bookbinder to boot. This Louisianian was one of the Newport Levys, a son of Simeon (d. 1825), who had moved to New York and taught for a time in the Jewish parochial school. It was in New York that Benjamin Levy first began as a stationer before moving south to the Crescent City where he continued in the same line from 1811 on. An enterprising bookseller, he sold novels, literary annuals, classics, plays, works on politics, geographies, and a number of the better known European reviews and quarterlies. Six years after he opened his store in New Orleans books began appearing with his own imprint. Ultimately more than 130 were published during the years 1817–1841. His publications included works in English and French and one in Spanish. Levy was essentially interested in providing special works for tradesmen and lawyers—legal treatises, commercial manuals, business guides, almanacs, and street directories. In 1822, he began to issue the New Orleans Price-Current and Commercial Intelligencer, a weekly business journal. His paper, in a way, was a precursor of the Wall Street Journal so popular a century and a half later. Benjamin was one of the country’s first Jewish publishers with a press of his own; he, like Jackson, certainly had his own print shop. Benjamin’s son Alexander, who was to carry on the business for a time, began to publish in 1840. To increase his sales Benjamin Levy serviced libraries and carried on a mail-order business, which not only included many neighboring states, but reached out to clients in the Caribbean and South America. His sources in the North supplied him with works from those cultural centers. Successful, Levy was invited to sit on the board of a bank, but when the country was engulfed in the crisis of 1837, he too, like thousands of others, was dragged down. His relation to the struggling Jewish community? Like many other Jews, he had married out; his children were Christians; he evinced no Jewish interests, though he did maintain good relations with his siblings.44

Benjamin Levy was a publishing enterpriser of imagination and some distinction. Abraham Hart (1810–1885) was far more important; he was America’s outstanding Jewish publisher in the days before the Civil War. This energetic and venturesome marketer went into the business in 1829 when Americans were beginning to read books published by Americans; it was a long generation after the Gomez-Judah pair had first entered the field. By the 1820’s Philadelphia was already a publishing center, the second largest one in the world for English books—ranking right after London. Hart’s father, owner of a small dry goods and grocery shop, died a young man, leaving a widow and several little children; Abraham, all of thirteen, was called upon to help support the family by opening a stationery and book store. Only three years later, he so impressed an enterprising auctioneer that he dispatched young Hart to Boston with a letter of credit for $5,000 and complete authority to buy what books he saw fit. His outstanding ability attracted a leading Philadelphia publishing firm, Carey & Lea; they gave him a job and before long, in 1829, established a separate company for a member of the family with the nineteen-year-old Hart as partner; the new firm was known as Carey & Hart. By 1834, it had a branch in Baltimore. That same year, Carey & Hart published David Crockett’s ghost-written autobiography, a most successful work; it was followed by another best-seller about the frontiersman after his death in the Alamo. The enterprise which was to characterize the young adventurer is reflected in the speed and daring with which he exploited his opportunities. In 1836, Hart received an advance copy of the first English edition of Bulwer-Lytton’s Rienzi. Splitting the book into twelve parts, he distributed the fascicles to twelve different printers. The book was ready the next morning; that afternoon, with 500 copies already bound, he sent the lot by stagecoach to New York where they appeared a day before the edition produced by his competitor, Harper & Brothers.45

In 1845, Hart paid royalties to Carlyle and others for works which his firm had reprinted. This was unusual in those days when the loose copyright laws made pirating of foreign publications so easy and profitable. Carlyle was grateful for the courtesy. For reasons of his own, however, Hart was not in sympathy with the copyright laws of that day. By 1849, now in a firm of his own, Hart was recognized as one of America’s most prominent publishers. In the course of his career with Carey and subsequently by himself, he issued many notable works, among them literary annuals which included the writings of Poe, Emerson, and Longfellow. Hart published a volume of Longfellow’s poems and a poetical collection which the poet had edited. Other notables whose books he printed or reissued were Frederick Marryat, Thackeray, Macaulay, and Disraeli. Carey & Hart published hundreds of books and carried even more titles. Their catalogues listed juveniles, medical works in English and French, and translations from the German and French. Their widely distributed house organ was the Quarterly Literary Gazette. In Philadelphia’s Jewish community, no man was more influential than Hart. From the 1840’s on, there was no layman more devoted to Jewish causes or more active in the town’s Jewish institutions. He helped establish the first Jewish Publication Society—there were to be two later rebirths—served as president of Mikveh Israel for over thirty years, and played an important part in many of the town’s Jewish charities and cultural organizations. National recognition brought him the presidency of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites and the chairmanship of the governing council of Maimonides College. In 1854, giving up the book business, he turned to investments in mining and buttonhole machinery. Upon his retirement, publishers and booksellers honored him with a banquet in Philadelphia. The last years of his life saw him overtaken by financial reverses though he remained one of the city’s most respected citizens.46



In a sense, Hart typified the affluent American Jewish businessmen who were confronted by the new economy; it is worth noting that this capitalist put his money into mining and machines. Some Jews were beginning to leave their shops—the traditional strongholds—and to venture into the new forms of trade and commerce rising out of the commercial and industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century. The new economy brought in its wake—and ultimately in its van—a cadre of men capable of satisfying its needs for leadership in the areas of industry, culture, justice, communal service, and medicine: the new professionals, the managers, the officials, the administrators, the lawyers, doctors, and engineers. As the sciences slowly began to make their impact, there was a call for professionals who were willing to meet the higher standards demanded by a more enlightened citizenry. The corps of trained men increased in size, with the native-born and immigrants, too, supplying recruits to this growing body which was ultimately to exercise great influence in all the activities of the larger urban communities. By the end of the first decade of the century, Jews had begun to appear as civil servants, naval officers, interpreters, journalists, editors, economists, educators, druggists, dentists, lawyers, and physicians as well as politicians of high and low degree. The variety is beguiling. Interesting is the sudden appearance of engineers; the early graduates of West Point were all engineers. Charleston brought forth David Lopez, a builder with architectural sensibilities reflected not only in Beth Elohim’s Greek Doric sanctuary, but also in a Presbyterian church and in a Moorish style bank. Among the professionals who now make their bow are actors and dramatists, playwrights and theatre managers. At least four of the Phillips clan were in the theatre; Jews were also portraitists and miniature painters. Nothing comparable had been known in Revolutionary Jewry—and all these changes in sixty-five years!47


With the new industry and expanding markets both here and abroad came the need for knowledgeable administrators. Skillful lawyers now took over; many corporations found them indispensable. It has been pointed out above that Benjamin Gratz and George W. Mordecai managed railroads; both were lawyers. Lawyers were now cherished; this had not always been the case. The previous century had manifested considerable prejudice against them. As late as 1786, the citizens of Braintree, Massachusetts, had suggested that restrictions be imposed on lawyers because their conduct tended more to the town’s destruction than to its preservation. Even in the early nineteenth century, few Jews were active in the profession. In some states they could not practice because, as officers of the court, they would have been required to take a Christian oath. One of the country’s early Jewish practitioners was Joshua Montefiore (1762–1843), an uncle of the English philanthropist Moses Montefiore. By 1770 Jews in Great Britain had been permitted to practice as attorneys and solicitors, though not as barristers before 1833. Joshua, an adventurer, tried in vain to practice law in English Jamaica. After the English there refused to admit him to the bar, he returned home in 1792 to join an expedition which established a colony on the West African coast. These idealists wanted to prove that a colony in a tropical land could prosper without slave labor. After the failure of the venture, Montefiore joined the British army, but the early nineteenth century found him in the United States (ca. 1803). Here he reprinted some of the legal manuals which he had prepared in England and also published new works on commercial law. Clearly he was competent. Though we lack absolute proof that he practiced law here, it is reasonable to assume that he did. He had some means because he was the beneficiary of his nephew’s largesse; he was a remittance man. Finally at the age of seventy-three, he settled down in St. Albans, Vermont, and married a young Christian woman who bore him at least eight children. They were reared as Christians; but he remained Jewish and, before he passed away, wrote out a translation of the Hebrew burial service which was recited at his funeral.48

Not surprisingly, Jewish lawyers in the South first made their appearance in Charleston, for decades the most important town south of Philadelphia. In 1793, three years after the South Carolina Jews were emancipated, Moses Myers, of Georgetown, was admitted to the bar. It was not long before others began practicing law in Charleston, Georgetown, Camden, and very probably in other interior towns. One of the most colorful of the Charleston practitioners was Abraham Moïse, scion of a family which had fled Santo Domingo because of the servile revolts of 1791. After his admission to the bar in 1822, Moïse made a name for himself in both the Jewish and general communities; he became a justice of the peace, enjoyed a lucrative legal practice, and served as one of the leaders of the religiously left-wing Reformed Society of Israelites. In the outback, in Camden on the Wateree River, Chapman Levy was recognized as one of the town’s leading citizens; he was a soldier, planter, state legislator, and politician. Several Charlestonians were in later decades to be acclaimed as successful legal practitioners; some of them even attained national recognition. One, Solomon Heydenfeldt, was elected to the California supreme court; Judah P. Benjamin became Secretary of State in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate government (1862–1865); still another, Philip Phillips, was in postbellum days to stand out as one of the country’s most respected lawyers.49

By 1840, there was a sprinkling of Jewish lawyers in all the commonwealths of the South. When one of the younger Sheftalls apprenticed himself to a Gentile attorney in 1810 to learn the art and mystery of the profession, he stipulated that he was to be free on the Sabbath and all Jewish Holy Days, and that he was to eat out. Undoubtedly he kept kosher and ate his meals with the family. George Washington Mordecai was not the first of his family to take the bar examination; he had been preceded by an older brother, Moses, who had studied and practiced in Raleigh. In 1807, as a young man reading Blackstone at home, Moses, with tongue in cheek, told sister Rachel that during a storm a hailstone came rolling down the chimney and extinguished his candle. When he “reenlightened” himself, he searched for it and found it. It was larger than a turkey’s egg, he said, and he kept it in warm water till the next day. Rachel suggested with equal mock seriousness that the entire incident be reported to Thomas Jefferson, the scientist. The disability incorporated in the North Carolina constitution, which closed offices to professing Jews, did not deter these two Mordecai brothers from practicing law. Both married Christians; at least three Mordecai children converted to Christianity.50

Jews in Virginia began turning to the law in the early nineteenth century, due perhaps to the fact that they settled in rather late in this colony which had but few towns of size. Jews were normally an urban trading people, but the younger generation would not be denied; some of them had no desire to be businessmen. The merchant Moses Myers sent a son to William and Mary; after graduation, the youngster studied law in Richmond. There, in the capital, Myers’s former partner, Samuel Myers, educated his three sons as professionals. Two were in the law; one became a physician. By the 1810’s there were at least four attorneys in the state, three of them in Richmond. One of these three, Gustavus Adolphus Myers (1801–1869), became a notable practitioner. It was said that he had the largest practice in the state with clients as far away as Baltimore and New York. After the Civil War when Jefferson Davis was released by the federal authorities, Myers was one of the men who supplied bond for him. Myers’s importance as a lawyer is reflected in the roster of his honors and offices: election to the state legislature, president of the Richmond City Council and of a company that published a local newspaper, director of a railroad and an insurance company, presiding officer of two of the best clubs in town, membership in the Virginia Historical Society. He was also the author or adapter of a play frequently performed both here and in England. Though he and his older brother both married out of the faith, he was quite active in the religious and communal life of local Jewry; he represented it on important state occasions; he was Richmond’s Israelite renommé. After all, noblesse oblige.51

It was not until 1802 that a Jew, Sampson Simson, was admitted to the bar in New York City. A generation later, in 1840, less than five had taken the bar examination. This is surprising, for lawyers come with business, with commerce and industry. The answer may be simple: in proportion to their numbers there, there were not many truly wealthy Jewish businessmen in New York; when important sums were at stake, they preferred distinguished Gentile practitioners, men of competence and political influence, like Alexander Hamilton. Christians preferred their own counsellors; the city had no outstanding Jewish lawyer to whom Jews might turn if they wanted the best. Simson (1781–1857), had read law in the office of Aaron Burr. He did not have to practice his profession; he was descended from a wealthy family with roots in the city going back for almost a century. An observant Jew, he devoted himself for a while to the Jewish and general communities before retiring to his estate in Westchester. He enjoyed Masonry, marched as a captain with the militia, tinkered with prison reform, and interested himself in agricultural machinery; he had large holdings in Yonkers. His sturdy Orthodoxy went hand in hand with devotion to the Jews in the land of their fathers, Palestine. Not long before he died, he bestirred himself and brought about the establishment of the first Jewish hospital in New York, the later Mount Sinai.52

New York may not have been able to brag of its Jewish counsellors, because for decades it was overshadowed by Philadelphia. In that generation, the “Philadelphia lawyer” was reputed to be the sharpest and best. The first three “Jewish” lawyers in Pennsylvania, the Levy brothers, were Christians, baptized or halakically Gentile because of their Gentile mother. Two of them were admitted to practice in 1778. Moses, the oldest of the three, was competent and highly regarded; his career was a notable one; the other two created no stir in the legal world, though Samson Levy’s sharpness brought him some success. He was widely known in his day for the malapropisms which amused all privileged to hear them. One example: “I maintain, may it please this honorable court, that in every well regulated society justice is to be dispensed with throughout the land.” As befitted its commercial importance and possibly because of the appeal of its university law school, Philadelphia by 1840 had trained a number of Jewish lawyers, about twelve, if the Levys are included. Several of the graduates during these early decades were members of the extended Simon-Gratz-Etting family and of the prolific Phillips clan. Most of these youngsters who studied law at the University of Pennsylvania were members of notable families. What motivated them in those early years of the republic to prepare themselves for the bar? The desire to enter industry? In no sense. They were wrapped up in politics; they nursed hopes of winning an office, attaining status, gaining power. One of Jonas Phillips’s sons, Zalegman (1779–1839), was the first professing Jew in the state to practice law. He matriculated at the university at sixteen, passed the bar exam at twenty, and entered what proved to be a lucrative practice in the field of criminal law. Two of his sons were also attorneys; one of them, Henry Mayer Phillips, went to Congress.53


Prejudice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not directed against lawyers alone; physicians, too, were often looked upon with suspicion or disdain. A traveler making his way through Pennsylvania in 1690 said that the province was healthy and hoped that it would never have occasion to use lawyers or physicians. As late as 1780, Jacob Prager of Amsterdam, one of the chief partners of the international firm of Pragers, had his doubts about medicine as a profession: “It is indeed a miserable calling, but one can never know.” There were Jewish physicians in colonial America as early as 1655 when Dr. Jacob (John) Lumbrozo documented his presence in Maryland by presenting a bill, apparently for medical services. Out on the Illinois frontier a Jew is known to have practiced medicine in 1782 during the days of the Revolution. This was “Doctor” Isaac Levy, of Cahokia who will long be remembered, not for his medical skill of which we know nothing, nor for his activity as a purveyor to the Virginia forces during the war, but for his droll encounter with Monsieur Buteau. This Frenchman, being sued by the good doctor for 400 livres, offered the defense that he had not been cured. The court ruled, therefore, that Levy attend Buteau until a cure had been effected, but Buteau was enjoined to pay heed to the instructions of his physician. Buteau followed the doctor’s prescription, but in his own original way: he took the sixty-seven prescribed pills in two days, instead of seven, because as a clever fellow he figured he would get well that much quicker. So he said: To which Levy replied that, had he indeed taken all the pills in two days, he would not have been here to tell the tale. Result: judgment in the suit was awarded Dr. Isaac Levy of Cahokia.54

There were several Jewish physicians in colonial North America; with very few exceptions they appear to have been medical craftsmen, though some may have been genuinely competent. The postrevolutionary period seems to have worked a change in the attitude toward physicians. Medical standards were raised; people turned to physicians of repute, and some Jews, too, sensed that there were opportunities in this area for their children. In the early 1790’s, the Canadian Aaron Hart asked a New York friend Eleazar Levy about educating his fifteen-year-old son Benjamin, who aspired to become a physician. Levy’s answer was that he could become a doctor with or without Latin—that is, he could go to a university or he could apprentice himself to a practitioner and learn to be a doctor, surgeon, and apothecary. Benjamin Hart never practiced medicine; his father, Canada’s most notable Jewish merchant, may have dissuaded him. The son did, however, become a notable Montreal merchant, a lieutenant colonel in the Crown’s armed forces during the War of 1812, and one of the founders of the city’s general hospital; apparently he never lost his interest in medicine. By the early nineteenth century, a number of college-trained Jewish physicians had already begun serving in large towns, all the way from New York to New Orleans. Even before Texas took up arms against Mexico, a German-trained Jewish physician was ministering to the wants of the settlers in the old Spanish mission town of Nacogdoches. Later he moved east to Natchez, but finally returned to his European fatherland. When Texans fought for independence in the decade of the 1830’s, two Jewish surgeons served the insurgents as volunteers; like many other volunteers, they were young men in their twenties looking for adventure.55

Before 1840, New Orleans had its share of Jewish physicians, itinerants, quacks, and well-trained professionals, two of whom were university men. Dr. Solomon Mordecai, of the North Carolina Mordecais, hung out his shield in Mobile; Moses Sheftall, of Savannah, had studied with Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, but never finished his work at the University of Pennsylvania. Like several other medical practitioners of his day, he was not content to minister to his patients, but was eager to volunteer as a surgeon during the War of 1812 and later to help organize the Georgia Medical Society. Politically ambitious, as were other members of his clan, he sat on the bench as a country judge and served as a state legislator. South Carolina’s first native-born resident physician with a college degree was Levi Myers, of Georgetown and Charleston, who began to make the rounds of his patients in the late eighteenth century. Long before him, about the year 1745, Dr. John de Sequeyra (1712–1795), a graduate of the University of Leyden, had practiced medicine in Williamsburg, then the capital of the province of Virginia. In a manuscript still extant he described the diseases prevalent in the province. In the South Carolina capital, Columbia, Mordecai Hendricks De Leon (1791–1848) was recognized as an outstanding citizen and as one of the region’s leading physicians. It was due in part to his efforts that an insane asylum was established in the town and he served it for years as its chief physician. Three members of this family practiced medicine; two had studied at the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1830’s De Leon served as mayor of Columbia; he was a politician and something of a writer. His leadership and literary qualities were reflected in his three sons, all of whom became notable figures in the United States during the second half of the century. Tradition has it that Abraham, his father, gave the local Jewish benevolent society the ground for its cemetery. This confraternity was the core around which the local Jewish community was built in the 1820’s.56

Baltimore, Maryland, sheltered Dr. Jonathan Horwitz for years. Though he may have been well trained—he, too, was an alumnus of the university in Philadelphia—there is every reason to believe that he was not a successful physician. College training was no guarantee of a lucrative practice. What the father lacked, the son possessed. The son, Dr. Jonathan Phineas Horwitz, became one of the country’s notable medical administrators. The most attractive personality in the medical field among Maryland’s Jews was Dr. Joshua I. Cohen (1801–1870), still another member of the prestigious Baltimore Cohens. Cohen belongs to a generation when men of culture, Jews among them, reached out to acquire encyclopedic knowledge, but one wonders how sound was the scholarship of these would-be Renaissance men. It is a historical curiosity that the first professing Jew to take a medical degree in an English university was an American-born Jew, Joseph Hart Myers (1758–1823), son of Naphtali Hart Myers, a New York merchant and president of the local congregation. The father returned to England when Joseph was still a youngster; the son studied at many medical schools, but finally took his degree at Edinburgh. His published thesis was on diabetes, a disease that has always interested Jewish physicians. Maimonides described it in the twelfth century, and Jewish scholars today continue to study this malady with which many Jews still have to cope. Isaac Abrahams, who took his B.A. degree at Kings’ College (Columbia) in 1774, soon turned to medicine. The best known of the New York Jewish doctors was a brilliant Sephardi, Daniel Levi Maduro Peixotto (1800–1843), whose career will be described in a later chapter together with that of Isaac Hays (1796–1870), a Philadelphian of scientific quality, who in his writings foreshadowed the new physician and the new medicine of the late nineteenth century.57

As in law and in commerce, so in medicine, too, Philadelphia led the country for decades. Because the medical school in Philadelphia may well have been the best, Jewish students found their way there from other states; there were no quotas for Jews in that generation. In 1834, about four decades after Nassy’s return to his South American homeland, Dr. Manly Emanuel, a well-trained London physician, settled in Delaware County south of Philadelphia. There he served as a justice of the peace and as president both of the school board and the county medical society. Later he moved to nearby Philadelphia where he became highly respected for his ability and his devotion to his faith; he was scrupulously observant. His career was atypical in that this graduate of an excellent London school was willing to live in a village and practice for years in a rural community. This was true, too, of Dr. Levi Myers, of Georgetown, South Carolina. Coastal Georgetown was a rice planting center 90 percent of whose inhabitants were blacks, slaves; at the most, the whites could not have numbered more than a thousand. It may well be that the prime source of Myers’s income was the sale of drugs, since he also ran an apothecary. Charleston during this period had at least one Jewish dentist; Philadelphia, three.58



Characteristically the Jewish physicians turned avidly to politics, to Masonry, and to non-professional challenges in both the general and the Jewish communities. One of the reasons they did so is that very few physicians in the United States then found medical practice remunerative. How many of the doctors, Jews among them, were really devoted to medicine as a science? More to the point, most Jews had been emancipated during their own lifetimes; as a long submerged group, they were trying to make a place for themselves socially and culturally; each wanted to be somebody. Because they were seeking to express themselves, they spread themselves thin. Jonas Phillips was just beginning to sense the new economy through his children when he died in 1803. He himself, émigré from a German village, had played several roles here on the American stage. He was a shohet, a clerk, an auctioneer, a blockade runner, a merchant. One of his sons was a physician, another a journalist, a third a lawyer, a fourth an actor, playwright and theatre manager. America was indeed a new world. With the exception of unlicensed and itinerant doctors, Jewish physicians tended to remain in one town; they had to do so to build up a practice. Shopkeepers and so-called merchants were much more mobile, following the will-o’-the-wisp called opportunity: when they failed to make a living in one community, they moved on to fresh pastures. Because some Jewish Philadelphians thought that Baltimore had a future, they moved there; by the second decade of the nineteenth century about one-half of the town’s Jews had come from the City of Brotherly Love. Some of these Baltimoreans had a history of moving about: Mordecai M. Mordecai had labored previously in Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and Richmond; Michel De Young, a Dutch immigrant, ran a jewelry shop and a horn comb factory in Baltimore before traveling north to New York City; later, he shifted his residence to Texas and he may also have lived in New Orleans. One of his last stops was Cincinnati, but he had already left it when he died, his eyes set on California. His sons Charles and Michel founded the San Francisco Chronicle.59

A brief summary of two generations of the Gratzes may be informative, for it will show that some occupational changes were a response to the challenge of the new economic order. The Gratz brothers, Barnard and Michael, had come to the colonies in the 1750’s. They started out as clerks in London and Philadelphia; brother Michael, when still a youngster, had even tried his luck for a while in India. Here in America they adventured in coastal shipments, but when the French were expelled after 1763 and their defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the Gratzes turned to the Indian trade. The next and obvious step was to start speculating in land, given their hope that the transallegheny country would become the haven and asylum for the poor and oppressed of Europe. But wherever they turned they never forgot that they were merchants. Despite their involvement in the fur trade, they were not specialists; they were interested in any and every aspect of trade which promised a profit. During the Revolution, they helped outfit a military expedition against the British and the Indians in the Northwest; when necessary, they even engaged in banking procedures, advancing money, discounting notes, drafts, and bills of exchange. The brothers had a series of partners, mostly Gentiles, with whom they worked closely as they kept their eyes on the Ohio-Mississippi River trade. By the 1790’s, both brothers had fallen sick, and Michael’s sons began to take over.60

Michael had five sons; sometimes they worked in concert, often for themselves; at times there were bitter intrafamily hostilities. These Gratzes were merchants, commission agents, land speculators, merchant-shippers, importers and exporters of wares from East India and China, traders to South America; one brother was a cloth manufacturer. In the early nineteenth century, some of the brothers were doing business on a large scale; in 1802, for instance, they advertised that they had 50,000 pounds of black pepper for sale—an indication of the quantities which they bought and sold. During the War of 1812, they gathered saltpeter from Mammoth Cave to be used in the making of gunpowder. They shipped tobacco, hemp, and Kentucky whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, where they picked up a cargo of cotton for export. The sons operated on a far larger scale than the original firm of B. and M. Gratz, and when hard times came, they were so extended that they found it impossible to survive. They were bankrupt in 1826. They had staggered through the long bad years that followed the 1819 depression; they had survived the embargoes of the earlier Jefferson administration, the war with Great Britain, and the postbellum panic, but all to no avail. Some of these Philadelphians were compelled to give up their beautiful home, but, like many other merchants of the day, they fell only to rise again. These able men recouped their losses in the new fields of insurance and transportation. When Simon, the oldest of the brothers, passed away in 1839, he was very wealthy, leaving a beautiful home and grounds, fine furniture, silver and linen, three horses, carriages. His portfolio of stocks was a diversified one with emphasis on transportation securities: turnpikes, a bridge company, a railroad. There was real estate, a coal business. The entire estate exceeded a quarter of a million dollars. Nothing was left to his siblings, not even to the immaculate Rebecca.61

Simon and his brother Hyman had built a large, wealthy, influential firm before they became insolvent. Bankruptcy threatened many merchants for there were constant hazards to be faced: fires, cholera, typhus, yellow fever, failures of clients, wars and embargoes, piratical privateers, overstocked markets, inflation—and, worst of all, “bad luck.” No one was exempt from financial calamity. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Gomezes and the Frankses had been the wealthiest, and most powerful families in the New York congregation. In 1796, Moses Gomez, Jr., had suffered reverses which made it necessary for him to retrench. It is to be doubted that his financial decline resulted from the Tory sympathies he had held twenty years earlier; in matters of this sort, the patriots had very short memories once the war was over. Three, possibly four, generations of Gomezes had lived and died in New York. Moses, Jr., was a cultured gentleman who wrote and spoke an impeccable English, yet now he was constrained literally to take a back seat, a cheaper one in the synagog. Among the congregation’s leaders whom he addressed was the parnas, the president, a former German commissary officer who had served the British during the War. Undoubtedly this man, only a few years in America, spoke a broken English and wrote an even worse letter.62

When the bottom fell out of the price of tobacco, Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, wrote rather facetiously to his wife, then visiting her parents: Can’t you introduce the fashion of sneezing, smoking, and chewing among the ladies; it would help out. There were more serious hazards than falling prices: in 1788 Abraham Nathan, of Charleston, a merchant, was killed by the captain of his ship, a partner. The years from 1776 to 1840 saw eight depressions; twenty-six of the sixty-four years were bad ones. Jewish businessmen suffered; much of their trade was on a credit basis; and since they could not collect, they could not pay their suppliers. Because most were men of modest resources, they were always vulnerable. Jacob Mordecai was bankrupt in 1786; James Monroe was one of his creditors, lucky if he ever received five shillings on the pound. Benjamin Nones was twice bankrupt. Petty businessmen had no bed of roses. Haym Salomon, once the most generous Jew in the United States and acclaimed abroad as a “princely philanthropist,” did not leave enough for a grave marker.63

Baltimore had no congregation for decades because the elite would not join with the newcomers. The newcomers were too poor or too thrifty to establish a synagog on their own. Even in the West with all of its presumptive opportunities, the race was not always to the pioneer. In early Cincinnati of the 1820’s, one half of all Jewish burials were impoverished clients; one quarter of the congregation was unassessed, too poor to pay dues. In order to survive, men did what they could. Isaac Nunez Cardozo, of Easton, was a tailor, a teacher of mathematics, surveying, and navigation, a peddler of ague and fever powders, and once more a tailor. When the New Yorker, Philip Hone, congratulated a Philadelphia Jewish merchant on the signing of the treaty of peace with the British after the War of 1812, the businessman answered lugubriously: “Thank you, thank you, Mr. Hone, but I wish I had not bought them calicoes.” Wartime high cost goods could not be sold except at a loss. The sufferings which were the lot of many Jewish settlers here probably deterred others in Central Europe from emigrating. A Jewish immigrant in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, wrote back home to a nephew in Germany, a prospective immigrant: “You cannot make headway here unless as a German you will have to unlearn much and learn much.” It was the misfortune of the Central European Jewish emigrants that they started coming here in the late 1830’s just as the country was about to enter its most serious economic depression. An interesting and illuminating history of American Jews might well be the record of their financial failures.64

Poverty breeds crime? Both words are relative terms. Most Jews in this period were not poverty-stricken, though many were indeed poor. If there had been no poor there would have been no need for the charities. Synagogs had been helping the needy since the earliest days; the very first known constitution of an American synagog made provision for local and itinerant suppliants (1706/1728). Some Jews who fell into the clutches of the law can hardly be deemed criminals. More than once some of Richmond’s solid Jewish citizens were arrested and fined for betting on faro in a local tavern (1805–1808); they were, it seems, chronic gamblers. It was only meet that the foreman of the grand jury that investigated gambling should be a Mr. R. Gamble. The early national period apparently nourished a generation of litigants. Jews were constantly bringing suits; court action was a common method, almost a prevalent one, to collect debts. Many people were not able to meet their obligations or refused to do so until forced by the law and the bailiff. Litigation was often occasioned by intrafamily disputes; they were long and bitter, for money was involved. The traditional idyllic picture of intra-Jewish familial and communal harmony was often mocked by the harshness of reality. The knowledgeable researcher hastens to utter a caveat; litigation has high visibility, whereas successful businessmen and harmonious Jewish communities have little history; they luxuriate in invisibility.65

Some Jews were irresponsible businessmen; others were sharp, on occasion unscrupulous. Bankrupt Jews frequently left town in order to avoid imprisonment for debt; if jailed, they and their families would languish for lack of support. Lt. Col. Isaacs Franks once went into hiding in order to avoid his debtors. A Charleston merchant was fined for violating the federal trading regulations during the decade of the Jefferson embargo. Individual shopkeepers and merchants turned out to be crooks; they absconded with goods. One luckless creature ran off, leaving his wife, children, and debts to be taken care of by his father-in-law, an impoverished Revolutionary War veteran. Christians were prone to suspect Jews of fraudulent bankruptcies, but it is instructive that a list containing the names of thousands of bankrupts revealed no Jews.

Jewish criminals did exist in 1816. A New York merchant-shipper with a fine reputation was arrested for scuttling a ship and attempting to collect the insurance; his cargo was carefully boxed with rubbish. A Baltimorean was charged with receiving stolen goods, but was found innocent. There seems to have been no question about the guilt of another Baltimore Jew, Emanuel Semon, accused of beating two fellow Jews, one of them a woman. He was fined $l. In 1818, a peddler was said to have assaulted and stabbed the wife of one of the town’s Jews; he moved on to New York, arranged for the conversion of his Christian wife, and ended his life in that city as a clothier. Two other residents of Baltimore were hauled into court on the charge that they threatened to take the life of a coreligionist, one Mr. Maurice Cohen. No distinction accrued to the American Jewish community from a visit to these shores by one William Jones. Mr. Jones turned out to be Isaac Solomon, an English crook with an international reputation; he was known in the trade as Ikey Solomon. Reportedly he was the original of Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Back home he had been a notorious fence. Escaping custody after an arrest, he fled to America bringing with him his not inconsiderable talents. He was an educated man. As Mr. William Jones, a jeweler, he forged bank notes, negotiated fraudulent debentures, and discounted worthless English stocks. Obviously Solomon was an entrepreneur at home in the new economy. He ended up in Australia as a transport, but his criminal background did not deter him from joining the Hobart congregation.66


The Rich and the Comfortable

Jewish crooks were not numerous. A nineteenth century Christian magistrate in New York City said that Jews were rarely arraigned in his court, even for petty crimes, despite the fact that the number of poor Israelites in the city was proportionately great. The reason for this is simple: when in dire straits, the Jewish poor could always turn to their confraternities or to a congregation for relief; they did not have to steal in order to survive. The apprehensive Jewish community responded to appeals unless the suppliant was known to be an incorrigible criminal—which is why Moses Levy let a Jewish thief be hanged in New York City in 1727. Tradesmen who failed in business did not fall into crime, but usually made some sort of respectable comeback; it was not too long before most of them were again members of the extended middle class in which most Jews were to be found. When in the 1780’s the British civil servants and the Loyalists left the country or lost their property, a new politically powerful Whig group took over. Jews were not even on the periphery of this powerful minority which accorded its intimates enviable economic advantages. But the young republic did open roads to Jews; individuals forged ahead financially through their investments in the new transportation media. Every town had one or two who did rise to the top, temporarily at least. Thus rich Jews are found all the way from New Orleans to Boston. New Orleans had the Hermanns and Judah Touro; Charleston had Mordecai Cohen and the Lazarus brothers. Cohen, a Polish newcomer, lent his gold and silver plate to help entertain Lafayette when he visited the city in 1825. The Myers-Hays-Marx clan of Richmond had solid wealth. The bond required when the estate of Joseph Marx was probated was for $350,000; a similar amount was posted when Samuel Myers died; the bond for his sister-in-law Slowey Hays was $120,000. Hers was the largest estate left by a woman in Virginia. It is reasonable to assume that much of her wealth and that of Samuel Myers, who married Judith Hays, came as an inheritance from Moses M. Hays, of Boston. In Baltimore, the Ettings and especially the Cohens were possessors of substantial, if not great, wealth; in Philadelphia, John Moss was recognized as an enterprising capitalist of means; the Gratzes, after their fall in the 1820’s, rose once more to riches and influence. The home they had vacated in 1826 after their insolvency is a measure of their earlier affluence: it was 28 feet wide, 56 feet deep; the folding doors were of mahogany and the mantels were of marble. There was a separate bathhouse as well as a cistern, a good-sized stable, and a carriage house.67

In addition to Moses M. Hays and his son Judah, Boston counted Abraham Touro among its most substantial investors. To the south, New York City always had several rich businessmen since the generation of Nathan Simson, who in the mid-1700’s returned “home” to England with a large fortune. The eighteenth-century Jewish elite in Manhattan included the Gomezes, the Simsons, and the Frankses. Some Gomezes had gone down; others had survived. In 1791, the estate of A. Moses Gomez was paying more personal and real estate taxes than the total paid by all other Jewish taxpayers. Others in the 1780’s who had achieved affluence were the firms of Jacob and Philip Marks, the Hendrickses, and Isaac Moses. In Revolutionary days, the Markses, Germans, had been British supply men, and Uriah Hendricks had remained in New York and made his peace with the British occupiers; Isaac Moses was, by contrast, an exile and an ardent Continental patriot. Most Jews in the American metropolis were in the middle or lower brackets. Among them were Benjamin Seixas and Simon Nathan; Seixas was on the way up; Nathan, on the way down. New Yorkers in the 1840’s eagerly read Moses Yale Beach’s The Wealth of New York. It is a grossly inaccurate twenty-five cent chapbook of little worth, but it does indicate who were then considered to be the very wealthy. As early as 1820, New York was already more populous than Philadelphia; by 1830, it was America’s leading port; by 1840, it was ten times larger than Charleston. August Belmont had arrived in 1837, and it would not be long before he was numbered among the country’s leading bankers; a number of Judah women are acclaimed, but little is known of them; Aaron Gomez, a son-in-law of Harmon Hendricks, is included in the Beach pamphlet, as is also a David Hart from the New Orleans family of that name. One suspects that the wealth of a Judah, a Hart, and a Gomez was inherited. The total Hendricks’s fortune was rated at over $1,000,000—which does seems a reasonable guess. According to the author, not one of the Jews whom he listed had less than $100,000. Why he ignored Bernard Hart, who was still alive, is puzzling. The answer may be that Hart was not as wealthy as some of his contemporaries thought he was.68

Very rich Jews were rare before 1840, though a substantial number of people in every town had more than enough for their needs, and many may be deemed affluent. Judah P. Benjamin owned a large sugar plantation in Louisiana, but it is very questionable if his was a successful enterprise; it was the fees he earned as one of the country’s great lawyers which provided him with a large income. The South Carolina and Mississippi planter Chapman Levy ran his plantations with about thirty slaves; his income, which permitted him to engage actively in politics, probably came from his practice as a lawyer rather than from profits as a farmer. Mordecai Sheftall’s unmarried daughter Esther had a small shop, but in her will she left several slaves, ranch acreage, some jewels, and Passover China (1828). The Georgia Sheftall clan and its neighbors the Minises enjoyed a comfortable income; that seems beyond doubt. Esther’s father Mordecai, the Revolutionary War quartermaster (d. 1798), left a well-furnished home with pictures, china, linens, and silver as well as a cow and a horse in the stable, and this was but a portion of his estate. The court appointed Sheftall to appraise the estate of Abigail Minis and her son Philip, who had predeceased her. The old lady left a fine home and slaves both on her farm and in the city; Philip, in addition to a well-equipped home with its ample supply of silver plate (collateral!), was the owner of a store whose inventory included hardware, dry goods, and groceries. Though by 1820 Charleston in neighboring South Carolina was no longer to be counted among the great American cities, many of its Jewish citizens had wealth which they had acquired or inherited. Three families had households of twenty or more slaves; one of the Jews in Georgetown also had twenty or more black bondsmen, and this was true, too, of a Jew in the Barnwell District, in the backcountry bordering on Georgia. Jacob Jacobs, of Charleston, seems to have been a typical Charleston businessman, if any businessman can be said to be typical. His will testifies that he owned houses, silver plate, a stable, horses, carriages, and at least ten slaves. Listed as personal property were notes, silver and gold jewelry, bonds, and deeds for land in Georgia.69

Richmond’s Marcus Elkan is a good example of a local businessman who was “well fixed.” At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the heyday of his career as a merchant, the Shenandoah Valley was the largest producer of wheat in the United States. He ran a general store, where he stocked a wide variety of goods. His beautifully furnished home was adorned with pictures of Shakespeare and the British statesmen William Pitt and Henry Fox. His library, fortunately listed in his will, documents his intelligence and good taste. The estate was appraised at about $10,000, but was probably worth much more. In an extant taxlist of Richmond citizens for the year 1788, 10 of the 360 taxpayers were Jews. All but one of the Jewish householders had a domestic servant (a slave); one of them had three. Most of the Jews in town were in the middle-class or lower-middle-class bracket. Not a single one is likely to have been affluent at this early date. The Jewish community would not write its constitution for another year; it was just getting organized. By the turn of the century, a decade later, several had already attained a degree of affluence; two or three were on the road to wealth.

How did the middle-class Jew live in Pennsylvania? Mathias Bush may serve as an illustration. This merchant, a partner at times of the Simon-Gratz group, lived in Montgomery County not too far from Philadelphia, on a small farm in a beautiful home tastefully furnished with pictures, mirrors, a silver service, and a small library. By 1825, Philadelphia sheltered dozens of Jewish businessmen: merchants, shopkeepers, grocers, brokers, professional men, artisans. Some, if not many, made an excellent living. The firm of R. & I. Phillips was listed in 1820 as merchants; before long it would become the Philadelphia agent of the English Rothschilds. One of the largest, and certainly the most beautiful, dry goods stores in town was that of Lyon J. Levy. This Levy and the Phillipses, too, were men of substance. There were many others of whom we know, and probably many of whom there is little or no record. As late as 1836, Isaac Leeser referred to Philadelphia as the country’s largest Jewish community—the New Yorkers would have disputed that statement.70

The Middle Class and the Lower Middle Class

Most American Jews belonged to the middle class or the lower middle class. They were in business; by extension they were all in one rather inclusive economic group. Despite their common economic interests, sharp social distinctions were made. Was there no “common sort”? There was always a lower class—an underclass, we might say today—but among Jews it was very small, and unfortunately its members had no visibility; they left no wills; they had nothing to leave. Jewish indentured servants were shipped here as late as 1819. How many? There is no way of knowing. They served their time or ran away. In either case, they were absorbed by Jewry or by the anonymous Gentile masses; they have no history. Thanks to the numerous directories, it is possible to describe the occupational distribution of America’s Jews, since most of them lived in urban centers and the directories listed their vocations. Regrettably, the mere recording of names and vocations is no index to wealth, to class, to status within the extensive middle-class group which embraced most of them. Even the term merchant is not always helpful; it was beginning, by the early nineteenth century, to lose its significance as a synonym for an elite trader; from now on, the term merely indicated that the proud possessor was a buyer and seller of wares. Yet the listings are useful; they indicate how Jews made a living and make it possible for certain conclusions to be drawn. Most Jews were not poor in the sense of being poverty-stricken; a Jewish proletariat was virtually nonexistent. The few Jewish charity records before the late 1830’s reveal that relatively few clients applied for help.71

A study of New Yorkers listed in the directories for the third decade of the century reveals that of 306 identified Jews, 127 called themselves merchants. This did not include the craftsmen, brokers, stationers, lottery agents, clerks, boardinghouse keepers, druggists, two lawyers, and a civil servant. It is clear, however, that almost everyone was a businessman, at least in the directories. After 1830, analyses of the records indicate the appearance of specialists: a comedian, a dyer, a brewer, a quill manufacturer, a coalyard owner, a liquor dealer. A few may be classed as industrialists, but they may well have been no more than modest artisans. A study limited to the membership of Shearith Israel in the 1830’s reveals two police officers, druggists, a shoe polish manufacturer, liquor dealers, various civil servants, a lithographer, a pencil maker, a professor who taught languages, and two clothiers, whatever that term meant at the time. Congregation Anshe Chesed of New York hired a carpenter in 1836 to make repairs in the synagog. His name was Friedsheim. Was he the ancestor of Michael Friedsam, president of B. Altman & Company, who left large sums for charity and education and a collection of old masters to the Metropolitan Museum? At the other end of the country a study of New Orleans Jewry for this same period shows that here too most Jews were in business. They were in clothing, dry goods, brokerage; watchmakers predominated among the artisans, although in general there were but few skilled craftsmen. A cigar manufacturer was probably a cigarmaker working in a small shop with one or two journeymen. Among those gainfully employed New Orleans Jews at this time were also a distiller, a bank manager, a handful of physicians and attorneys.72

It is easier to pinpoint the occupation of Charleston’s Jews. Practically every businessman in town has been identified by Elzas in his works on South Carolina. The Charleston directory for 1803 lists 96 householders. Artisans were rare; 57 Jews were shopkeepers, 4 of them were women. It is curious that only 7 called themselves merchants but then all those Charleston tradesmen had been born in the mid-eighteenth century when the term “merchant” was almost sacrosanct and they showed respect for this venerable noun. Auctioneers (wholesalers) were numerous; there were also four brokers. Among the others, rarely more than one in each category, there was a scrivener, a lumber measurer, a cigarmaker, a turnkey, a fruiterer, a tailor, a horsetrader, and a tobacco manufacturer, the latter someone who made snuff and chewing tobacco. All told, of the 96 listed, 85 were merchandisers. The publisher of the directory, Isaac Elizer, had once been postmaster in a remote South Carolina village; later in 1813 at Charleston, he was to be a notary public and a justice of the peace. His father had been a Newport merchant shipper and slave importer who died impoverished. By 1840, the new economy had already made itself felt in Charleston. The Jews there included at least one individual who was a railroad director, an insurance investor, a builder, an educator, an artist, a civil servant, a doctor, a dentist, and a lawyer.73

Baltimore in 1800 was a large city with but very few Jews, possibly eighty souls. There were a few merchants, some boardinghouse keepers, a tobacco manufacturer, a maker of shoe polish, a broker, a hardware store owner, a grocer, a distiller, a captain of the watch, and a policeman. Most of these people were in modest circumstances. By 1820 immigrants had begun to filter in: peddlers, owners of second-hand stores, a clothier, a taverner, a commission merchant, a pawnbroker, a real estate speculator, a furniture dealer, and manufacturers—one made chemicals, another made paper. As was true of practically all the Jewish industrialists in every town, their manufactories were small enterprises. Artisans now made their appearance: watchmakers, locksmiths, a jeweler, a butcher, a combmaker, a painter, a glazer, a quillmaker. There was also a pharmacist and a dentist. The upper middle class comprised only two families, the Ettings and the Cohens, merchant and lottery entrepreneurs; in the lower middle class, some peddlers. In 1820, the 11 native-born and immigrant householders had a total of 24 servants; 15 free blacks; 9 slaves. Not one of the immigrant families had a servant; they were still struggling. In the decade that ended in 1830, there were not many occupational variations; the census records a grocer, a pawnbroker, a musician, and a physician. The recent immigrants however were now coming up in the world; of the 24 immigrant households, 10 had black servants, most of them hired personnel, not slaves. The typically Jewish pattern of vocational distribution reflected in the directories of New York, New Orleans, and Baltimore and other records is reflected also in Richmond where by 1819 most Jewish tradesmen called themselves merchants. All told, 21 were listed by occupation; 14 described themselves as merchants, but the 7 remaining also earned their livelihood through different forms of trade; included were a druggist, a lottery salesman, a grocer, a tobacconist, a hatter, and two stores specializing in shoes.74

The push westward brought with it the rise of Jewish communities across the mountains. This Drang nach Westen is documented in the birth of confraternities or congregations in Columbia, South Carolina, in Richmond, Virginia, and in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By 1825, Cincinnati, to be known as the Queen City of the West, had a tiny Jewish community, with a merchant, a tailor, an auctioneer, a watchmaker, a distiller, and a grocer. By 1830, the directories had begun to describe some of Cincinnati’s Jewish businessmen as clothiers—probably retailers who kept a stock of ready-to-wear garments. By 1840, the diversity in Cincinnati’s mercantile activities became even more marked though Jews, on the whole, were slow to seek new fields of endeavor. Thus local Jews were clothiers, dry goods shopowners, jewelry and watch repairmen, grocers, cigar and liquor dealers, and boardinghouse keepers. Clerks and young peddlers were then arriving in numbers; wholesalers began to take on more sizable proportions. It is not improbable that some of the fourteen clothiers were small-scale garment manufacturers. With the exception of Charleston and Savannah, all American Jewish communities, including New York, were influenced by Philadelphia, the country’s preeminent city for decades. The economic life of Philadelphia Jewry differs little from that of the smaller towns, which in a sense were patterned on the Pennsylvania metropolis. There was, of course, much more variety within the traditional categories. Before 1800, there had been several brokers to meet the financial challenges of a new state. In addition to the shopkeepers, who were most numerous, there were innkeepers catering to a non-Jewish clientele, a trunkmaker, an embroiderer, a shoemaker, and a saddler. The Philadelphia Directory and Strangers’ Guide for 1825 discloses that in a selective list of over eighty Jews, half were tradesmen. Among them were second-hand clothes dealers, an importer of watches, an accountant, an interpreter, a shopkeeper who specialized in music, an owner of a wallpaper warehouse. Among the professionals and artisans, in addition to lawyers and physicians, were a cabinetmaker, a carver and gilder, a furrier, a dentist, a maker of scales, and a manufacturer of quill cutting knives. Frances Solomons, widow, was recorded as an umbrella maker. Merchants predominated. With access to the ocean, many continued as importers; in 1827, there were 25 Jewish importers out of a total of about 1,300 in the city.75


When the Revolution began in the mid-1770’s, there were five Jewish communities in which the majority of the Jews pursued a modest livelihood, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston. There was also a minuscule settlement in Lancaster which served as a jumping-off point for the Western traders. After the War, Newport declined rapidly, while Richmond, Baltimore, and Norfolk made a bid for recognition as arenas for Jewish businessmen. Richmond became important in the 1780’s, because Virginia was the new republic’s largest state. The town was on the James River, which provided transport to the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. Able businessmen saw an opportunity to exploit the region’s grain and tobacco trade. Norfolk, however, never developed a community in that generation; Jewishly it was a one-man town; maybe that is why it failed to grow and, by the same token, that may be the reason Newport did not survive Aaron Lopez. Richmond had a congregation even before Norfolk’s Moses Myers achieved his success. In general, Jews go where there is an established community, which may explain why Boston was bypassed for Newport in the late colonial decades. By 1840, Baltimore was a metropolis of over 100,000. Two wealthy Sephardic families enjoyed high visibility there, but a growing, if still anonymous, group of Ashkenazic newcomers was on the rise and would before long become the real core around which a community would agglomerate. Baltimore grew as a Jewish community because the town’s fathers, with the Jewish elite at their head, saw the necessity of facing westward. The clipper could not compete with the Conestoga wagon. Important though the foreign trade was, it would have to make way for the commercial promise of the West. American Jews began facing the mountains and the inland river highways. Challenges—new opportunities—were envisaged in the cis-Mississippi lands. By the 1830’s Jews were already headed across the Alleghenies establishing bridgeheads which were soon to emerge as important inland Jewish communities. Following the turnpikes, rivers, and canals, the Jews created religious fellowships of their own in Albany on the upper Hudson, Syracuse on the Erie Canal, Cleveland on Lake Erie, Cincinnati and Louisville on the Ohio, St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi. Cincinnati and Louisville commanded the resources of the Ohio Valley. Cincinnati in particular, was strategically located, as it was tied to the South through its river and to the Great Lakes and the East through its canal. New Orleans now became the entrepot for much of the Mississippi Valley; St. Louis would blossom when the push to the West took on new life. The transallegheny Jewish towns were not to make their presence felt significantly till the decade of the 1840’s. Central European Jewish newcomers were yet to come, and, when they did, had to struggle for years till they made their mark.

It is difficult even to estimate what proportion of the country’s Jews lived across the mountains. There were said by 1840 to be 15,000 Jews in the United States, and one may guess—and it is only a guess—that a third at most were living in the Mississippi Basin. Perspective must always be retained; the Jewish tidewater communities would never be bypassed. As early as 1830, it was patent that New York was the city of the future; it siphoned off the trade of the West and controlled much of the commerce of the coastal South. New York sold the South’s cotton and supplied its wares; New York was the South’s factor. Philadelphia was losing out to the city at the mouth of the Hudson; Baltimore was still in a state of becoming; Charleston, declining in relative importance, remained—small as it was—an important commercial city and Southern Jewry’s cultural center. As late as 1850, the ambitious Isaac M. Wise, then of Albany, was flattered when invited to serve as the minister of Charleston’s Beth Elohim. New communities would soon rise in the Old Southwest as virgin cotton lands were ploughed in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Charleston’s Jewish brains planted themselves on the Gulf as trade was channeled to Mobile and New Orleans. The region offered good soil, new towns, new opportunities.76

One suspects that the outstanding Jewish businessmen in the South were relatively more influential in their towns than the wealthy Jews of the North. Ben Gratz in Lexington was certainly more important in his town than any of the Gratzes in Philadelphia. Why did brilliant Jews stand out in the South? The Jews in the North, heavily outnumbered by their peers, could not compete effectively in cultural and commercial terms. In the South, however, there were towns where the blacks, slaves, outnumbered the whites; Jews were needed there because fewer able whites turned to commerce. As the Gentile elite of the region became engrossed in politics and in the nursing of social status, competent Jews moved into the economic vacuum. Unfortunately for them and for their ambitions, they were never able to become leaders in the larger community; they lacked status; the real power lay in the countryside, in the hands of the latifundia lords and their yeomen satellites. Were there any appreciable differences in the economic and occupational activities of the Jews in the South when compared with those of the North? Did the Jews living south of the line with its free trade, low tariff needs, tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar culture, differ perceptibly in their economic pursuits from the Jews in the North, in a grain-growing, high tariff, incipient industrial economy? No. The products were different, but the economic activity was the same; essentially the Jews of both the North and the South were tradesmen buying and distributing consumer wares.77

And the New Economy? The Northern Jews embraced its brokerage aspects enthusiastically. This genre of commerce was nothing new. In one form or another, Jews had been commission merchants in pre-Revolutionary days; they had been commercial go-betweens in Europe for centuries. In the South, the Jews crawled into the interstices of the civil service and into the administrative areas of corporate business; as whites, they made a place for themselves because of the blacks and the region’s racial imbalance. In 1840, more than 50 percent of the population in the South was slave. Some Jews—probably not too many—eagerly welcomed the new challenges of the nineteenth century but every town had its Jewish commercial boosters, who lent their names and talents to any activity that would further commerce and trade. The Baltimore Cohens are exemplary in this respect. The tradition of support for the economy was not absent even in colonial days, for an earlier Sampson Simson (1725–1773) was one of the pillars of New York’s Chamber of Commerce in the middle of the eighteenth century. Newport’s Jews between 1768 and 1775 were among those who sought paved streets; they contributed to the building of a college and a Baptist church a decade before the Revolution. Jewish merchants in Philadelphia and Lancaster joined others in urging the construction of good roads to further interurban traffic. But tiny American Jewry as a whole did not integrate itself into the fermenting agricultural, technological, transportation, and industrial revolutions. This must be reemphasized. Occupationally the Jews as a body remained in their preindustrial rut; they liked it.78

As noted in preceding pages, Jews were in general not part of the plantation economy; they were not much interested in machinery, textiles, large-scale transportation, or heavy industry. Wealthy merchants were not typical of the Jewish body politic. The shopkeepers—who were more typical—lacked the means to engage in speculative ventures; the old-line native-born who had some capital tended to be very cautious speculators. They followed traditional paths; unlike the New Englanders, they did not shift to industry. Maybe they simply failed to sense the future. The America of 1776–1840 was still a merchants’ world for most people, and the Jews saw no need for a radical departure. They stuck to trade, merchandise; they entrenched themselves behind their counters; this was their fortress, their métier. The United States had experienced a political bouleversement in 1776, but the commercial and financial changes that followed on its heels were as yet not drastic, so Jews continued to do business at the old stands and in the old fashion. To be sure, they now had more freedom to move in any direction commercially, as the spirit moved them. Remaining rooted in the past, they adapted themselves only slowly to the changes in the economy; they nibbled at banking, transportation, insurance; they served as federal clerks, consuls, and marshals, urban administrators, as officers in the army and navy, as physicians, surgeons, lawyers, politicians—but the rank and file remained in trade. History must reflect the activities not of the few, but of the many.

Socially the Jews were in every class and in one class. Despite the political power that Aaron Lopez and the Franks clan wielded in colonial days, despite their social acceptance in some quarters because of their wealth and connections, they had never really beem deemed gentry. They had always been “Jews.” In the new republic, however, the Jews began to appear as “gentlemen,” in the directories at least. In contrast with most other Americans, Jews were not found among the mass of farmers scrabbling for a living; they were not found among the frontiersmen. Many were artisans—more than is usually assumed—but most Jews were businessmen, merchants. Actually the so-called merchants were most often retailers with modest inventories, but “merchant” meant status. As recently as the early 1900’s, Aaron Marcus, of Farmington, West Virginia, a village of less than 1,000, forbade his son, Jacob, to run around town in overalls. “Remember,” he said, “I am a merchant.” Jews as a whole were part of an extended and comprehensive middle class group which included a Harmon Hendricks and a Chapman Levy at the top and an umbrella mender, Jonas Friedenwald, at the bottom.79


After 1776, the Americans set out to make their own way, to emancipate themselves from Britain in the world of commerce and trade. Independence forced the country to turn to manufacturing; at war with the English, Americans found their supplies cut off; and they had no choice but to establish their own industry, to find new sources of supply for finished goods. Yet many Americans, and Jews among them, faced economic independence with a degree of reluctance, for England had a wide assortment of wares, her prices were right, the goods were of acceptable quality, and ample credit was available. Commercial independence was a luxury which many could not afford. During the crucial transition period from dependence to industrial emancipation, individual merchants and merchant-shippers in towns from Boston to New Orleans supplied the goods imperatively needed. There were Jews among them. Jewish businessmen of substance provided useful services and, like their peers, extended their commerce to Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and even to the Far East. Adhering to a pattern already nearly two centuries old in this country, they imported foreign commodities, stocked the shelves of the town and country merchants, gave them credit, and channeled rural products into the towns and foreign markets. By 1840, the country’s five Jewish coastal communities had grown to at least sixteen on the coast, in the piedmont, and on the canals, lakes, and streams as far west as St. Louis. The shopkeepers in all these settlements were dependent on their suppliers. Some of the wholesalers were Jewish. As purveyors to the masses, the wholesalers and the storekeepers rendered a very important service.

What part did the typical petty Jewish tradesmen play in the new economy, in the national market revolution, in the burgeoning early nineteenth-century world of technology and more rapid transportation? Very little. Coming as they did from the ghettos and villages of Central and East Europe, these men had few skills and very little capital to ease their entrance into an economy essentially foreign to them. As we have pointed out above in some detail, there were exceptions; individuals did pioneer in some fields; they were buyers and sellers of securities, bankers of high and low degree, patrons of the new forms of transportation and insurance, furtherers of transallegheny commerce. There were even a few in industry. But, as a body, Jews were not in the vanguard of the new economy. The typical Jewish trader remained a distributor of goods. Women? There was not a community which lacked at least one woman who “girded her loins and ate not the bread of idleness.” These women ran shops or fancy goods stores as well as boardinghouses; they even bought, sold, and built buildings. The matriarch Abigail Minis ran a little town and country empire of her own. America, to be sure, was in no sense an egalitarian society for women; practically all the shopkeepers in the towns and cities were men.80

The Germans call the science of economics, “national economy”—an apt term, more descriptive than the English “economics.” National economy deals with the life of the nation as a totality. The constitution of 1788 made such an economy possible; the commerce of all the states was now to be tied and held together by a unifying force, a central organization, the United States government, which envisaged and reflected the needs and hopes of all the states in the Union. Because they were to be found everywhere and had common commercial interests, Jews favored and furthered this national economy. They were eager to extend their mercantile horizons to embrace not only the United States, but ultimately all the lands that bordered on the seven seas. As a body, the Jews owed economic allegiance to no one state or region, but to the country as a whole. They were not captives of sectionalists, of New England manufacturers, of farmers in the West, or of planters in the South. Concerned with their own interests, which they identified with those of the nation itself, Jews wanted to trade with all groups; their loyalties to a larger America superseded regional loyalties. In a way, through the commercial services they rendered, they helped cement the country and its disparate regions together. And what were these “services”? Distribution of goods to every corner of the land. This was the job which American Jews undertook with some gusto and performed with rather notable success.

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.