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To what extent did the Jews of Revolutionary and postrevolutionary America enjoy a good general education? Abigail Franks’s (d. 1756) daughter Phila had been taught Hebrew, French, Spanish, music, and painting. Different subjects were taught to different children. Gershom Seixas had never had more than six or seven years of schooling; he read a great deal, though probably not as much as Abigail, who had far more leisure. Her husband, Jacob, was a wealthy army purveyor. In 1815, the German emigrant Dr. Jonas Horwitz could boast of a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He had hopes—never realized—of teaching in an American college. One hesitates to assert that Jacob Cohen and Isaiah Isaacs, two Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-writing Richmond merchants were cultured men, but they were certainly highly intelligent and conversant with the liberal teachings of their fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Some “Jewish” books were a contribution to American culture; the Hebrew grammars written by early nineteenth-century Jews surely were, for most of them were prepared for a Gentile readership. Leeser, too, always had Gentiles in mind when he wrote his apologetical works. His books reflect his good sound education; he had spent at least two years in a German gymnasium. This brilliant Jewish religious leader quotes and misquotes the New Testament and was not unfamiliar with some of the English poets.1



The stream of immigrants from Europe never dried up. Most had secured little training in secular studies, but there were numerous exceptions, especially as the volume of newcomers increased in the 1830’s. Academy and college-trained men began to come to the United States then in order to take advantage of its opportunities. It was not easy for ambitious Jews to carve out careers for themselves in Metternich’s Europe. Were American-born Jews conversant at all with the arts and sciences, and if so, to what extent? Did American Jews before 1841 write anything worthwhile? Jews without means, humble craftsmen, petty shopkeepers, often sent their youngsters to the so-called public or charity schools; they had little choice, though these schools left much to be desired. There were also some elementary private pay schools for very young children run by Jewish women. The Hebrew Orphan Society of Charleston may well have had a school of its own for its charges. All-day tuition schools were found in a number of towns, but the communally-supervised Carvalho academy in Charleston (1811–1814) was probably exceptional in its quality. Jews who had any means whatsoever usually sent their children to private schools.

At least two such schools were run by Jews in Richmond; four were owned by Jews in Charleston. Isaac Harby, of the latter city, ran a school which catered both to Christians and Jews. After moving to New York, Harby continued to conduct a school of his own; it was his only means of livelihood. Following his death, a sister kept it open, providing a Hebrew teacher for those seeking some knowledge of the traditional liturgy. Charleston’s Raphael Moses, who was to make a name for himself in the Confederate Army, went to a private school which his mother had opened. Young Moses was all of two at the time. A little later, he enrolled in another school where the discipline was severe; from there, he moved on to the academy of the Catholic bishop, John England, where all the instructors were priests, though discipline was lax. Later Moses shifted once more, this time to Harby’s school where the pedagogical motto was: Spare the rod and spoil the child. Before he was thirteen, Moses had already finished his formal education. Girls were frequently sent to boarding schools. Thus a Minis youngster was educated at Madam Grelaud’s French school in Philadelphia; one of the Baltimore Cohen girls was sent to a Burlington, New Jersey, academy.2

Affluent Southern Jews who sent their daughters North for schooling, had they so desired, could have patronized a Southern educational institution run by a Jew in the second decade of the nineteenth century. One of the better schools in the South was the Warrenton Female Academy or Seminary (1809–1818). Warrenton, North Carolina, was something of a cultural center. The scholarly owner was the former shopkeeper Jacob Mordecai, a native American.3 The best girls’ school in the South, so it would seem, was also run by a Jew, a convert to Christianity, Elias Marks. (Strange, but some of his children are buried in the Columbia, South Carolina, Jewish cemetery). Elias Marks (1790–1886), the son of an English Jew who had settled in Charleston before the year 1800, took a degree in medicine in New York, at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1815. His doctoral dissertation discussed the influence of the mind on bodily functions, as much a study in psychology as it was in physiology. Marks was a man of culture in the best South Carolina tradition. He published a volume of poetry, salted his writings with Latin and French quotations, and in 1818 translated the Aphorisms of Hippocrates from a Latin version.

Primarily interested in education, not medicine, Marks around 1818 established a girls’ school in Columbia; it was called the Columbia Female Academy. Later, in 1826, he urged the South Carolina legislature to establish a higher school for women and, when his appeal was rejected, opened the South Carolina Female (Collegiate) Institute in 1828. Very probably this was the first woman’s college in the South. Marks was aided by his Christian wife, who had been a pupil of Emma Willard, the pioneer in higher education for women. His was really a five-year school; one year was devoted to preparatory work, four years were devoted to collegiate studies. The extensive curriculum, constantly expanding, included European languages, music, art, painting, chemistry, laboratory work of sorts, and a mineral cabinet. Like many other educators in the United States, Marks was influenced by the Pestalozzians and by the writings of the Edgeworths. To give his new school the approved rural setting, it was located at Barhamville, near Columbia.

Running a girls’ school was not necessarily uneventful. One night boys from the neighboring South Carolina College serenaded the girls with tin trumpets and drums. Annoyed, Dr. Marks came out with his shotgun, discharged it, and mildly wounded one of the students with buckshot. This luckless wight, fortified with a bottle of whiskey, pursued the Doctor and fired point-blank at him with his old flintlock musket. The gun did not go off; if it had, Marks would have been torn to pieces. His escape was fortunate, for he was truly a distinguished educator. Marks, too, like the earlier Jacob Mordecai, emphasized the training of the mind, though both men were also very much interested in sound knowledge. On occasion, Marks addressed his students in a formal fashion. One of his discourses, later printed, was on the subject of belles lettres: Don’t read light fiction, he warned his hearers; cultivate your literary taste; nurse your spiritual welfare. Girls must be homemakers, though, to be sure, literary pursuits are fully compatible with domestic pursuits. Be refined in taste and elegant in sentiment. Marks was not prissy. The girls were encouraged to engage in sports and were taught dancing and the exterior graces. In his educational system, he set out to combine an excellent education with a nondenominational Christian piety. Church attendance was compulsory. As in the state college at nearby Columbia, William Paley’s Views of the Evidence of Christianity was included in the curriculum. Girls were to be like Mary, the mother of Jesus; they were to pray and make excursions heavenward. No Jewish girls, it would seem, were enrolled at Barhamville, which soon became exemplary for other Southern women’s academies. One suspects that Jewish parents, who normally did not avoid Christian-owned schools, shied away from Dr. Marks’s college because he was a convert. For Jews, apostasy was the unforgivable sin. In later decades, the logotype of the Institute was a six-corner star enclosing a triangle. Was he attempting to epitomize symbolically—perhaps subconsciously—a synthesis of his ancestral Judaism and his newly-acquired Christianity?4

Some Jews—not many, to be sure—aspired to go to college. In those days there were no anti-Jewish quotas though all students were expected to conform to the Christian religious practices in vogue at many schools. It is not improbable that some academies and colleges, Protestant institutions, may well have discouraged Jewish applicants. Most college presidents up to the second quarter of the century were clergymen. Earlier, many of the students themselves had been preparing for the ministry. Writing to Isaac Harby in 1826, Jefferson expressed his regret that Jews were kept out of schools because of the required course in Christian theology. How many Jews, if any, avoided the colleges because of the mandatory Christian religious studies is difficult to determine. The numbers were probably not significant. The few Jews who wanted to attend schools of higher learning went and were not mistreated. It is hard to believe that, in 1762 New York-born Moses Franks would have raised money in London for the College of the Province of New York (Columbia), if Jews there had been exposed to distressing discrimination. In 1784 Rabbi Gershom Seixas was a regent of the University of the State of New York; in 1787 he was a trustee of Columbia. Down in Richmond, in 1786, Cohen and Isaacs were quite ready to make a gift to help establish a university in Virginia, even though their English left much to be desired. Jewish students interested in medicine apprenticed themselves to physicians, though a few also took formal courses at medical schools. A New York family of means sent its twenty-one-year-old son to study at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. American Jews, eager to get good medical training, were still studying in Europe as late as the 1920’s, a decade after the 1910 Abraham Flexner report. In 1831, the politician and communal worker Mordecai M. Noah was to become one of the founders of New York University.5

Isaac Abrahams graduated from Kings’ College at New York City in 1774. That same decade, the Pinto brothers began attending Yale. Two graduated during the Revolution; one did not take a degree. All three were soldiers. Their mother was a Gentile; their father, a Jew. Ezra Stiles calls them Jews, and that they were ethnically; religiously they were non-believers or Deists. De Lucena Benjamin, who graduated from Yale in 1788, may have been a Jew; Moses Simons, who studied there in 1806, certainly was; young Simons was the nephew of Savannah’s Saul Simons. In his will, the elder Simons stipulated that his executors were to hire out four Negro slaves and the total annual income, $200, was to be used to keep young Moses at school. Years later, young Simons practiced law in New York City before moving on to London. Nathan Nathans, a Philadelphia Jewish lad, had thoughts of going to Harvard in the second decade of the new century. In order to prepare himself, he tutored in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, at a Christian school, where he was permitted to observe his own Sabbath, but of his own free will attended Sunday services with his Christian classmates. When ready finally to matriculate, he opted, not for Harvard, but for the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard, he feared, would impose religious requirements; Pennsylvania at that time was more liberal.6

Individuals of Jewish ancestry had been going to the University of Pennsylvania ever since the 1760’s. There is a record of at least four of them attending; at least three of the four, if not all four, had non-Jewish mothers. Were Jews at that time not welcomed? By the 1770’s, however, and certainly after the Revolution, Jews turned to this university in relatively substantial numbers. Over the years they were to become lawyers, merchants, politicians, and physicians; one would stand out as an eminent professor of medicine. Another graduate was to become a mining engineer after further studies in Europe; still another received a silver medal for superior scholarship. By the year 1840, at least twelve Jews had studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. Jews had begun to turn to the colleges as they prepared to enjoy the professions. Most of them chose law over medicine; in the new industrial and expanding commercial world, law offered more opportunity. In 1787, the year after it opened, Hyman and Richea Gratz matriculated at Franklin College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Richea—so it would seem—was the country’s first Jewish woman to seek a “college” education. The school was in reality an academy, and Richea was then only thirteen years of age.7


It is obvious that college men would own books; it is equally true that numerous self-taught businessmen bought books and read them eagerly. Francis Salvador probably brought a substantial library with him from England when he landed on these shores in 1773. The Salvadors were once one of the kingdom’s richest families. Young Francis had been educated in both England and France. Here, in South Carolina, he became the country’s first large-scale Jewish planter. Early in the next century, individual Jews in Boston, Philadelphia, and Richmond were active in the semi-private subscription libraries. In the 1820’s, Baruch H. Judah served as the librarian of the Richmond Library Company and as Keeper of the Virginia Museum.8

Present-day scholars are fortunate in that they can gauge the intellectual interests of Marcus Elcan, a well-to-do Richmond Jewish merchant who died in 1808. There is a succinct inventory of his books, which were bequeathed by him to Joseph Marx, one of the most eminent Jewish businessmen in the Virginia of that day. Both men seem to have been autodidacts. The total library comprised about 275 volumes, a choice collection which included a number of works on the natural sciences, on the American Revolution, and on the life of Washington. There were prints of Charles James Fox, Pitt, and the Washington family. The classical history of the Greeks and Romans was well provided for; Gibbon’s history was, of course, present. The English historians were also represented by Hume and Smollett; the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was reflected in the writings of Helvetius, Rousseau, and Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. Along with a few volumes of gallant literature—invariably present in a gentleman’s bookcase—there were works by Bolingbroke, Samuel Johnson, Pope, Fenelon, and Chesterfield. Elcan read English, French, and German, knew Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and, like Jefferson and Madison, leaned toward the Deists and religious liberals, if we may judge from his copies of The Age of Reason, Christ Unveiled, and Priestley’s Letters to the Jews. It is interesting to note that, though both Jefferson and Elcan were children of the Enlightenment and fellow Virginians, they had fewer than ten books in common. Among these were Rousseau, Pope, Swift, Johnson (Dictionary), Jean Francois Marmontel, and Laurence Sterne (his Sermons).

It is equally worthy of comment that, in this little town of Richmond in the decade of the Revolution, a town that sheltered about 2,000 people half of whom were slaves, there were at least three Jews who were men of culture: Marcus Elcan, Joseph Marx, and Jacob Mordecai. All in all, there were hardly more than ten Jewish families in town. All three of these intellectuals were widely read in the theological literature of the age; they were at home in contemporary and French literature. It is somewhat disturbing to our pat concept that such culture as existed must have been limited to the larger Jewish communities to discover these men of intellectual capacity in what was little more than a frontier shanty town. Edward Gottschalk, the father of the piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk, had a library that included works in English, French, Spanish, and German, though there is no detailed catalog of his books.9

Fortunately, a list has been preserved of the library of Alexander Marks (1788–1861), the older brother of Elias Marks, of Barhamville. Elias, the educator, was very proud of his school’s collection of books. Alexander had an interesting career. When still a teenager, he worked as a secretary for William C. C. Claiborne, Governor of the Territory of New Orleans. Later he served as a soldier in the War of 1812. Like Elias, Alexander lived in Columbia, where he became a clothing merchant, kept busy supporting his fourteen children. (Ultimately he was to have seventy-eight grandchildren.) Arrested for selling goods on Sunday, he offered the defense—unsuccessfully—that his religious and constitutional rights were being abridged. Though active in Columbia’s Jewish community, he found time to read. His library was a mixed bag: Robert Southey, Washington Irving, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, Hugh Blair (Rhetoric), William Cowper, Josephus, William Nicholson’s British Encyclopaedia or Dictionary, Shakespeare, Hume, Smollett, Burke, Thomas Jefferson, and Laurence Sterne. There were also books on nature, on various religious sects, on India, on Italy, on women, on venereal disease. He subscribed for one of the best eighteenth-century English periodicals and for an American magazine, too. One of Marks’s contemporaries was Nathan Levy, a fourth-generation American and son of the aristocratic Benjamin and Rachel Levy, of Baltimore. Because Nathan’s library totaled about 350 volumes, his executors summarized them by category. There were 60 volumes of history and similar works, 66 volumes on law and some miscellaneous items, 144 novels, and about 70 other volumes that apparently defied classification.10


The American magazine which Alexander Marks read was The Port Folio of Joseph Denni, a literary paper. Young Isaac Harby published a belletristic periodical which he called The Quiver, it was a complete failure. This attempt was made several years before the appearance of The North American Review in 1815 or The Southern Review in 1828. Harby’s commitment to journalism was in a sense typical of Jews with a literary turn of mind. They wanted not only to write but, if possible, to achieve political recognition, influence, and even office through the papers they edited. Journalism was the handmaiden of politics. By 1813, Naphtali Phillips, son of a Philadelphia merchant who had been a Revolutionary War blockade-runner, was the owner of the National Advocate. His nephew Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785–1851) was soon to become American Jewry’s outstanding journalist. The attraction of Jews to journalism is documented by the fact that, in the 1820’s, two of the four newspapers in Charleston had Jewish editors, Isaac Harby and Isaac Newton Cardozo.11

From 1814 to 1817, Harby owned and edited the Southern Patriot, a pro-Madison paper; from 1822 to 1823, he was with the City Gazette, supporting Calhoun and Andrew Jackson. During his years as an editor, Harby urged the state legislature to modify the Code Noir, the slave code, by tempering it with humanity. He was opposed to duelling and to imprisonment for debt. He favored a strong central government, but inasmuch as he died before the problem of states’ rights became critical, there is no way to know whether he would have sided with the Unionists or with the Nullificationists. It is probable that he would have turned to the Unionists, for he was an ardent patriot, proudly proclaiming to the world that the United States had defeated the British in the War of 1812. Harby was a witty man. Criticizing a contributor who had signed himself Cincinnatus, the editor told him that he was more fitted for the plough than the pen. Announcing the marriage of a Mr. Campbell to a Miss Death, he wrote a poem which ended with these lines:

Clasped in the arms of Death he lay

Nor wished a resurrection day.12


No later than the early 1790’s, Jews were already engaged in the business of publishing and selling books. Merchants, too, carried books in stock, but some became specialists as stationers, binders, printers, and publishers. These men had set out not to dispense knowledge but to make a living, yet in a way they were pioneers, furthering culture in its broadest sense. They, too, were helping the writers of the Old World make the Atlantic crossing. As late as 1820, so it is said, 70 percent of all books sold in the United States had been imported from Europe. Benjamin Gomez (1769–1828) was one of the two best-known Jewish bookmen at the turn of the century. All told, he published more than twenty books in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Mathias Lopez, of Philadelphia, a professional prompter, published four plays; entrepreneurs in Washington and Charleston compiled directories, and another Charlestonian brought out The Charleston Book: A Miscellany in Prose and Verse.13

Richmondians reissued two important apologetic works in English, while a third member of the Jewish community, Israel Baer Kursheedt, arranged for David Isaacs in Charlottesville to stock a few copies of George Bethune English’s anti-Christian work which was discussed by his father-in-law Gershom Seixas in a letter to his daughter. He planned to send English’s work to “IBK … should Mr. K. incline to sell any he can apply to the author.” When English’s book had appeared Judah Hays, of Boston, read it and reported on it to his friend John Myers, of Norfolk: the Christian clergy of course had attacked it; the Unitarian, Channing, preached against it twice. Hays was of the opinion that such works would not affect the “Christian hodgepodge” as much as the battles between the different Protestant sects. Christianity was deemed on the verge of calamity: “The house must be about their ears before long.” Thus Hays in April, 1814.14


Publishers are prime cultural instruments. That is obvious. But if an indigenous culture is to develop, there must be a constantly growing base of concerned men and women; there must be learned technicians in all fields of the arts and sciences. Like others, individual Jews, too, were making a conscious effort to further American culture; like their fellow citizens, they were American cultural nationalists. Jews in the different towns were helping to found colleges, library companies, and historical societies, as well as academies for the fine arts, natural philosophy, and medicine. Even a cursory reading of the Rosenbach and supplementary bibliographies of books and pamphlets relating to Jews in the United States from 1776 on shows the diversity of the secular cultural interests of the Jews. Individuals wrote or published one or more works and pamphlets in the following areas: politics, answers to defamatory attacks by Gentiles, appeals for emancipation, treatises on banking, currency, and fiscal matters, on travel, and on history. The bibliographies for this period contain retail business announcements, company reports, articles or books on the Florida Indian Wars, on science, medicine, chemistry, and art.

The diversity of publications is reflected in an oration before a literary society, a spirited court-martial defense, a treatise on gems, and a book catalogue. Among the earliest non-belletristic publications were manuals compiled by Jews, lawyers for the most part. Jews, a handful, had been practicing in the courts of the country before 1800 in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Sheftall Sheftall, the Revolutionary War veteran, began to practice in Georgia’s federal courts in 1794. As attorneys, Jews were participants in, if not furtherers of, American culture. The three Levy brothers, natives of Philadelphia, had been called to the bar during the years 1778 to 1791. They had been converted to Christianity or had lived Christian lives. The ablest of the three, Moses (1756/1757–1826), was to have a notable career. Thinking of him as a candidate for the post of attorney general, Jefferson consulted his secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin. In a cautious, carefully worded letter, Gallatin wrote that Levy was “second rate” and questioned whether he would give up his “lucrative practice.” Gallatin said that he knew nothing of the “moral and social disposition of Levy,” whatever that meant. Levy was not invited to take the post.15

Levy, who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1772, later became a trustee of the institution. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he enlisted and on Christmas night in 1776 crossed the Delaware with Washington’s troops. Two years later he was admitted to the bar and probably took the oath, as an officer of the court, “on the true faith of a Christian.” There is no record of his conversion. One must constantly bear in mind that Pennsylvania Jews were not completely emancipated till 1790. On his death, his family gave him a Christian burial. He has a place in legal history because it was during his tenure as a judge, 1806–1822, that he sat on the bench in the important case of the shoemakers union. In 1806, the Philadelphia cordwainers, as they were called, were charged with combining and conspiring to be paid higher wages, to create a union, to strike. This very act was unlawful, criminal. Levy and the jury found the defendants guilty, and they were fined, albeit modestly. This remained the law, and the decision was frequently cited in cases of similar character till 1842. Levy was an eminently successful practitioner, a “Philadelphia lawyer” highly respected by his associates.16

After a decade or two, the new republic permitted Jews to practice law without resort to a test oath. With the advancing decades, increasing numbers of Jewish lawyers frequently turned to politics. Some made notable careers in their states or in the national legislature. In antebellum days, an Indiana lawyer, Samuel Judah, ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate, but two other states elected Jews as Senators: David L. Yulee represented Florida; Judah P. Benjamin, Louisiana. The most famous of all Jewish legal practitioners was of course Benjamin, destined to hold the posts of attorney general, secretary of state and of war for the Confederacy. Together with Thomas Slidell, he published A Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans, etc. in 1834. If Benjamin was the best-known of the Jewish lawyers who had begun practicing in pre-Civil War days, the most notable was Philip Phillips (1807–1884). Bertram Wallace Korn, the historian, refers to him as “perhaps the most accomplished and respected American Jew of the antebellum period.” This young South Carolinian was sent to Harby’s school, where he received a classical education. Aware of the boy’s ability, the proud father sacrificed to send him to a good military school in the North. Academically, the schooling was wasted on him, for he turned to sports and became an expert swordsman. The powerful physique which he then developed enabled him to march with heavy knapsack, shouldering a rifle, for thirty miles in seven hours!17

Returning home, he read law and was admitted to the bar at twenty-one. Phillips then began riding the circuit eating spread eagle—broiled chicken. Very speedily and successfully he turned to politics. As a Unionist, he opposed the Nullifiers; he had no desire to speed the dissolution of the Union. In 1834, he was sent to the state legislature; a year earlier, when only twenty-six, he had been elected colonel of a militia regiment. In 1835, he went West, to prosperous Alabama, and soon had a large and very lucrative practice there. Five years later, he wrote a Digest of Cases Decided and Reported in the Superior Court of the State of Alabama, etc. Mobile looked upon him as one of its most distinguished citizens. He was sent to the state legislature and finally to Congress. In subsequent years, no longer an aspirant to office, he practiced before the United States Supreme Court. After his death, his colleagues, eulogizing him, said he was “by common consent among the greatest.” Though he was a founder of the radical Reformed Society of Israelites and on occasion put himself at the service of Jewry, as in the Mortara Affair, he was not a member of any Jewish organization. He identified as a Jew and conducted himself as a self-respecting member of his people, but, as was true of other Jewish notables, his relations to Jewry were marginal.18

A decade before Phillips wrote his Digest, another South Carolinian, Myer Moses (1779–1833), had published The Commercial Directory and a Digest of the Laws of the United States Relating to Commerce (1830). Moses, a native Charlestonian, was the son of a merchant of the same name who was highly respected for his care of the wounded during the Revolution. The younger Moses was a man of many interests: an active member of the South Carolina Society for the Promotion of Domestic Arts and Manufactories, a militia officer, a soldier in the War of 1812, a state legislator, a bank director, a commissioner of the free schools, and a sought after orator. It was he whom the congregation invited to deliver the discourse on Thanksgiving Day in 1812. By 1825, he had moved north to New York City; Charleston was on the way down; New York City was the metropolis of the future. Many years earlier he had married into the Jonas Phillips family and was thus a kinsman of New York’s politically powerful M. M. Noah. Moses maintained his Jewish interests in his new home and was called upon to address the Society for the Education of Poor Children. This brilliant Southerner, primarily interested in carving out a career for himself, soon became a power in Democratic Party circles and in 1831 was invited to deliver the anniversary oration celebrating the founding of Tammany. A year earlier, Harper had published Full Annals of the Revolution in France, 1830. To Which Is Added a Full Account of the Celebration of Said Revolution in the City of New-York on the 25th November, 1830, etc. The second part of this book, describing New York’s celebration of the Paris July Revolution, was the work of Moses. New York Jews among the notable participants in this affair were Mordecai M. Noah, Dr. D. L. M. Peixotto, a Jacksonian, J. L. Joseph, the banker, and of course Moses himself. At the banquet, the ubiquitous Noah toasted the courageous press of France; Joseph held high his glass in hopes that the “rainbow of Freedom” would “illuminate the world with the light of liberty, intelligence, and happiness.”19


Here, in the Western Hemisphere individual Jews have always been interested in the fine arts. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century Jews in Surinam and the Caribbean Islands often decorated their homes beautifully. Dutch tiles depicting biblical scenes made for an attractive decor. Even more striking are the magnificent tombstones in the Curaçao cemetery. These imported stones may have been made by Christian artisans in Holland but in their concept and imaginative reaching out they testified to the aesthetic interests of the bereaved families. With rare, very rare, exception, the tombstone art of North American Jews leaves much to be desired. Jewish silversmiths were by no means uncommon in eighteenth-century America; some were artisans with exquisite taste, notably Myer Myers, president of the New York Gold and Silversmiths’ Society in postrevolutionary days. Those Jews who evinced little or no appreciation of the arts were nevertheless moved, out of a sense of good citizenship, to support the graphic arts. Thus, Cohen & Isaacs subscribed for shares in the Academy of the Arts and Sciences of the United States of America, thought of as part of a college to be established in Richmond in 1786. Though Jefferson and some of his friends lent their support to this project nothing was accomplished.

It is no doubt wrong to ascribe aesthetic interests to all those men and women who sat for their portraits. These portraits were ordered because people wanted to leave their families a pictorial representation of themselves. And Jews, being what they were, patronized the best or the most popular of the artists. Thus they sat for Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Charles Peale Polk, John Wesley Jarvis, Charles Willson Peale, C. B. J. Fevret de Saint-Mémin, Thomas Sully, and Edward Greene Malbone. Malbone and Sully were the favorites. Sully in particular, since he made everybody look beautiful. Rebecca Gratz in Philadelphia helped sponsor him in 1807. Judge Moses Levy in 1805 was a director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, an institution which set out to train artists. A generation later, Rebecca’s brother Hyman served on its board. One of the artists who exhibited his work at the Academy was Abraham I. Nunes, an art teacher and portrait painter, who, when his skills did not afford him a living turned to the West India trade.20


In the course of time, congregational board members learned something about architecture. Ever since the first synagog was erected in 1730 at New York, the building committees had to make choices, and they did. They developed some understanding, if not an appreciation, of architectural nuances. Because, on the whole, they were not innovative, they adopted the prevailing church styles. There seems to be no “Jewish” style in architecture, although the Sephardim, because of conservatism and liturgical needs, adhered to a set pattern in the interior of their synagogs. With variations, they always held the Amsterdam-London Sephardic shrines in mind. The Charleston sanctuary of 1794, a church-like structure with a cupola on top, was baroque. When it was dedicated with numerous Christians present, the South Carolina Gazette was moved to write that there was “a numerous concourse of [Christian] ladies and gentlemen.… We can perceive those little prejudices and weaknesses that have for ages disgraced the human character to be wearing off.” Philadelphia’s 1825 Mikveh Israel building was neo-Egyptian; the 1834 New York sanctuary, the 1836 one in Cincinnati, and the 1841 one in Charleston were all Greek revival in style. The contractor in Charleston—not the architect—was David Lopez, a man of some culture who served as a trustee of the town’s Apprentices’ Library.21

By the early nineteenth century, Jewish businessmen had become interested in art as a commodity, an article of commerce. This was true of the Philipson brothers, merchants, who had begun to settle in Saint Louis as early as 1807. There were three brothers; the last had made the western trek in 1821. These native Poles had lived for a time in Hamburg before moving on to Philadelphia and finally to the growing city on the Mississippi. The brothers, who opened general stores—they did not work as a group—also handled art. It was said that they had about 400 paintings and 100 prints; apparently they were originals. How they acquired them is not known. Joseph, one of the three, inherited about 150 works from Brother Simon, among them a Holbein, a Titian, a Rembrandt, a Da Vinci, a Raphael, and a Rubens. Jacob wanted the city fathers to buy this collection and to establish a museum, but it seems these worthies were not interested. When Joseph died in 1844 the collection disappeared. By the 1830’s, Aaron Levy, of New York, had opened a commercial art gallery. Levy, a son of the well-known fur entrepreneur Hayman Levy, was a lieutenant-colonel in a state artillery regiment. He auctioned art in his store, issued catalogs, and tried to interest people in his sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian paintings, some of which portrayed scenes from the life of Christ. It was his boast in 1842—it may or may not be true—that his was the only gallery in the country devoted to the fine arts.22

The year the first Philipson went West is the year that Moritz Furst (1782–1840) left Europe for Philadelphia. Furst, a native Hungarian, had been educated in Vienna as a medalist. A truly competent craftsman, he was kept busy fashioning commemorative portrait medals of America’s greats: Oliver Hazard Perry, Winfield Scott and at least six presidents. In 1816 after Gershom Seixas had died he was called upon to make a medal portrait of New York’s beloved hazzan. Fifteen years before Furst arrived there was a Danish Jewish painter, Joshua Canter (1792), living in Charleston making his living as a teacher of art and as a miniature and portrait painter. A younger brother John was also engaged in the same type of professional activity. A contemporary, who admired Joshua, said that he had developed an appreciation of art in the city. Joshua was also a director of the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts.23

Better known and more eagerly patronized than the Canters was their fellow-Charlestonian Theodore Sydney Moïse (1808–1885). This notable portrait and animal painter had a large following in the South. In some of his portraits—those of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, for instance—he collaborated with another artist. Frequently in debt, he settled his accounts by painting his creditors. Still another Charlestonian was an artist and painter, Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815–1897), a nephew of the town’s former minister, the Rev. E. N. Carvalho. It was young Carvalho who earned the substantial fee of $50 by painting from memory the beautiful local synagog after it had burnt down in 1838. Carvalho was later to become a daguerreotypist, photographer, and a writer. Because of his professional skills, he was invited by Col. John C. Frémont to accompany him on his western exploring expedition in the 1850’s. Carvalho’s story of this hazardous undertaking is recorded in his interesting book, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West etc. (1857).24

A contemporary of Moïse and Carvalho who was interested, after a fashion, in the arts and sciences was the New Orleans builder Daniel Warburg. As his name indicates, he was a member of the remarkable German clan which has produced art patrons, philanthropists, and a Nobel laureate. Warburg owned a business, the Company of Architects. Priding himself on his knowledge of mathematics, Warburg said that he could square the circle and was willing to sell the secret to the United States government for $10,000,000. In 1839 he published two brochures on mathematics. Two of his sons, mulattos, were men of artistic calibre. The one, Daniel, who remained in New Orleans, made a living as a stonecutter and engraver. The other, Eugène, left the city, studied abroad, and died in 1859 after completing bas-reliefs and sculptured busts, including one of the American ambassador to France, John Y. Mason, whose wife, Mary Anne Fort, had studied at the Warrenton School of the Mordecais. There is no available evidence that any of these Warburgs had any interest in Jews or Judaism; they had become fully assimilated. Far to the North, in 1837, the year that Michigan was granted statehood, Frederick E. Cohen, a portrait painter, made his appearance there. His self-portrait, a beautiful piece of work, is ample evidence that he was competent. Because of his name, it is assumed that he was a Jew, or of Jewish ancestry, but it must be borne in mind that, as far back as the eighteenth century, there were Cohens, Levys, and Moseses who were Christians, not Jews.25


It would seem that music, more than the graphic arts, was cultivated by middle-class American Jews. Eighteenth-century Abigail Franks had insisted that her children play some musical instrument; later, David, her son, and Nathan Levy, of Philadelphia, her brother, were members of chamber music quartets.26 In the 1830’s, when Carvalho was working on his picture of the Charleston synagog, when Theodore Moïse was painting Andrew Jackson’s portrait (or at least his horse in the famous picture of the victor at New Orleans), and when the Philipsons in Saint Louis would have offered a Da Vinci or a Rubens or a Raphael for less than $100, an English Jew named Henry Russell (né Levy, 1812/1813–1900) was touring this country as America’s most popular ballad singer. As a teenager, he had studied opera in Italy under Vincenzo Bellini and had also been influenced by Donizetti and Rossini. Shortly after he came to the United States in the 1830’s, he was befriended by Mordecai M. Noah, to whom, thankful for the courtesies shown him, the composer and singer dedicated one of his songs: “Our Way Across the Mountains, Ho!” When he first came here, he sang opera in Philadelphia. In Rochester, where he was to settle for a while, he taught piano and played the organ in a Presbyterian church. Before 1840, he had moved on to New York and had begun to concertize, singing songs and oratorios, appearing also with philharmonic societies and even reciting soliloquies from Shakespeare. The accompaniment was his own. The ballads he wrote and sang were dramatic, romantic, and sentimental. Some dealt with temperance, others with the sorry lot of the slaves and with the hunted Indian. He sang these songs not because he was a social reformer but because they appealed to his audiences. Americans were typically effusive in their sentimentality; so are their grandchildren.

All told Russell wrote about 800 songs, most of them here in the United States. Often both the words and the music were his. Many of these ballads were published. He made little or no money selling his compositions; he turned them over to his publishers for a pittance, but became rich concertizing. It is reported that in three consecutive seasons alone Russell garnered $50,000, a huge sum in those days. People loved to hear him. His manly songs entranced his admirers. He carried his concerts alone, without a supporting cast. Some of his ballads are still sung, among the most popular are “Cheer Boys Cheer,” “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” “Some Love to Roam,” and “Woodman Spare That Tree.” “The Old Arm Chair” (1840) went through at least twenty-three printings. It is easy to understand why he was the country’s most beloved singer before the advent of Stephen Foster. Finally, in 1842, he returned to England to become a moneylender and a bill broker. He was buried as a Christian, though there is no evidence that he was a convert; two of his sons had a Gentile mother; it was probably they who saw to it that he received a Christian burial.27

One of Russell’s most famous songs was “To The West, To The West, To the Land of the Free.” This ballad, it is said, influenced many to pull up stakes and to cross the mountains to the great American heartland. Long before Russell set foot on these shores, however, the Philipson brothers not only pioneered in the graphic arts in America’s new West, but also brought music to the Missouri metropolis at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. When Joseph Philipson lost his money in the long depression of 1815–1821, he turned to piano teaching; brother Jacob, another casualty of the business world, taught the violin and modern European languages. Simon, the third brother, fathered two children who became piano virtuosi. Obviously these Philipsons were culturally, aesthetically, and linguistically gifted as well as musically talented.28

They were not alone. In 1836 Daniel Schlesinger (1799–1838) arrived on these shores. In the brief space of the two years still left to him, he was to make his impress musically upon this land of his adoption. A learned mathematician, he was a fine musician and a distinguished concert pianist. Back in Europe, he had studied under the Jew Ignaz Moscheles, the friend of Beethoven and Meyerbeer and the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn. Before the appearance of Chopin, Moscheles was said to have been Europe’s greatest pianist. His first months in America were exceedingly difficult for Schlesinger; he had very few pupils; Americans would not pay a good fee for instruction by a master artist. His attempts to organize chamber music concerts were unsuccessful. Concert-going Americans preferred vocal music, the songs and ballads of a Henry Russell. However, he persisted in concertizing and after a time received recognition, pupils, and appreciation. The improvisations of this gifted virtuoso were much admired. Schlesinger’s coming here was important; good music now began to cross the Atlantic. He introduced new compositions and prepared the way for instrumental virtuosi.29

Almost a decade before Schlesinger came here with his portfolio of piano classics, Bnai Jeshurun of New York had a choral group which met in the “vestry” (basement) and sang publicly on festive occasions (1828). As early as 1820, Jews were associated with Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Society—a philanthropy of sorts—as members and players. The city at that time could even boast of a music store owned by a Jew. The Society gave concerts, helped musicians in need, and furthered the cultural life of the larger community. That same decade, in 1829, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, brought Italian opera to the city. This immigrant was one of the country’s most exotic and glamorous personages. Da Ponte had been born into a Jewish family in the town of Ceneda, near Venice, Italy. His original name was Emanuele Conegliano. It is not improbable that he was a member of that Conegliano family which produced distinguished physicians, statesmen, and students of rabbinic literature. In all likelihood, he received a good Jewish education, including of course instruction in Hebrew.

At the age of fourteen, young Conegliano was converted to Roman Catholicism and took the name of his sponsor, Bishop Lorenzo Da Ponte. The brilliant young neophyte was ordained to the priesthood, but later renounced his order, although he would remain a Roman Catholic throughout his life. Da Ponte, a friend of Casanova, was banished for profligacy from Venice, where he was living during the 1770’s. He then turned to Vienna, the capital of the powerful Hapsburg Empire, and there became a “Poet to the Italian Theatre,” writing libretti for operatic composers. “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Così fan Tutte” were the results of his collaboration with Mozart. In 1790, this unstable but brilliant poet, teacher, and man of letters had outstayed his welcome in Vienna. Three years later he was settled in London, writing more libretti, managing opera companies, selling books and speculating. Constantly making enemies wherever he went, Da Ponte knew by 1804 that he was through in England as well. He shipped his family off to America and followed soon after.30

Arriving at Philadelphia in 1805 in the fifty-sixth year of his life, Da Ponte had already passed the zenith of his fame, but another thirty-three years still lay ahead of him. There is much that is admirable about him. He tackled new ventures with courage and energy, always hoping to wrest fortune from an unwilling fate. Compelled to begin life anew in 1805, this man of letters wandered between New York, Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, and Sunbury, Pennsylvania, trying to make ends meet as a grocer, merchant, and distiller. In 1819, he settled permanently in New York, where he had previously spent several years. He taught Italian, encouraged and produced Italian opera, imported and sold Latin works, and in 1825, nominally at least, became a professor of Italian at Columbia College. He referred to himself also as an instructor in the University of the City of New York. In 1833 he published in English a two-volume history of the Florentine Republic.31

At a time when European critics could with some degree of justice maintain that Americans had done nothing for the sciences, arts, and literature, Da Ponte had brought a rich Italian culture to this country, promoted the study of the classics, furthered the best of European music, and inspired a whole generation of aristocratic Americans to pursue and cherish the fine arts—all this before he died in 1838. His bibliography in the United States, both in Italian and in English, includes some twenty works, among them essays, plays, libretti, verse, and memoirs. Himself a polymath and “Renaissance” figure, he evoked a renaissance of his own in the salons which he established in his adopted city. No one can deny that he made a notable contribution to the intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural life of the nation. Two years before his appointment to the Columbia professorship, a position which paid no salary, he published the first edition of his Memoirs in Italian. Although he tended to embroider his recollections, they are, on the whole, authentic if not objective. Clearly, he was something of an adventurer, shrewd, unreliable, and at times even unscrupulous. This flamboyant braggart was a bit of a faker; even so, he was one of America’s most influential “Jews.” Judging from his memoirs, of course, Da Ponte evinced no attachment to his ancestral people or faith.

Interest in music among Jews in the early nineteenth century was in no sense limited to professional musicians. The Myers children in Norfolk were given an excellent musical education by their parents. The family had a large collection of music, mostly French and Italian for the pianoforte, although some English and American pieces were included. There was literature for the violin, clarinet, flute, harp, and for the voice, too, both in classical and popular modes.32


A younger contemporary of Da Ponte was the Sephardi Jacob N. Cardozo (1786–1873), a Southerner who was at times a music and drama critic, apparently a competent and respected one. The “N” in his name stands for Nunez, but he early changed it to Newton—a change which is no proof of assimilation. This acculturated American always identified with Jews and was a member of Charleston’s Beth Elohim, on the Orthodox side, though his brother was a Reformer. As a loyal Jew, Cardozo railed against the Marylanders who refused to emancipate their Jewish fellow citizens; he was indignant when the Papal authorities—acting on canonical grounds—took a Jewish child from the arms of its mother and raised him as a Christian. Cardozo, a native of Savannah, was the son of Sergeant-Major David N. Cardozo, a Revolutionary War hero who joined with his fellow Charleston militiamen in the forlorn hope of recapturing Savannah from the British in 1779. The Cardozos finally settled permanently in Charleston, where Jacob went to work at the age of twelve.33

Though denied the privilege of adequate schooling, Cardozo acquired an excellent education. In 1810, he joined the Methulogic Society, a young man’s literary association dedicated to the study of truth and to the enlightenment of the mind: The glory of letters is above all other human glory! When he was called upon to make the anniversary address, the bombast that characterized his oration was startling. It is typically adolescent though Cardozo was already a man in his mid-twenties. But it should be borne in mind that he was an autodidact. His talk is an apostrophe to men of letters and science; they are patriots who inspire others. They are men who stand up against tyrants—against Napoleon!—and political fanatics. His was an attack on the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. The new hope of the world lies not in France, but in the free American republic. This land can become the patroness of the arts and sciences; it is destined for glory because of the confluence here of liberty, philosophy, and the arts. Culture will rise triumphant through the men of letters; literature and patriotism are allied. Here, in 1811, as Cardozo demonstrates, American cultural nationalism was in full bloom.34

Obviously Cardozo aspired to become a litterateur; as he grew older, he discarded his bombast. Turning to his life’s work, journalism, he wrote for belletristic periodicals and became one of the founders of The Southern Review, which was dedicated to the furtherance of culture in the South. He never married, though he is said to have been the father of Francis Louis Cardozo. The latter was a free-born black who studied at the University of Glasgow, and in London, too, later becoming a Presbyterian minister and an accountant, and playing an important role in postbellum South Carolina, where in Reconstruction days he was secretary of state and treasurer. Francis’s last important job was as principal of a Negro high school in the nation’s capital, Washington. The elder Cardozo, Jacob, was editor and owner of The Southern Patriot (1817–1845); from 1845 to 1861, he was associated with the Evening News. In all his editorial posts, he was in a position to exert a great deal of influence. As a newspaper owner, he was not always successful financially; newspapers were too dependent on the winds of politics, on government patronage.35

Cardozo was a statistician and an economist, actually one of the country’s most distinguished antebellum students of economics. He supported the local Chamber of Commerce and in 1826 wrote Notes on Political Economy, a book elaborating his theories on rent and money, on exchange, taxation, banking, depressions, wages, profits, value and price. The influences that moved him were the writings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas R. Malthus. He was a critic of Ricardo, although he was a free trader and a follower of the laissez-faire school of economic thought. He believed in sound money, sound banking, hence was no opponent of the national bank. In essence Jacob was a conservative Democrat, no egalitarian where suffrage was concerned. His views on slavery were typical of the thoughtful Southerners of his day. Slavery was economically and morally justified; the Negroes were often better off than white wage-slaves; the black bondsmen are morally and intellectually inferior.36

As a free trader, living in the cotton planting South, Cardozo was an anti-tariff, anti-protectionist economist. He was opposed to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations but was no secessionist. He was a Unionist, even though during the Civil War he felt it necessary to side with his friends in the South when they broke with the North. His views were influenced by what he thought was good, not only for the United States, but for the South. Minimum interference of the government in the operation of the economy was most desirable, yet he voiced no objection to internal improvements at government expense, and he was convinced that the operations of the national bank were on the whole salutary. The South could emancipate itself from the North by turning to textile manufacture. These are some of the views he expounded for a long generation. During the war years he carried on his editorial work in Savannah, Mobile, and Atlanta. In 1866, he published his Reminiscences of Charleston. As an editorial writer in major Southern towns, Cardozo was a journalist whose views carried weight. It has been suggested that, through Joel Poinsett, a Carolinian in the Van Buren cabinet, Cardozo was in a position to influence the President.37


Cardozo wanted practical education for the children of the working classes; he wanted apprentices’ libraries and mechanics’ institutes. This notable economist lived in an age when applied science was emphasized, when there were intimations, too, of advanced scientific thinking. By 1816, the United States Military Academy had already become an engineering school. One of its earliest graduates, Alfred Mordecai, is reputed to have been the man primarily responsible for introducing scientific research into the field of ordnance. By 1839, the government had appointed him to the prestigious National Ordnance Board. More than a decade before Mordecai was even born, Jacob Isaacs (ca. 1718–1798), of Newport, offered Congress a method of converting salt water into fresh water. Isaacs, a former merchant and broker, fancied himself a scientist and hoped that the government would buy his discovery. Any good device for turning salt water into fresh water was important, for sailing ships made long voyages. Secretary of State Jefferson carefully examined Isaacs’s proposal and declined to recommend it in 1790–1791; the Newport businessman’s process seemed to him no improvement over methods of distillation already in use. In the small American Jewish world of the 1790’s, there can be no question that Jacob Isaacs and Solomon Simson knew each other; they may well have been friends. Unlike Isaacs, Simson was a very successful businessman—a merchant-shipper, a whaling industry entrepreneur, and a spermaceti candle manufacturer. The larger general community knew him as a prominent Mason, a Democratic politician, a left-winger.38

Also a vice-president of the American Mineralogical Society, Simson was a businessman interested in the production of lead, a commodity most important for bullets during the Revolution. Simson at one time recommended his brother-in-law Myer Myers, the gold and silversmith, to the Continental authorities because they were looking for an expert to supervise their lead smelting operations. Myers, too, was no scientist; he was a craftsman. Another Revolutionary figure who flirted with mining was Samuel de Lucena, a potash maker, who wanted the government to reimburse him for an unauthorized search for sulphur deposits. Moses Lopez, of the Newport Lopez clan, was more directly concerned with scientific thought. In 1806, this mathematician published a calendar of the Jewish holidays covering the period from 1805 to 1859.39

Quite obviously very few Jews were engaged in scientific pursuits during the first quarter of the century. Science, pure or otherwise, offered Jews no opportunity for a livelihood. Writing to Dr. De La Motta, of Savannah, in 1820, Jefferson expressed the hope that Jews would turn to the sciences and to communal service. This was now possible inasmuch as no restraints were then imposed on them because of their religious beliefs. Indeed, by the second quarter of the century, a few Jews did begin to manifest an interest in the physical sciences. Theodore Frelinghuysen Moss (b. 1819) studied at the University of Pennsylvania in 1834 and then at Freiburg in Germany to qualify himself as a mining engineer and as a geologist. In all likelihood he was one of the first native American Jews to study in Germany.40

A contemporary German immigrant did cut quite a swath in the mineralogical field—Fuerth-born Lewis (Ludwig?) Feuchtwanger (1805–1876), who had studied ancient languages at the University of Jena in 1827. By that time, he had become a pharmacist and mineralogist. After arriving at New York in 1829, he opened a pharmacy and even practiced medicine during the cholera epidemic of 1832. His prime work, however, was in the field of metallurgy; for he refined nickel and pioneered in the use of a nickel alloy for coins. He is, in a way, the father of the five-cent piece. During the 1837 panic he used his alloy to make tokens which were widely used in several American cities. Feuchtwanger, known for his collections of minerals, fossils, and fine gems, joined several scientific societies in New York and Germany and published at least four works. His articles on the manufacture of glass, dyes, and colors appeared in a number of magazines. Feuchtwanger’s Popular Treatise on Gems was printed at New York in 1838; his Elements of Mineralogy appeared in 1839. Books on fermented liquors and on soluble glass were published in 1858 and in 1870.41


By the turn of the eighteenth century, more Jews were practicing medicine. Isaac Abrahams, the first Jew to receive an academic degree at King’s College (later Columbia), soon became a physician, probably by training as an apprentice. Why did some early nineteenth-century Jews begin to turn to medicine? Was it easier for them to enter college? Columbia in 1791 excused Sabbatarians from classes on their day of rest. Is it possible that consulting physicians in times of illness was becoming a tradition, a habit, a style in the early nineteenth century? In the past, people had generally doctored themselves; they were not accustomed to resort to physicians. In 1690, it was good doctrine to agree with Gabriel Thomas: “Of lawyers and physicians I shall say nothing because this country is very peaceful and healthy. Long may it so continue and never have occasion for the tongue of the one and the pen of the other—both equally destructive of men’s estates and lives.” This was still deemed good common sense—though to a far lesser degree—in the first half of the nineteenth century. Patients did not crowd the offices of physicians. Up into the nineteenth century many doctors engaged in sidelines to keep the pot boiling. In his early days even a brilliant clinician like Dr. John Ware of Harvard (d.1864) had to practice dentistry and take in boarding pupils to make a living.42

Among those studying physic in the last decade of the 1700’s was Walter Judah (b. 1778), who attended classes at Columbia, but apprenticed himself also to two New York doctors. One of them was David Hosack, the physician and scientist who was the attending surgeon at the Burr-Hamilton duel. During a devastating epidemic in New York, young Judah volunteered his services and even took money out of his own pocket to buy medicine for the poor. He was stricken and died. The bereaved family erected an elaborate monument to memorialize him; it is the most ornate of New York’s tombstones, picturing as it does the city’s skyline and portraying an arm with an axe cutting down the tree of life, while on high the angel of death, armed with a sword, hovers over the city as a symbol of the destructive power of the yellow fever. Another early New York Jewish student of medicine was Joel Hart (1784–1842), the son of a successful New York stockbroker and land speculator. Young Hart, like Joseph H. Myers, had studied abroad. On his graduation from the London Royal College of Surgeons, he became a member of the Edinburgh Medical Society. Returning to this country, Dr. Hart helped found the New York County Medical Society in 1806 and the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1807.43

The very year Hart became active in the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, a precocious Sephardic youngster landed in New York City, seven-year-old Daniel Levy Maduro Peixotto (1800–1843), son of Moses L. M. Peixotto, later to become hazzan of Shearith Israel. All of sixteen, Daniel secured his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, and three years later at the sober age of nineteen he became a full-fledged physician with a degree from New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He, too, had studied privately with Hosack. When twenty-three, Peixotto married Rachel Seixas, the daughter of Benjamin Seixas and thus became a kinsman of almost every important Sephardic family in town. By that time, he was already a seasoned practitioner who had traveled about the West Indies and had written a paper for The New York Medical and Physical Journal; before he was twenty-six, he was appointed one of the Journal’s editors.

He had less than twenty years to live—he was dead when he was forty-three—but he managed to crowd a great deal into the next two decades. The Academy of Medicine numbered him among its founders, and in 1830 he was elected president of the Medical Society of the City and County of New York. As head of the Medical Society, Peixotto had to make a presidential address. In July, 1831, he told the Society’s members that it was their duty to regulate the licensing of physicians and the practice of medicine in the city; it was incumbent upon them as an organization to advance science and to encourage the establishment of medical associations, libraries, and a good scientific journal. Quackery must be suppressed. He regretted that there were physicians indifferent to scientific pursuits, men who could not even spell properly. This would never do if their transactions were to be published. Physicians had to have a good liberal education; he himself preferred the classical studies of the ancient cultures. Peixotto had reissued a standard medical manual in 1830; in 1835, he was invited to Willoughby, Ohio, near Cleveland, to serve as professor of the theory and practice of medicine and obstetrics at the Willoughby University of Lake Erie. The semesters were pitifully short. No doubt he returned home to New York after the brief academic season.44

While at Willoughby, around 1837, Peixotto delivered an address to preface one of his courses. He repeated the recommendation he had made to the New York Medical Society in 1831, but also advanced some new suggestions. He asked for state support for colleges and universities and expressed the hope the this new medical school on the shores of Lake Erie would do for the Northern Ohio region what Daniel Drake and his associates had done for the settlers on the Ohio. Peixotto pleaded for asylums for the insane and instruction for the blind. Medicine, he told his auditors, was an honorable and intellectual profession. Here, too, as in other talks he had made, he emphasized the humanitarianism, the social welfare obligation incumbent on all men. In this address, Dr. Peixotto rehearsed the virtues of the great physicians of the past and stressed the merits of his own teacher Hosack and the accomplishments of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush. The great among the leaders of early days had achieved what they did because they made accurate observations, supplemented their conclusions by reading and reflection, and communicated what they had learned. He kept reiterating: medicine was a profession for literate people; a competent doctor must be at home in the social sciences, the fine arts, and philosophy. While he lectured out West, in Ohio, the Mormons at Kirtland asked him to teach them Hebrew. These sectarians, who stoutly maintained that Joseph Smith’s revelations were rooted in the Hebrew Bible, could not afford to admit that they were ignorant of the Holy Tongue. Peixotto was discharged—he did not keep his appointments—and the Mormons soon turned to his kinsman James (Joshua) Seixas, who was teaching Hebrew at Oberlin and Hudson, Ohio.45

Peixotto was no run-of-the-mine medical hack. Certainly he was superior to the average physician of his day, for he was a cultured gentleman, a student of the classics, a contributor to medical and literary periodicals, an able lecturer, a fluent speaker. His medicine was seasoned with a dash of Democratic politics, since he edited a pro-Jackson paper when the general ran for the presidency. This type of dilettante existence and of diversified cultural activity was characteristic of some of the more notable physicians of the period. Peixotto had an illustrious example in his own teacher David Hosack, a historian as well as a physician, and in Benjamin Rush, who was everything from medical man to politician, to say nothing of criminologist, prohibitionist, psychologist, educationist, and abolitionist. One of Rush’s recent biographers has said of him that he “had an able and versatile, but not a fundamentally critical mind.”

The statement could be applied with even more justice to Dr. Peixotto. He was no scientist, in no sense comparable to his Philadelphia Jewish contemporary, Dr. Isaac Hays, the ophthamologist, ornithologist, and physicist. Hays was a first-class scholar; Peixotto was not. But Peixotto, unlike Hays, was very much interested in Judaism. In 1830, he addressed the Jewish Society for the Education of Poor Children. Two years later, during the terrible days of the cholera scourge in New York, this president of the Medical Society was fearful lest some of the observant Jews might lower their resistance to the pest by fasting on the Ninth of Ab, the anniversary of the fall of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem. No doubt the doctor consulted with his brother-in-law, the new “pastor” of Shearith Israel, and of course with the trustees. Peixotto recommended that the congregants ameliorate the fast by allowing themselves a light breakfast and an occasional cup of tea during the day.46


Because Peixotto and his colleagues had spent years studying medicine, they were righteously indignant when they had to cope with quacks. To be sure, self-interest was never absent. Jewish quacks, too, exploited the gullible. In 1800, a Dr. Samuel Solomon published a Guide to Health; or Advice to Both Sexes in Nervous and Consumptive Complaints. The 1800 edition purported to be the fifty-third. The medicine he sold was called Cordial Balm of Gilead. Solomon, an attractive Englishman who maintained that he had a degree from Aberdeen, practiced medicine in Philadelphia and then returned to England where he continued to sell his book and his cordial. The Guide by that time was already in its sixty-sixth edition, so he said. It is hard to believe that this doctor was not a quack. Another Philadelphian who practiced medicine at the turn of the century was Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Bush, a veteran of the Revolution with a fine record. After he was wounded and separated from the service, he apparently studied medicine in London, and returned to America as a physician. Hardly anything is known of him as a practitioner in his chosen field.47

During the last years that Dr. Bush was practicing medicine, a Surinamese Jewish physician arrived to take up his residence in the city. This South American was recognized by his colleagues as a man of scientific calibre. David de Isaac Cohen Nassy had played an important role as a leader in the Jewish community of Surinam. He was a physician, a pharmacist, publicist, and above all a man of culture in Paramaribo, the capital of the Dutch colony, which boasted of a larger Jewry than Philadelphia. In all likelihood, Nassy was one of the authors of the Essai Historique sur la Colonie de Surinam (Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam), prepared in 1788 at the request of Wilhelm von Dohm, an enlightened German civil servant interested in enfranchising the Jews of Europe. Von Dohm himself was the author of Ueber die buergerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civil Improvement of the Jews) in 1781. Nassy, impoverished by the loss of his plantation and resentful of the disabilities to which he and the Jews were still exposed, left home about the year 1792 and settled in Philadelphia, where he became naturalized. Though a Deist or free-thinker, he identified with the local synagog community and contributed to its charities. In 1793, soon after his arrival, Nassy was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society. In 1794, he presented a paper on botany. A year earlier, he had published his Observations on the Cause, Nature, and Treatment of the Epidemic Disorder Prevalent in Philadelphia. Two editions of this study of the yellow fever appeared, one in English and one in both French and English.48

The Observations was the first published medical work of an American Jew, but Nassy was not the first American Jew to write a paper of scientific import. In 1763, Moses Lindo, of Charleston, had experimented in developing yellow and crimson vegetable dyes and published his findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the London Royal Society. Some years later, in 1771, a convert to Christianity, Joseph Ottolenghe, the former superintendent of the public filature in Georgia, was admitted to the American Philosophical Society; Ottolenghe published a letter in its transactions describing “Directions for Breeding Silkworms.”49

During the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic, Nassy and Benjamin Rush were, in a way, rivals. Nassy was far more successful in saving his patients than the more distinguished clinician. In 1795, Dr. Nassy decided to return to Surinam. The climate here disagreed with him and no doubt he nursed the hope that the new French-sponsored republic of Batavia would emancipate its Jewish subjects both in Holland herself and in the Caribbean and South America. Indeed, under the new Dutch regime, the Jews were finally emancipated. A few years later, after he had reestablished himself in Surinam, Nassy wrote his Lettre Politico-Theologico-Morale sur les Juifs (Political-Theological-Moral Letter on the Jews, 1798–1800), an attempt to justify the enfranchisement which the Dutch Jews had already received and which was under attack. In a note to the American Philosophical Society, accompanying a copy of this publication, the Surinamese physician wrote that the Lettre reflected the principles of liberty characteristically exemplified by the United States. As a naturalized American, he had carried its egalitarian doctrines back to his old South American home.50

By 1840, at least 17 Jews had studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; 14 graduated. Of the 14, the record discloses that 11 were from the South, primarily from Virginia and South Carolina. Virginia was once the largest state in the Union; South Carolina had once sheltered the largest, and probably the most cultured, Jewry in the country. Among those who graduated were several destined to play a not unimportant part either in the general community or in the smaller Jewish body. Graduating with the class of 1836 was David Camden De Leon, a physician later to serve the Confederate Army as its first surgeon general. Jewish dentists, too, were not unusual, although most of them were primarily craftsmen. One was a man of some distinction—Dr. B. A. Rodriguez, of Charleston, the inventor of an artificial palate and an early contributor to the American Journal of Dental Science, very probably the world’s first periodical in the discipline of dentistry.51


Beginning in 1827, Philadelphia’s medicine—ultimately New York’s, too—was fortified by a German-Jewish medical clan, all university trained, a father, three sons, and a son-in-law. William Leo-Wolf, his sons Joseph, Morris, and George and his son-in-law Gotthilf Moehring were a superior group. The father had been a founding member of the Hamburg Reform Temple in 1817; four years later, he joined the Association for the Culture and Science of the Jews, established in 1819 as probably the first attempt of a coterie to bring Jewish historical and literary studies within the ambit of the scientific method. The family may have determined to leave its German homeland because of the persistence of anti-Jewish disabilities in post-Napoleonic days. Yet the men were devoted to German culture and over here became ardent protagonists of the educational practices of the country which had treated them so shabbily. They were contributors to journals in Germany and in the United States. In 1830, Joseph Leo-Wolf was called in for consultation when there was talk of establishing New York University. By the end of the 1820’s then, a thin sprinkling of college-trained Jewish physicians and surgeons was to be found in those states where there were Jewish settlers. Medicine, however, was not to become a “Jewish” profession in this country until the turn of the nineteenth century. By that time, there was a large Jewish clientele which could serve as a core for a successful practice. Medicine then began to be a status profession, appealing in particular to East European immigrants and their sons fleeing from lands where they had suffered abuse.52


Allied to medicine is the care and training of deaf-mutes. The same year that Rebecca Gratz and her friends organized the female Hebrew Benevolent Society in Philadelphia, 1819, David G. Seixas (1788–1864) began his work with deaf-mutes. He established the first school in Pennsylvania for these unfortunates; it was the third permanent school of this type in the United States. At the time this son of Rabbi Gershom Seixas was engaged in the crockery business. Philadelphia tradition has it that he was strongly drawn to deaf-mutes among the children of the slums and felt that something ought to be done to help them. He was of a generous disposition and was very much moved by the plight of the helpless youngsters. He set out to do what he could for them, even though he had no systematic training in the education of such disabled children. Somehow or other he had acquired a working knowledge of the various techniques then current for teaching them. There was a book on the subject by a Philadelphia physician, William Thornton, which Seixas might have read, and the classic writings of the Abbes de l’Épée and Sicard were no doubt available. It is even possible that he was acquainted with the methods of Jacob Rodriguez Pereire, the Franco-Portuguese Jew who had won renown in the second half of the preceding century for his success in teaching the deaf and dumb.

Certainly by the time that David began to devote himself seriously to these children, a number of Americans had already acquired some familiarity with the methods of instruction of the French leaders in the field. In 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, sent over to Europe to study the various systems of teaching, had been attracted by the French approach which he was privileged to observe at the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets, and he brought back to America with him in 1816 the brilliant deaf-mute teacher Laurent Clerc. These two, Gallaudet and Clerc, gave exhibitions in Philadelphia that very year, and the ingenious David may have seen them in action. Very much impressed by what they had witnessed, the Philadelphians contributed to Gallaudet’s Hartford American Asylum and urged the establishment of a similar school in their own city. But nothing was done at that time.

Most of the people who had observed the work of David Seixas in this field testified that he was especially gifted. The children under his care were taught to write well and to communicate freely and intelligently with their hands. He made cheerful human beings out of the inarticulate waifs whom he picked from the humblest of homes. A number of distinguished Philadelphia citizens were so impressed by what he had already accomplished that they met together in April, 1820, and created the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. In May, the board formally hired Seixas at the rate of $1,000 a year. He visited the Hartford Asylum, briefly studied its adaptation of the de l’Épée-Sicard system, and returned to Philadelphia where he worked out empirically his own modifications of current French methods. His work found ready acceptance, and he was widely acclaimed by those who visited his school or came to attend his public exhibitions. “David Seixas is distinguishing himself among the benefactors of mankind,” wrote Rebecca Gratz to her sister-in-law in Lexington, Kentucky, “and is likely to reap the reward due to his talents and humanity.” The Board of Directors, proud of his achievements and eager to secure private contributions and state grants, published An Account of the Origin and Progress of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.53

Some of Seixas’s more Orthodox Jewish friends might well have said several months later that his board had given him an “evil eye,” for before the year was out he found himself in trouble and was dismissed from his post. Leeser was convinced that religious prejudice was the real motive for letting Seixas go.54 Despite his continuous success in an ever-growing school, he had made some bitter enemies, apparently, for in September of this same year, 1821, charges were preferred against him for taking improper liberties with two or three of the older girls; he had kissed them and the like. There were no charges of immorality—as we understand the term—nevertheless several of the members of the board took a very serious view of the whole matter. Seixas indignantly and vigorously denied any immoral intent, stoutly maintaining that his affection for his charges was that of a father for his children. It was true that he was an unmarried man; some thought that he had been indiscreet. The board met on the 3d of November, 1821, and dismissed him by a vote of 12 to 9. It was not a hasty action; it had been discussing “the state of the Asylum” ever since September. His dismissal became a cause célèbre, calling forth printed accusations. His friends appealed to the legislature on his behalf and a committee of that body expressed itself sympathetically to Seixas, but did nothing more at the time. The board, to defend itself against the rumors flying about, published its side of the story in 1822, in Documents in Relation to the Dismissal of David G. Seixas.

Seixas’s friends did not give up easily. To remove this man from office while he was doing excellent work, to convict him on the evidence of two or three deaf-mutes whose interpreters were not fully conversant with the children’s mode of communication, to bring charges months after the alleged derelictions had taken place, was in their opinion a grave injustice. Rebecca Gratz, who was now on the Board of Directresses, felt that he had been cruelly dealt with. Her brother, Jacob Gratz, a member of the Board, was a staunch defender of David. Another brother Joseph was also a member, but apparently took no sides in the controversy. A minority of the board, eight men, rallied to David’s defense in a public statement, pointing out that although there were 31 men on the board, only 21 had attended the crucial meeting, and that he had been dismissed by the votes of 12, less than half the whole number. David’s supporters emphasized the fact that he had founded the school and had distinguished himself through arduous and successful exertions on behalf of his students. They answered the publication of the board’s Documents with Letters to C. C. Biddle, Wm. M’Ilvaine, Mary Cowgill, and John Bacon: Connected with the Dismissal of David G. Seixas. These four mentioned by name were the three members of the board and the matron who, so Seixas believed, had conspired to get rid of him and to replace him by Laurent Clerc, the French deaf-mute teacher at Gallaudet’s Hartford school.

Because they had confidence in Seixas’s integrity and ability, a number of his friends helped him create a school of his own in 1822. They called it the Philadelphia Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb to distinguish it from the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. The new school made rapid progress under his talented leadership and even received a modest grant from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives the following year. Young Alfred Mordecai, then a cadet at West Point, visited the Asylum in August and was very much impressed by the work done with children only five or six years of age, who had already acquired the ability to write and to read by “significant actions and gesticulations.”

The new school was naturally a rival of the older Philadelphia Institution; both were competing for state appropriations. The Asylum crowd attacked the Institution as the champion of a French system; Seixas’s method was the American, the Pennsylvania system, taught by a native American. Thus David and his friends in their appeal to the “Christian” legislature employed the growing sentiment of American nationalism to damn the work of Clerc, the French foreigner. To fortify their position and to broadcast their achievements, the supporters of the new school published in late 1823 or early 1824 A Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Institutions for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in Pennsylvania. There is ample evidence that Seixas did influence the legislatures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to concern themselves with the plight of deaf-mutes. Seixas’s Asylum, which is described in this pamphlet, was still in existence in 1825, but probably did not last much longer, for a few years later this brilliant teacher was back in his native New York City manufacturing sealing wax, visiting cards—and beer. His enquiring mind was avidly open to new ideas, and when the French government made public the daguerreotype process of photography, he was one of the first to exploit it in this country. Seixas had real ability and was to engage in many businesses, but he was uniformly unsuccessful. He finally wandered west and died in Indiana during the Civil War, an old man in his seventies, still unmarried.55


David Seixas was concerned solely with deaf-mutes; another Jew pioneered in educating the blind. This was Julius R. Friedlander (originally Friedlaender, 1803–1839), a native of Silesia. After his father died early leaving the family penniless, relatives provided support. Julius studied at the universities of Breslau and Leipzig, where he acquired an excellent education. In the course of time, he also developed skills as a graphic artist. At the age of twenty, he turned to Christianity, but his conversion alienated his relatives who refused to support him any longer. He became a tutor and somehow or other acquired skills in teaching the blind. In 1832, rejected by both Jews and Christians and smitten by “American fever,” Friedlander was determined to cross the Atlantic and make a career for himself in a land, where, so he believed, there were no schools for the blind. He was an ambitious, competent man. In 1833, six months after he landed in Philadelphia, he had established a school which became the Pennsylvania Institution for Instruction of the Blind. His work here had actually begun in 1832 on his arrival, just about the time schools for the blind were opened in New York and Boston. This desire on the part of many to aid the sightless was symptomatic of a new humanitarian approach; the blind were no longer to be buried alive in poorhouses, but were to be rehabilitated by private associations or by the state. In his 1837 address, the social-minded Dr. Peixotto would urge proper care for these unfortunates.

Though a sincere Christian, Friedlander was not cast in a fundamentalist mold. He did not require his wards to pledge allegiance to one particular Protestant denomination; they were permitted to attend the church of their choice. Classes were opened with the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of a chapter from the Bible. Friedlander put together the first book in the United States for the blind, the Gospel of Mark. Since there was no braille in those days, he employed a somewhat similar system of raised print. Later he produced Ruth, Esther, and Proverbs, all interesting and appealing biblical books. As an American he thought it fitting that he also prepare a life of Washington and an edition of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the three “R’s,” the curriculum of the school included algebra, geometry, natural philosophy, history, and music. The students who were taught crafts manufactured brooms, brushes, shoes, mattresses, and carpets. Girls were given instruction in knitting, fancy needlework, and, of course, cooking. It was imperative that these young women learn to help themselves. Under his direction, this school—later known as the Overbrook School for the Blind—was successful. Clients were brought in from different states of the Union. Henry Clay came to visit it; its graduates were employed as teachers in other institutions. The immigrant Friedlander was made for America; he was a good fund-raiser, clever in the art of public relations. Within the year after the school opened, he had already published three works on instruction for the blind. Friedlander laid emphasis on literature, on poetry. In 1838, at a time when teetotalers were meeting in convention in Philadelphia, one of his students composed the following:

Epitaph on a Drunkard

Here lies entom’d within this marble vault,

One who ‘twas said had but a single fault.…

His name was Sandy:—be it known to all,

A faithful follow’r of Prince Alcohol—

Who for his great devotion to the bowl

Lost first his body, and at last—his soul.

About seven years after he came to America, Friedlander died of tuberculosis; he was not not yet thirty-six. The funeral sermon was preached by Rebecca Gratz’s friend, the Unitarian minister William H. Furness. This is strange, since Friedlander was an orthodox Christian. It may well be that the tie that bound the two men was their common interest in German literature56


Friedlander was no physician; Joshua I. Cohen was. From the point of view of breadth of cultural interests, no Jew was Cohen’s superior. One is tempted to say that nothing human was foreign to him. If not quite a polymath, he was certainly an earnest dilettante. After taking a degree in medicine he was not concerned about his livelihood, for he was one of the wealthy Baltimore Cohens. He had time to devote himself to science, to literature, to the arts. Like other members of his family, he was a lover of music and an instrumentalist. Cohen was a pioneer in otology and an avid student of ophthalmology, mineralogy, and geology. In later years he presided over the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland. The social sciences were also not without their appeal for him. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society and was enrolled as a charter member of the Maryland Historical Society. His collection of colonial autographs and currencies was a notable one. There can be no question too that he was given a relatively good Jewish education. He had a fine Hebrew library and probably knew what was between the covers of many of the books. Cohen in later years participated in the fight to remove a discriminatory test oath still imposed by the State of Maryland, where no Jew could hold office unless he solemnly assured his fellow citizens that he believed in a future state of rewards and punishments.57


Cohen was also a pioneer eye surgeon and in 1840, together with another physician, established an eye and ear clinic in Baltimore. He was not a distinguished medical scientist, but Dr. Isaac Hays (1796–1879), of Philadelphia, was one indeed. His father, Samuel Hays, a merchant, was an important member of Mikveh Israel, and this tradition of service to the congregation was, to a degree, maintained by him. The young physician volunteered his services to the town’s Jewish social-welfare agencies and in 1824 served on a committee of three to pick the new hazzan for Mikveh Israel. His prime interests, however, were in the fields of medicine and the natural sciences, not in religion or congregational concerns. A prolific writer, he had begun making contributions to the medical journals as early as 1826. Rebecca Gratz reported in one of her numerous letters that her nephew Isaac Hays opened his office in June, 1820—the year in which he received his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Not long after that, Hays began to specialize in diseases of the eye; by 1822, he was already employed as a surgeon at the Philadelphia Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye and Ear. For the next half century, he hewed to this line becoming in the course of time one of America’s outstanding ophthalmologists, doing pioneer work in astigmatism and color blindness. For many years, a needle-knife which he perfected for cataract operations was popular with surgeons in the field. By the time he courteously bowed his way out to leave for the Academy on High, his contemporaries might well have said, and it would have been no more than the truth, that he was the most eminent Jewish physician and surgeon that the United States had produced up to the time of the War between the States.

Even so, Hays’s true greatness lay in his editorial work. Very early he became the editor of the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, formerly the Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences (1827). Due primarily to his ability and scientific integrity, the Journal became America’s outstanding medical periodical, so all-inclusive that the distinguished medical bibliographer John Shaw Billings did not hesitate to declare that everything of consequence in the American medicine of that generation would be found in its pages. If the American Journal was the leading medical publication of its day, it was because Hays deliberately set out to make it so. Like many other proud and zealous citizens, he had been deeply offended by the writer of that famous article in an issue of the 1820 Edinburgh Review who had attacked Americans for having given so very little to the world of industry, science, and the arts. That caustic reviewer had posed the bitter question: “What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons?” Hays picked up the gauntlet, flaunted it like a banner on his magazine and set out to show the world!58

If the Philadelphia Journal was to be transformed into the American Journal, the best men in the country would have to be co-opted. Among those invited to write for the new periodical were Doctors Warren, Channing, and Ware, of Boston, and John Godman, the anatomist. The men whose help Hays was trying to secure were the giants of American medicine, names to conjure with even today. Dr. John Collins Warren, one of the real builders of the Harvard Medical School and the first chief of surgery in the Massachusetts General Hospital, was Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at Harvard, but will always live in medical history as the courageous surgeon who performed the first major operation under ether anaesthesia; the anaesthetist was the dentist W. T. G. Morton. It was no doubt due to Warren that one of his patients, Abraham Touro, left $10,000 to the Massachusetts General Hospital; we may assume that Warren got his fee; in addition, his share of Touro’s estate was ten boxes of good Madeira wine. Walter Channing, one of the Newport Channings, was dean of the Harvard Medical School and known for his use of ether in childbirth; John Ware, another teacher in the same college, was an early worker in the field of delirium tremens. It is an interesting commentary on the times that, though Hays had been practicing medicine ever since 1820, he did not enjoy a lucrative practice even in the middle 1830’s, years later. This was through no fault of his own, for he had all the qualities that go to make a great, and financially successful, practitioner. He was merely faced with the same problem which afflicted all medical men in the early days of American medicine: people preferred their home remedies.59

By 1832, Hays was hard at work on a new project, an American Cyclopedia of Practical Medicine and Surgery, and was in touch with leading medical men whom he asked to contribute articles to this massive reference work. He had not been idle during the few years since developing the American Journal In the meantime, he had reedited Alexander Wilson’s monumental work on birds, the American Ornithology, and in the next decade this indefatigable scholar found time to edit a work on physics, another on medical terms, and, even more, to see a standard work on diseases of the eye through the press. In 1843 he began to publish the Medical News; in 1874, toward the evening of his life, he issued the Monthly Abstract of Medical Science—all this while serving a growing clientele, practicing in the various hospitals and welfare institutions of Philadelphia, preparing and supervising the material for the American Journal, and observing the amenities of the social world. It is difficult to fathom how the men of that generation found the time for everything they did. Hays was by no means unusual in his universality of interests; Warren, Ware, Channing, James Jackson, all the great medical men of that day, were anything but closet scholars, parochial in their interests, yet their medical work was sound and frequently brilliant. When the American Medical Association was established, Hays was among the founding fathers; he was the first treasurer, the first chairman of the publication committee, and the man who prepared its widely accepted code of medical ethics and professional conduct. Cognizant of what he was doing for medicine, foreign societies and academies invited him to share in their work. Here in this country, his knowledge, charm, and character attracted an ever growing circle of admirers. This grandson of the Yiddish-speaking Michael Gratz was every inch an aristocrat.60


Hays had translated the standard work of François J. V. Broussais, Principles of Physiological Medicine. Polyglot Jews had been serving as interpreters in the British provinces since the seventeenth century. As translators—and as interpreters, too—they were important factors in the transmission of cultures. In medieval days, they had played a significant role in introducing the metaphysics of Aristotle to the European world, serving as translators through their knowledge of Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. Here in the early American republic these multilingual natives and immigrants again made themselves useful. In the 1780’s, the ardent patriot Isaac Pinto helped the new country as Spanish interpreter in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Manuel Josephson, of Philadelphia, was “skilled in different languages”; Benjamin Nones, veteran of the Revolution, also served his country as interpreter. On occasion, linguists emerged as litterateurs, although there is no inevitable nexus between the two. Da Ponte translated an English play and some of Byron’s verse into Italian.61

Jews in the early republic evinced an interest in literature, that is to say, in prose, drama, poetry, fiction, literary criticism. In New England? By 1800, there was no longer a Jewish community in that part of the country, only a few cultured Jews of native stock. In the South? There was every bit as much interest there in literature, classical and modern, as in the Middle Atlantic States. Noah in his 1818 Discourse said that the real genius among Jews was in Europe; Jews here were too few to produce people with exceptional gifts. There were a few, however, and in his opinion “the weight of talents … is in the Southern states.” If literature was not much advanced here in the United States, it was because of the emphasis on commerce. That was Noah’s way of saying that Jews were too busy making a living. Despite what Noah observed, it must be borne in mind constantly that the North at this time had its share of cultured professionals, lawyers, civil servants, physicians, businessmen. Most Jewish immigrants by the 1830’s were landing in New York; a few had attended schools of higher learning.62

In the South, in the cities and towns, in the villages and on the farms, there were Jews of gentility and learning; they were to be found in Richmond, Charlottesville, and Baltimore, in Wilmington, North Carolina, in Georgetown and Charleston, South Carolina, in Mobile, in New Orleans, and without doubt in other towns of the Old Southwest, as far away as East Texas. Mordecai Hendricks De Leon, a South Carolina businessman and physician, was very probably no college graduate, but his three sons were. One, a physician, had a distinguished army career and wrote for the medical journals; the second was a journalist, lawyer, novelist, and diplomatic agent for the Confederacy; the third, the baby of the family, was a well-known writer and newspaperman. His daughter, too, following in the footsteps of her father, was a litterateur and translator. After a fashion, a Southern Jewish elite was evolving, men who were articulate, well-educated, ambitious, politically-minded. They began to stand out in the decade before the Civil War.63

And the women? The education of the women in the more affluent families was not neglected. As it happened—this was purely fortuitous—some of them were linguists. Zipporah Nunez Jacobs, born abroad, had come to Georgia with her parents only a few months after Oglethorpe sailed up the Savannah River; she was multilingual. Mrs. Starr Barrett, a native of North Africa, had command of four European languages, Arabic, and some Hebrew, too. Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, made sure that his daughters received a good education. Libraries and museums, controlled by private cultural associations, were patronized by Jewish subscribers. There were many Jews, both men and women, who had read widely in English literature. There was a Southern elite, individuals who knew Greek, Latin, French, and Spanish, too. They read poetry and went to concerts. Southern Jews of distinction were rarely interested in Hebraic culture, although some, required to do so by the Christian schools which trained them, had read the English Bible. In a formal sense most Jews were Orthodox; the intellectuals, on the whole, were indifferent to the traditional ritual and religious practices. Some did not join the synagog. Indeed, it is very probable that many Jewish settlers in the metropolitan centers were not affiliated with any congregation. All in all, during the years 1776–1840, few if any Jews in the South were known as litterateurs beyond the confines of the cities where they were cherished. After all, how many Gentiles in the contemporary South enjoyed national recognition as literati, or as leaders in the arts?64

Jewry in the South, at its cultural best, is exemplified by several individuals and families. These men and women are not typical of Southern Jewish shopkeepers. Certainly in the Richmond of the early nineteenth century, a number of Jews were rooted in the humanities. Among them was the businessman Solomon Jacobs (1775–1827), whose father was the Yiddish-speaking Barnard Itzhak Jacobs, country merchant in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania. Bernard had served his fellow Jews as a circumciser (mohel), traveling about in eastern Pennsylvania making himself available to his coreligionists. His circumcision record book, still extant, is in Hebrew. Like his father, Solomon was observant, interested in Richmond’s Beth Shalome congregation, which he served as president. Solomon married the daughter of Benjamin Nones, a Jeffersonian Republican politician and a leader in Philadelphia’s Sephardic congregation. Solomon began as a modest trader, but finally attained wealth. On the way up, he acquired a good education. He wrote well; his letters show him to have been clever, thoughtful, intelligent, humane. The general community respected him, for he had once been acting mayor of the city; he was thrice elected grandmaster of Virginia’s Masons, and when Lafayette visited Richmond in 1824, Solomon, together with Chief Justice John Marshall and others of the elite, was chosen to greet the distinguished Frenchman. For a time, Jacobs acted as an agent for the London Rothschilds, probably in the tobacco trade. This Virginian served also as a tobacco purchasing agent for the French government. He was kind to his “servants” (read “slaves”), upon whom, it is obvious from his correspondence, he looked as friends, as members of his family. One of them he emancipated. His tombstone carries the statement—a rare one—that he was “kind as a master.”65

Some Southern Jews were well educated. One of these was Myer M. [Moses?] Cohen (1804–1887), corporation lawyer, schoolmaster, politician, essayist, orator, communal worker, and soldier. In 1824, this scion of a well-known Charleston family, all of twenty years of age, assumed charge of a boys’ and girls’ English and classical academy, remaining at its head until 1828. The following year saw him admitted to the bar. By 1835 he was a justice of the peace and, in the same year, was elected to represent the districts of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s in the state legislature. In December, 1835, the Seminoles of Florida went to war with the United States for the second time. Troops were raised; volunteers came from several Southern states, including South Carolina. Some were thirty-day men, who returned home after their tour of duty was up. A number of these elected to remain in the service of General Winfield Scott’s army, which had been sent to round up the Indians during the spring of 1836 and moved against them in three converging groups, a right, center, and left wing. The campaign, which was over by April, failed, but the war dragged on until 1842. By that time most of the Seminoles had been deported; the few who remained found refuge in the swamps. Among the volunteers in the Thirty-Days Campaign and, later, in the Army of Florida was Cohen. As an officer of the Left Wing, he served in Col. A. H. Brisbane’s regiment as chief of the “Pioneers.” On his return to Charleston in May, 1836, a local publishing house asked him to write of his war experience. In less than a month’s time, he prepared a manuscript, which appeared as Notices of Florida and the Campaigns, by M. M. Cohen “an officer of the Left Wing.” “All may have if they dare try, A glorious life or grave,” he quoted magniloquently on the title page.66

Cohen reflected Charleston Jewry at its zenith. He was thoroughly at home in the polite letters and natural sciences of his time. Classical allusions pepper every chapter of his book. Verses from the great poets are scattered lavishly about, and sonorous periods are written in a typically euphuistic manner. Cohen would rather say “manducated” than “chewed”; he set out to be humorous and punned almost compulsively from preface to end. He is heroic, sentimental, romantic—in short he is the complete Charlestonian. And he is, of course, a South Carolina sectionalism critical of the federal government. Myer Cohen’s father, Philip Cohen, was a Nullification member of the Convention of 1832. A generation later, in New Orleans, Myer was tried—but acquitted—on the charge of attempting to assassinate a Reconstruction governor of Louisiana.

In 1837, Cohen had moved on to greener pastures, to New Orleans, then a boom town, where, during the next fifty years, he carved out a brilliant legal career for himself. The first year he landed in town, he addressed the young men of the New-Orleans Commercial Library Society, pleading for the mental and moral improvement of the youth. The watchcry of this cultured organization was: “Liberty! Washington! Knowledge!” His large and lucrative practice notwithstanding, he found time to participate in the founding of the New Orleans Bar Association, to teach in the local law school, and to publish the widely read Admiralty Jurisdiction, Law, and Practice (1883). “Judge” Cohen, as he was commonly known, for he had refused an appointment to a federal court, was also a recognized litterateur and lecturer who spoke frequently at Lyceum Hall.

Cohen makes no mention of Jews or Judaism in his writings. In his 1837 address to the Library Society, he maintained a low profile as a Jew. He quoted from the Latin, the Greek, the great writers of the Continent and of England, but he was very sparing in his references to the Old Testament. He had secured a Jewish education but when he related a talmudic anecdote, he identified his source as an anonymous “ancient sage.” Like his New Orleans friend Judah P. Benjamin, he certainly made no effort to identify himself as a Jew. In this address to the Society, he regretted that science was ancillary to commerce; we are the freest but not the most lettered polity. It is noteworthy that Cohen was not a member of Charleston’s religiously radical Reformed Society of Israelites, as far as the records show; ideologically, one would have expected him to subscribe to its tenets. The New Orleans Picayune, announcing his death in the issue of February 24, 1887, stressed Cohen’s constant efforts to aid the unfortunate victims of the terrible yellow fever epidemics which so often recurred in the city. A daughter reported that his dying words were: “Daughter, if you want to lead a good life, live for others and love your fellowman.”67


Savannah on the border of Georgia and South Carolina was for decades a cultural if not an economic satellite of Charleston. The town had a number of Jews, like the Sheftalls and Minises, who were highly respected. These two families were old-timers; they had arrived in the colony only a few months after its settlement. With the decline of Charleston, Savannah, closer to the West and its increasing opportunities, experienced years of growth. In 1838, the town received an important recruit in the person of Solomon Cohen (1802–1875); he had come from Georgetown, a port to the north of Charleston. His family was a good one. The father, of the same name, could boast that he had been postmaster, tax collector, a noncommissioned officer in the militia, a director of the bank, a member of the best social clubs, a protagonist of a proposed library society, and also intendant (mayor) of Georgetown for the years 1818–1819. Rebecca Gratz’s niece had married the son, who, like the father, was “the great man of the village,” as Rebecca put it. The younger Cohen practiced law in town, served as a director of the bank, and went to the state legislature as a Nullificationist. In Savannah, his new home, he soon stood out as a leading citizen. Here, too, in Georgia, he served in the state assembly. There were few activities in which he was not engaged, for he was an alderman, a postmaster, a founder of the public school system, a banker, a railroad builder, and a president of the local congregation. In post-Civil War days, he was elected to Congress, but the federal authorities would not permit him to take his seat.68

Years before Solomon Cohen came to Savannah, one of the town’s best-known citizens was Dr. Jacob De La Motta (1789–1845). Like other members of the South’s Jewish elite, he had many interests. One suspects that here, too, was another Southerner who, in no pejorative sense, was a dilettante, for he was a lover of the arts, a man interested in many branches of knowledge. The doctor was also an apothecary, a botanist, and an amateur hazzan. He wrote prolifically in a number of fields, medicine, Judaism, literature. De La Motta was very much interested in politics and in the welfare of the general community. He had received his degree in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, at the age of twenty-one. The idealism which was to characterize him all through his life is reflected in his dissertation, in which he expressed the hope that he would one day relieve the distress of mankind. After serving as a surgeon in the North during the War of 1812, he remained there in private practice, and when Hazzan Seixas died the congregation asked him to deliver the eulogy. He arranged to have it printed. Years later De La Motta was called upon to preach a funeral sermon in a Charleston Presbyterian church (1827); this, too, was published.

By 1818, he was back in Savannah, the city of his birth, practicing medicine, surgery, and obstetrics. Like his contemporary Dr. D. L. M. Peixotto, De La Motta was a great joiner. In New York, he had belonged not to one but to three medical societies; he had to be content with one in Savannah. In a discourse in which he addressed himself to the subject of yellow fever, he reminded his audience that medicine was a science, an art, in which the beauties and the philosophy of nature were intimately blended. No doubt it pleased him that he was in demand as an after-dinner speaker; his rhetorical bombast, the style of the day, was very much admired. Following in the footsteps of his father who had been one of the incorporators of the Savannah synagog in 1790, young De La Motta was devoted to the congregation. He urged the Savannah Jews to erect a building of their own; they had been in town nearly ninety years and had yet to build their first sanctuary. When it was erected, finally, he was invited to make the consecration address at a service where, for the first time in American Jewish life, an organ was used to accompany the Hebrew psalms that were sung. (The Friday services, however, were held before the coming of the Sabbath.) With an eye no doubt on the Christians in his audience, Dr. De La Motta emphasized the egalitarian nature of American citizenship. Copies of his address were sent to Jefferson and Madison, and both men answered, stressing the country’s distinction as a land of freedom for all. Jefferson hammered away at a favorite theme—there could be no real freedom if there was an established church. In matters of religion, “divided we stand, united we fall!” Let the Jews turn to science, said the sage of Monticello, and let them not fail, when ready, to assume the burden of public office. De La Motta was certainly willing; he ran for office in Savannah—alas, unsuccessfully.

In 1823, reversing the western trek, the doctor moved east to Charleston, where he pleaded in vain for a medical college and set up an institute of sorts to correct impediments of speech. Always astir, he opened a drug store to complement his practice, wrote papers on botany, and addressed the Literary and Philosophical Society of Charleston. In New York, he had not failed to lecture at the Lyceum of Natural History. The Royal Academy of Medicine in Paris elected him a corresponding member, and his Savannah friends made him an honorary member of the Georgia Historical Society. Years earlier while in New York City, he had become a Mason and had played a role in the order in Savannah; ultimately he became one of the elect, accorded the 33d degree. Here, too, he was following in the footsteps of his father Emanuel, one of the founders of Scottish Rite Masonry in this country.

Politics never ceased to appeal to Jacob. In Nullification days he was on the Unionist side; he ran for Congress and was defeated, though his support of the Whig Harrison brought him a federal appointment. At the dinner celebrating Harrison’s victory, he got up and sang a song whose lyrics he had written. When in 1841 Charleston Jewry split on the rock of Reform, he joined the secessionist Orthodox minority, which elected him president of the breakaway group, Shearith Israel, the Remnant of Israel. Here, as in Savannah, he was always ready to chaunt the services. In his will, he enjoined his heirs to be particularly kind to a Negro slave and her son; she was to be treated gently and not to be sold on any account. Was he a great physician and scientist? Not at all. But he was a cultured Southern gentleman with an itch for speaking and writing. Was he successful? By no means! After his death his embittered mother-in-law was called upon to help support the family.69


Dr. De La Motta was scarcely unique. A variation of this genre of the antebellum Southern Jew is exemplified in the life and career of Joseph Lyons (1813–1837), of Columbia, South Carolina. The young man—he was dead at twenty-four—was a South Carolinian before he was an American. He was an American before he was a Jew. There were others with variant degrees of loyalty to Jewry. It was obvious that this man would be a Nullificationist; he went out of his way, visiting the North, to wear a palmetto button affixed to his hat to proclaim devotion to his state. When he went to South Carolina College in his home town of Columbia, he joined the Euphradians, a literary society. He had acquired a knowledge of art and architecture, had read some metaphysics, was well-versed in English literature and had a knowledge of Latin, French, Spanish, and Greek. His readings included works in the field of American history and mineralogy; he played the flute and the violin.

He says nothing about his knowledge of Hebrew; the Old Testament was a “contemptible” book, yet he proposed to write a general history of the Jews and their literature. He refused to go to Kol Nidre services on Yom Kippur night, the holiest in the Jewish calendar, but fasted the next day. He solemnly confided to his diary in 1833 that there would be no synagog in the United States in fifty years, certainly not a traditional one. Yet he was resentful when a relative kept his shop open on the Sabbath. Though no believer in Judaism, he thought for a while of preparing himself in London to serve the Charlestonians as a minister. With the salary they would give him, he could lead a life of ease and devote himself to literature. He wrote poetry and records the following in answer to a “fool” who told him that she was sorry for him:

You are sorry for me!!!

Eternal God! Am I then that thing

As to excite pity!

Give me deep scorn, without disguise,

Most rancorous hatred, abhorrence,

Anything, but pity!

Lyons started reading Blackstone in Savannah in 1833, passed the bar in 1835, and thought of opening an office in New Orleans. By 1837, he was in Paris where he died; he had been sick for years.70

Lyons was frequently in Charleston where he had kin. Somewhat facetiously he calls it a city of bananas, books, and oysters. Actually, for him it was a city of books. The town’s bookishness is reflected in the life of Jacob Clavius Levy (1788–1875), who apparently inherited a substantial fortune from his father Moses C. Levy, a pious Galician immigrant and a devotee of Masonry. Jacob, a banker, lost his money in the 1837 depression when the Jewish banking house of Joseph closed its doors. He salvaged enough, however, to retire and to spend the rest of his days in literary pursuits. He wrote an article on the emerging Reform movement in the Southern Quarterly Review and was the author of the hymn sung at the dedication of the new Charleston synagog in 1841. Levy spent his mornings in the Charleston library studying; at night his home became a salon where he received, among other guests, the naturalist Louis Agassiz.

Two of his daughters were exceptional. One, Eugenia, married Philip Phillips, the lawyer and congressman. In her memoirs, Eugenia, informed the world that she was a “delicate” woman. This adjective had nuances. Eugenia married at sixteen, bore her husband nine children, twice suffered imprisonment at Yankee hands, and lived to write a brief autobiography before she passed away at the age of eighty-one. She was a highly intelligent, literate, recalcitrant Southern rebel. A younger sister Phoebe Yates Levy Pember wrote a volume of delightful memoirs. Samuel Yates Levy, a brother, a graduate of the South Carolina College, loved and recited poetry, wrote some good verse himself, and entertained his friends by playing the piano and guitar. He began to read Virgil at the age of seven. After a fashion, Jacob C. Levy represented Charleston at its best.71

In the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, Charleston was one of the most important cities in the United States, a city distinguished alike for its wealth and its culture. Its aristocracy set the tone for large areas throughout the South. The town had its library and its college, its museum, concerts, balls, and races. Artists such as Rembrandt Peale came down from the North to paint the wealthy planters. New Orleans and Mobile were growing fast, but in the early days they were still no competition for Charleston. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had revolutionized Southern economic life; the big crop was no longer indigo or rice or tobacco, but cotton. Thousands of bales found their way across the Atlantic to the new power-driven English mills, and the finished goods and luxuries that came back by way of New York established the new cotton triangular trade of New York, Charleston, and England.

It was against this prosperous, cultured, aristocratic yet cosmopolitan background that Charleston Jewry in this quarter century blossomed forth, for a relatively short time, as the greatest Jewish community in America. Given an even chance, no Jewish group ever lags far behind the cultural and economic leaders of the community in which it finds itself. Few, if any of the town’s Jews, were planters on a large scale; many were shopkeepers, auctioneers, and commission merchants. A number of them were wealthy and built beautiful homes notable for luxurious appointments. The standard of education in the congregation was high, and even those in relatively modest circumstances were given an excellent opportunity in the private schools to study English, Latin, Italian, French and Spanish. Beth Elohim could boast of its physicians and schoolmasters, its portrait and miniature painters, its constables, justices of the peace, and militia officers, as well as its coreligionists in the state legislature. The town sheltered dramatists, critics, journalists, statisticians, dentists and pharmacists, lawyers and capitalists. The Cardozos, De La Mottas, Moïses, Harbys, Carvalhos, Clavius Levys, and Philip Cohens were not everyday middle-class citizens. They were all definitely far above the average, people of education and some distinction.72

Nearly all of America’s Jewish coastal communities had sanctuaries which they themselves had erected, but it was universally conceded that Charleston’s was the largest and most beautiful. Crowds filled it during the Holy Days—many Jews, no doubt, coming in from the countryside—and, if we may believe a rather enthusiastic contemporary witness, the young Jewesses who frequented it were the most beautiful in the world! (The matrons, he sadly records, were just the opposite.) The course of Americanization, as reflected at least in the anglicized and Anglo-Saxon names, had already proceeded apace; the town and state directory included Jews by the name of Barrett, Coleman, Harris, Henry, Hunt, Jackson, Jones, Morse, Pool, Simpson, Waterman, and even Lee—not to be confused with the Virginians of that name. About year 1810, Hannah Adams, anticipating the ultimate conversion of the Jews, sat down to write The History of the Jews from the Destruction of Jerusalem to the Nineteenth Century. As she declared in her Preface, “she had spared no exertions in her power to collect authentic documents.” As part of her plan, she had written for information to representative Jews in the various towns of the United States. Her correspondent in Charleston was Philip Cohen. Cohen was an educated man, a merchant, who in increasing measure enjoyed the confidence and respect of his fellow citizens. In later years, he became a member of the Board of Health, was one of the commissioners of the Marine Hospital, and, as pointed out above, served as a “secessionist” delegate to the famous Nullification Convention of 1832 when the state threatened to secede from the Union in protest against obnoxious tariffs.73

In his answer, Cohen told Adams: “The Jews in Charleston enjoy equal literary advantages with the other members of the community.… the Hebrews can boast of several men of talents and learning among them.” Cohen may well have exaggerated; he was trying to put his best foot forward; yet there can be no question that, prior to the 1820’s, Charleston Jewry was the largest and most cultured community in the United States. After that time, despite the rise of other cities in the Old Southwest, it still remained the cultural center of Southern Jewry up to the Civil War. How deep, how intense was this learning and scholarship? Among a few, it was certainly impressive.74


From the point of view of knowledge, intellect, sheer learning, Isaac Harby (1788–1828) would appear to have been Charleston Jewry’s most learned, most brilliant mind in matters literary. His grandfather, a Moroccan merchant, compelled to flee North Africa, had taken refuge in England where he assumed the name Harby (not improbably a variation of the North African Jewish Arbib or Arby). A son of the Moroccan refugee migrated first to Jamaica and then settled in Charleston in the 1780’s. This newcomer saw to it that his son Isaac received an excellent education. Young Harby was a wunderkind. At fourteen he was translating part of Homer into verse; at sixteen he made his maiden speech in the Philomathean Society, a literary and debating group—the subject of his address: “Whether Moral Causes Have More Influence in National Character Than Physical.” In the early days, at least, his writing tended to be precious; he swamped his readers with classical illusions, often in the original. While still a teenager he wrote pseudonymous letters to the press, letters in which he set out to exhibit his brilliance and classical knowledge. This was adolescence undisguised.

To a degree, a man’s library often reflects the man. Harby read French and Spanish and probably Italian. He had a number of Italian works in translation; the Latin and Greek classics on his shelves were in the original. English and French works were abundant; Schiller was represented by an English translation of his History of the Thirty Years’ War. His library included Benjamin Franklin, Joel Barlow (The Columbiad), the political Letters of Junius, and Dr. David Ramsay’s History of South Carolina. There were other histories in his library; in fact, he had a little bit of everything. There were works on the French Revolution and Bonaparte. The young Charlestonian admired the Corsican who, as a testamentary legatee of the French Revolution, had brought religious freedom wherever he went. Harby had books on almost any subject, on Masonry, Hindu philosophy, medicine. Timothy Dwight’s epic poem the Conquest of Canaan and Wollaston’s popular Religion of Nature Delineated might well nestle side by side. Some of these books were inherited from his father.

When the father died, the seventeen-year-old Harby, the eldest in the family, dropped his law studies and went to work to support a family of six. (He was really not interested in the law.) Essentially a teacher and a journalist, Harby learned to write simply, beautifully, forcefully. In a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, protesting the dismissal of consul Mordecai M. Noah, Harby demonstrated that he could write powerfully and incisively. In this particular letter, the classically-minded writer restrained himself, limiting his citations to but one Latin quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid and a short Latin phrase. The life of this gifted man was marked by a constant struggle to survive. He married early and had nine mouths to feed. He was rarely if ever at ease financially. For years he taught school—he was deemed an excellent pedagogue—playing in the yard with his students during the recreation period, thrashing them soundly in class when he thought it necessary. He loved the classics as a source of “virtue and patriotism.” This man who earned his bread and butter as a schoolteacher and journalist certainly would have preferred to be known as a dramatist. His generation, his loyal friends, genuflected to him as one of the town’s distinguished writers. At the age of seventeen the aspiring playwright showed his Alexander Severus to Alexander Placide, the French-born director of the local theatre. Placide told the eager young man the “Englise vas not veri coot.” It had no “incidents,” no adventures, nothing “to catch de people.”75

Two years later he wrote The Gordian Knot, or Cause and Effects, a romantic melodrama with a complicated plot—but it ended as it should: the lovers ultimately found each other. Though not intended to be didactic, the play did point a moral, for it touched on the abuses of religion whenever a state supports an established church. Alberti, a play dealing with freedom, patriotism, and democracy, was produced in 1819. Though the scene was fifteenth-century Florence, the themes reflected the nationalism that followed on the War of 1812. This Charleston litterateur knew full well that a play had to entertain, but he was equally convinced it had to be a cultural vehicle emphasizing the moral and picturing the inner grandeur of the soul. President Monroe, to whom Harby had once written a strong monitory note, came to the second performance; there were a thousand people in the theatre. It was a great day for the author. One of the objections voiced against Alberti was that it was written by an American; many in that generation were accustomed to British plays. In the spirit of the new emerging nationalism, Harby proudly called attention to his works; they were American. Though many of his contemporaries praised him, he was no dramatist of note. The Gordian Knot was staged once; Alberti at least twice. His plays were not stageworthy; they were not good theatre. His style verged on the bombastic; pretentious, inflated speech was in vogue, relished by many.

Harby achieved some distinction as an essayist and as a literary critic. In his day there were litterateurs—in England, too—who valued and respected his writing. A selection of his best essays and criticisms was collected and published shortly after his death. Eleven of his articles were concerned with the national election campaign of 1824; they appeared under the pseudonym “Junius.” Harby, of course, had appropriated this signature from the prerevolutionary Letters of Junius, which attacked the British ministers for their approach to the disaffected colonial Americans. Harby wrote on Scott, on Byron, on the actors Charles John Kean and Thomas Apthorpe Cooper. He took to task a writer in the London Quarterly Review who “visits the groves of the Muses, but to trample on their blossoms.” As a lover of the classics—the importance of which was already denied by some in that day—Harby urged their retention in the colleges. Translations? They are inadequate. It is not improbable that the Charlestonians stressed the writings of Rome and Greece for reasons which may not have occurred even to him. The classics were colored with the aura of aristocracy. (Hebrew, too, was classical, but most Jews tended to ignore it; it identified them too closely with the Chosen People.) The classical tradition in England stretched back for centuries, to the early days of its cultural renascence. Knowledge of Latin and Greek brought status, which appealed to the Southern Jewish literati. Young Jews in the towns and at the state college helped found ephemeral literary societies with Greek names reflecting love of learning: euphradian, metulogical, philomathean. These young men wanted to be numbered among the elite.76

In June, 1828, Harby, a widower, decided to go to New York; he could not make a living for his large family in Charleston. As he told Charleston’s Unitarian minister in 1826, New York was the city of the future. A sister went along with him to look after his brood and to help him with the private school that he established in his own home. He began—and ended—as a free lance writer. One of the last of his essays was a “Defence of the Drama,” which appeared in The New-York Evening Post. In this apologia he set out to prove—what many evangelicals denied—that the theatre was a moral, civilizing, instructive institution. The stage reflects the world; it is more than mere entertainment; it is a mental stimulus, a “moving picture, pregnant with truth and animation.” About six months after his arrival in the metropolis, Harby died, leaving behind him an impoverished family. A local theatre gave a benefit performance in order to help provide for the little ones; a volume of selections from his writings was published with the same purpose in mind. Despite his short residence in New York, he had already made an impact on its cultural life. The New York Mirror and the Post both paid homage to him as a man of vast classical learning, a person of no ordinary taste and intelligence. Today the historian recognizes that this litterateur was no luminary in the world of early American writers despite the praise measured out to him by his contemporaries, Jews and Gentiles. Mordecai M. Noah was more distinguished as a personality, as a politician, as a dramatist, as a journalist—but Harby certainly was a cultured, scholarly litterateur.77

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