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It was not only in the South that a number of Jews of literary bent were to be found; there were some Jews of cultural stature in the North, too. It would not be difficult to compile an impressive list of educated men and women who spent their lives north of the Mason-Dixon Line; the rank and file of the Chosen People in the North were probably as well-educated as the typical native-born Jewish shopkeepers and professionals in the South. Bear in mind that by 1835 there were about 3,000 town lyceums in the United States, most of them in the North, and undoubtedly there were Jewish members. Not all Central European immigrants were untutored. As yet, there is no definitive confirmation of the statement by Mordecai M. Noah that the Jews of the South were more literate than those in the North.1

Among the Jews of the North, the Hays-Touro clan stands out. The Hays family came out of Boston in the last decades of the eighteenth century after the Newport community had gone into a precipitous decline. Moses Michael Hays (1739–1805), a man of culture and breeding, was a scion of an old New York family; Hazzan Touro, of Newport, was his brother-in-law. When the hazzan and his wife died, Hays took their three children into his Boston home. The two Touro boys grew up to become very successful businessmen and philanthropists. Neither married, and Abraham Touro, of Boston, the older of Hays’s nephews, gave to Jewish causes and evinced an interest in general cultural institutions. Judah Touro, long of New Orleans, the richest Jew of his day in the United States, was an eccentric with few if any pronounced cultural concerns. Their cousin, Judah Hays (1770–1832), Moses Hays’s son, was one of the founders of the Boston Athenaeum, a private subscription library. Long before this, in colonial days, some of Newport’s Jews had been members of the town’s Redwood Library, the first library building in the provinces. In the early nineteenth century, young Judah Hays was numbered among those who had helped establish Boston’s Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy; its members were interested in astronomy, botany, zoology, and chemistry.2

One of the Hayses married into the Gratz family. Michael Gratz’s sons and daughters, all native Americans, received a good education as befitted the children of an affluent merchant. Rebecca was the sibling most interested in literature. She moved with dignity and acceptance in the best literary circles, though she herself, so it would seem, left no writings behind her except an occasional prayer and a large body of personal correspondence. Among her friends and admirers was Louisa B. Hart (1803–1874), a native of Easton, who made her home in Philadelphia. The two women worked together in the Jewish charities and in the Sunday School. Though a village girl, Louisa had received a good education in general studies, in Hebrew, and in music. There had been a pianoforte in the Easton house. Louisa’s diary and letters show her to have been a woman of superior intellect. Active in a Jewish sewing society that discussed literary matters, this woman was highly intelligent, sensitive, and wrote well. Intellectually, she was on a par with Rebecca Gratz.3

None of Rebecca’s five brothers were literati, yet all were interested in the arts and sciences. Simon was a director of the Pennsylvania Botanic Garden and the Academy of Fine Arts. This Pennsylvania academy numbered Moses Levy, the lawyer, among its founders. Hyman Gratz was elected to office in the Academy and was interested in the archaeology of Mammoth Cave, once part of the family holdings. He was on the board of the first American Jewish Publication Society in 1845 and directed that his residual estate be used to establish a Jewish college.

Quite a number of Philadelphia Jews supported the Academy of Fine Arts; one individual, at least, was an exhibitor, a professional artist. Brother Jacob Gratz was on the board of the Apprentices Library; Jacob, college graduate, president of a canal company, and state senator, was also on the board of a local library, the Athenaeum. Like the Academy of Fine Arts, the Athenaeum had many Jewish subscribers. Jacob and Hyman Gratz were both friends of the Library Company of Philadelphia; a local Jew gave this company a Hebrew letter written by the Presbyterian Ezra Stiles to his rabbinical friend, Haim Isaac Carigal. As far back as colonial days, David Franks had extended his support to the Library Company. Benjamin Etting, a kinsman of the Gratzes, was secretary of the Mercantile Library. Ben Gratz, of Lexington, the only brother to leave the East, was a trustee of Kentucky’s Transylvania College and helped establish the public library in Lexington. He was admired for his efforts to further higher education in the state.4


In a sense, the Gratzes reflected the culture of Philadelphia Jewry at a time when that city was the country’s preeminent metropolis. In the 1820’s, however, New York gradually forged ahead. One of the best known Jews in the synagogal community was Isaac M. Gomez, Jr. (1768–1831). His intellectual abilities were recognized, and when war was declared in 1812, he was called upon to make an appropriate address to the congregation. (Apparently the minister Gershom Seixas, was bypassed on that occasion.) Gomez fancied himself a poet, though what he wrote was doggerel. He did better in 1820 when he published Selections of a Father, a literary anthology designed to teach the younger generation the rules of virtue. By that year New York Jewry had already printed a few sermons, eulogies, a travel book, an oration, and a play. This cultural precipitate was anything but impressive, but Gomez’s book is worth remembering as one of American Jewry’s earliest literary efforts. After all, only a man who had read widely and intelligently could have culled this material. The Selections received an enthusiastic endorsement from old John Adams, though the ex-president regretted Cicero’s omission and found the material on lawyers was by no means sympathetic. Gomez, both a devotee of the humanities and a committed observant Jew, lived comfortably ensconced in the two worlds of the Jew and the cultured American. Acculturation had certainly not diminished his religious loyalties. A grandson born to a daughter in 1824, marked the sixth generation the family had lived on this continent. Since Lafayette, a friend of Gomez, was then making his triumphal tour of America, the little boy was named Lafayette Gomez Emanuel.5

New York’s affluent Jewish families were determined to give their children a good general education. It would seem, however, that the cultural emphasis in the North was somewhat different than in the South. In imitation of the Southern Gentile elite, the scholastic drive in the South was in the direction of the Latin and Greek classics and the mythology of the ancient Mediterranean world; the Jews of the North, more pragmatic in their approach, never lost sight of the countinghouse. Seixas, the minister, no man of means in any sense of the term, was determined to give his numerous sons and daughters the advantages that came with schooling. He is, in a way, a good example of the autodidact. He was at home in the literature of England; when young he had immersed himself in writings criticizing both Judaism and Christianity, but no matter what he read, his faith remained unimpaired. Even so, Seixas was never able to write a good sermon, if one may judge from his two published efforts and the manuscript fragments still extant. The man was no litterateur. He was at his best in his chatty personal letters to his daughter Sally Kursheedt in Richmond. Here, in these notes to her, he let himself go; they are so much more interesting than the long sedate balanced letters which Rebecca Gratz wrote her friends and relatives; they are livelier, more human, more gossipy, more earthy.6



Grace Seixas Nathan (1752–1831) was far superior to her brother Gershom as a literary figure; she was more gifted. She, too, had read widely and, it would appear, had some knowledge of Latin and French. Her letters were sprightly, alive; this vivacity was typical of her and Gershom. Her prime cultural interest was poetry; like many in her day, her favorite poet was Byron. Her verse is tender, thoughtful, imaginative. When Shearith Israel purchased a new cemetery on Twenty-first Street, she wrote the following verse:

Reflections on Passing Our New Burial Ground

Within those walls made sacred to the dead,

Where yet no spade has rudely turned a sod,

No requiem chanted for a spirit fled,

No prayer been offered to the throne of God.

There in due form shall holy rites be given,

And the last solemn strain float so high in air

That listening Angels shall bear it to Heaven

And the soul of the just be deposited there.7


Grace Nathan enjoyed no repute as a poet in her day, at least there is no known record; none of her verse appears to have been published during her lifetime. The best-known Jewish poet of that day, a younger contemporary of Grace Nathan, was a Southerner, Penina Moïse (1797–1880), well-known to Jewish historians and highly respected because much that she wrote found its way into print. Her poems appeared in Leeser’s Occident and in the newspapers of Charleston, Boston, Washington, and New Orleans; even more important is the fact that they were accepted by the editors of Godey’s Lady Book and The Home Journal. She was the first American Jewish woman whose poems and hymns were collected in book form: Fancy’s Sketch Book and Hymns Written for the Service of the Hebrew Congregation Beth Elohim. Penina was the daughter of Haitian refugees fleeing in the 1790’s from a slave revolt. When the father died leaving the Moïses impoverished, the little girl had to go to work at the age of twelve to help support a large family. She did fancy sewing, making lace and embroidery. Obviously she had little schooling, but she read a great deal, the best in English literature. Charleston’s Jews put her in charge of the local Sunday School.

After the Civil War, if not earlier, she ran a small school. Penina was an excellent teacher; a clever versifier, she taught the children in rhymes. The Charleston Jewish community was very proud of her. She was prolific enough; writing hundreds of poems. Many of her verses are stilted and have little appeal for readers today; she was shackled by the classical traditions which enveloped her. On occasion a spark of beauty was struck by her pen, but only rarely did the Shekinah descend upon her. Some of her hymns are still sung. The following are two verses of a hymn written to commemorate the loss of her only sister.

When I would smile, remembrance brings

A thousand sad and bitter things,

Vexations, crosses, wrongs and woes,

That blighted hope and broke repose.

Heavenly Sire! Holy One!

When shall I say, Thy will be done!

I mourned for one, who like a twin,

Shared every thought that passed within.

“Oh! would that I might die for thee,”

Was echoed in my agony.

Heavenly Sire! Holy One!

I should have said, Thy will be done!

The following are four verses from a poem in a somewhat different vein:


Oh! hide those eyes of violet hue,

Wild passion they inspire;

They beam too fiercely to be blue,

Their dew is lost in fire.

Yet in thine heart eternal snow

The torch of Love destroys;

Long have I felt affection’s woe,

But never felt its joys.

I saw thee cull a lovely rose

And place it near thy heart;

I knew its languid leaves would close,

Its fragrance would depart.

In sorrow I behold the flower

On thy cold bosom lie;

I knew ‘twould languish there an hour,

I knew it then would die!

Her last years were sad; she was blind and her body was harrowed by neuralgia. Here is her definition of this torment:

Neuralgia, a fugitive from purgatory, who having served as an apprentice in Lucifer’s penal laboratory, acquired such proficiency in the art of torturing that, having excited the jealousy of her master, quitted the Satanic institute, and established a patent rack and screw factory, distancing all nerve racking competitors—not excepting the familiars of the Inquisition.

The last words of this pain-stricken old woman were: “Lay no flowers on my grave. They are for those who live in the sun, and I have always lived in the shadow.”8


Penina Moïse was a fervent secessionist, as was her younger contemporary Octavia Harby Moses (1823–1904). Even in postbellum years Mrs. Moses held high the banner of the South’s Lost Cause. Five of her sons served in the Confederate Army; one was murdered by Union troops after he had surrendered. Octavia was a daughter of Isaac Harby and, like her father and some of her siblings, was interested in belles lettres. She had begun to write when thirteen and was already married at sixteen. The following is a verse from a poem dedicated to her daughter Rebecca on her fifteenth birthday:

Fifteen to-day! With magic power

Remembrance sweeps the past away,

And leads me back to that sweet hour,

When I, too, said fifteen to-day!

In that fresh season all was glad,

Young hope, gay visions brought to view,

While joy in rosy vestments clad,

Lent to each hour her own bright hue.9


An uncle of Octavia—George Washington Harby (1797–1862)—was interested in the theatre. Washington Harby, as he was known, was far more successful as a dramatist than his older brother Isaac. This is certainly true from the vantage point of the box office. This younger Harby is rarely mentioned in the one-volume histories of American Jewry. He settled in New Orleans sometime in the 1820’s, married out—twice, to be exact—and reared a family of non-Jews, for whom he provided by running a private academy; later, he was employed as a public school teacher. Washington was a gifted man, a popular orator, a recognized educationist, a respected litterateur. The plays he wrote numbered a dozen at least; not one was ever published; some were not even produced. The titles of his melodramas are appealing: Minka or the Russian Daughter, Twenty Years’ Life of a Courtesan.10

For literary-historical reasons Harby’s Tutoona or the Indian Girl is most interesting. This blood and thunder drama was performed in New Orleans on February 22, 1835, George Washington’s birthday. It was an American play. The background is the defeat of the British at Saratoga in 1777, the new republic’s greatest victory in the war. The real heroes of this story are the Indian chief Coppersnake and his daughter Tutoona. The chief stands out as a savage ennobled by his love for his daughter, by his consideration for the white captive Mary, and by his devotion to liberty and freedom, a devotion that impels him to become an American patriot. With righteous indignation, he does not fail to hold the white men up to scorn because they have given the Indians rifles and debauched them with liquor. In a way, this drama is an elegy for the Indians who have been cheated and mistreated. As befits a play presented on Washington’s birthday, the theme of patriotism is stressed repeatedly: “Let the flag of freedom wave in triumph o’er our heads or droop in funeral folds over our corpses.” In a toast to General George Washington the leader of all the American armies, the author adds a Jacksonian touch, “May the yeomanry of our country build thereon a noble structure.”

One of G. W. Harby’s best plays, adapted from Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods, dealt with murderous Indians and a brutal white avenger. One suspects that brother Isaac Harby would have thrown up his hands in dismay at a spectacle such as this but the New Orleans audiences loved it. It was a very popular piece and was performed in Natchez, Saint Louis, and Philadelphia. One performance of Nick of the Woods was a benefit for the dramatist, who seems to have been frequently in need. On this occasion, in order to give the audience full measure for its money, the producers added the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice and even threw in an operetta.11

New Orleans in the 1830’s was a wide open town with much interest in the theatre. The enthusiasm of the two Harby brothers for the stage was shared by many Jews. This involvement of the Jews in the drama goes back to colonial times both here and in South America. A dramatist, a native Brazilian and a Judaizing heretic, Antonio Jose da Silva was burnt at the stake in Portugal in 1739. Da Silva was a notable poet and writer. Several decades later, in 1775, the Dutch Guiana Jews set up an amateur theatre of their own after they had been barred by a Christian theatrical society. Jews as performers were appearing in North America in the guise of jugglers. The first Jew seen on the American stage in legitimate drama was the “villain” Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice. That was in 1752 at Williamsburg in Virginia. The pejorative indoctrination was interrupted in the latter part of the century when three editions of Cumberland’s The Jew were published in 1795 in Boston, New York, and Baltimore; that same year this comedy about a “benevolent Hebrew” moneylender was produced in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Jews were among the many liberal-minded citizens throughout the country who were eager to encourage theatrical productions. Moses M. Hays, of Boston, appears to have been one of the leaders of the group which sought to license a theatre in Boston in the 1790’s. The Bostonian argued that plays polished manners and promoted morality.12

By the 1820’s, if not earlier, Jews had begun making their appearance in the United States as theatre managers and as actors playing stellar roles. The year 1826 was a productive one for them. In Princeton, New Jersey, Dr. A. Borrenstein published the Sacred Dramas of Hannah More, while Da Ponte republished three of his older musical dramas; one of these, Don Giovanni, reproduced the text in both Italian and English. That same year, as it has been pointed out earlier, Mathias Lopez edited four plays for publication. In 1830, Gustavus A. Myers, then a young man of twenty-nine, wrote a one-act farce based on a story from the French and called Nature and Philosophy, an interesting love story of a young man who had never seen a girl; he had been reared by his father, a misogynist. The play reads well even today. The girl Eliza thus describes a lover to the naive male hero:

A lover, they say, is both gentle and kind,

To the faults of his mistress, obligingly blind.

Whatever she wishes, he flies to obtain.

And absent, or near her, he’s ever in pain.

When she frowns, he is sad.

Oh! then he runs mad.

If she sickens and dies, why without more ado,

He straight must fall sick, and be sure to die too.

With heart aches, and sighing and dying d’ye see,

And that’s what they tell me, a lover should be.

This farce was frequently performed in the United States and England; presumably, the text used was the one prepared by Myers.13


Among the fledging Jewish dramatists and writers of the 1820’s and 1830’s, the most interesting one, after a fashion, was Samuel B. H. Judah (1799/1804–1876). He was certainly not the most talented, but he was the most interesting because of his determination to become a successful writer. Judah was the scion of an old New York colonial family; his father had been a successful merchant. Between 1820 and 1835, Samuel wrote and published at least eight plays, a dramatic poem, and a “romance.” He had managed to secure a rather good education, even though his father had lost his wealth during the days of the Jeffersonian embargoes and the postwar depression that followed the second war with the English. Judah had a knowledge of the classics and a very extensive vocabulary of polysyllables. Between 1820 and 1823, three of his plays were produced, if only for a performance or two in New York. One was also staged in Philadelphia. This is an achievement for a man in his early twenties. In 1822, he wrote a dramatic poem of eighty-nine pages. He sent a copy to former Presidents Jefferson and Adams, and probably to Madison also.

Adams, then in his eighty-seventh year, found this Gothic composition horrible; he admitted that the young man showed marked genius, but urged him to write something agreeable and useful. In the letter to Jefferson, Judah had described himself as only fifteen years of age; at the time that he wrote his poem, he was actually twenty-three. The old man very clearly brushed him off; he did not have to read very far in Odofriede, the Outcast to realize it was not to his taste. He turned it over to some of the younger fry in the family and then wrote Judah that “the chill of 80 winters had so compleately extinguished his sensibility to the beauties of poetry as to leave him no longer competent either to enjoy or judge them.” These charming few lines prove that Jefferson was old, but certainly not senile.

In 1823, Samuel wrote A Tale of Lexington, a Revolutionary War play produced on July 4th of that year. Like many other writers of his time, he was a cultural nationalist, eager to further the national literature and to employ American themes. The young dramatist, fully aware of the success of Noah’s patriotic plays and their strong appeal, was consumed with envy. Judah believed that the United States was as fertile in genius and learning as England; he wanted American talent to be fostered; the theatre must emancipate itself from England and the continent. Yet, despite his successes, he was a failure—which may well been due to his style of writing. Samuel Judah had skill and facility, but all his writings were characterized by a bombast that was often ludicrous. A modern critic had said of his writing that it was of the “paleozoic variety.” Embittered by lack of recognition as a dramatist, resentful of the success of others, totally unable to gauge his own work, deficient of good common sense, pathetically starved for attention, frustrated, conceited, and determined that people would yet pay heed to him, Judah vented his spleen in 1823 in the publication of an anonymous versified satire in which he attacked over 100 individuals in the United States, all well-known writers. His booklet was called Gotham and the Gothamites: A Medley. The pseudonym he adopted was: Terentius Phlogobombus. In form, the Medley followed successful satires then being published in England and the United States. He made little effort to conceal the names of his victims. His verses were not satirical; they were malicious, scurrilous—and boring. Only rarely did he come up with a successful couplet such as the following:

Reforming saints, look that your own heart be true,

Ere you Christianize the Indian, or convert the Jew.

One of the prime objects of his hatred was the successful Mordecai M. Noah, whom he attacked at least ten times. Sheriff Noah, he implied, was himself an unhanged rogue, a “pertinacious scribbler” of “insipid garbage.” Judah’s pseudonym was penetrated; he was sent to jail for about five weeks, but released speedily because of illness. Several years later, 1827, he wrote a pseudonymous romance set in late seventeenth-century British New York. The period was the rebellion of Captain Jacob Leisler. Judah in this long book may well have been influenced by James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales. Judah, too, has his noble savage who says: “May our great Father, who is alike the Friend of the white and the red man, for we are all his children, protect you.” It is not an interesting book; it is not a work of literary merit. Earlier, by the 1820’s, he had studied law and had been admitted to the bar; for a long time he seems to have been the only Jewish lawyer in town. He made a living collecting bad debts. His lack of character and of ability, so we are informed, were such that his peers held him in low esteem.14


The Judah family belonged to the congregation of New York’s Shearith Israel. Samuel’s father had once been president of the congregation; his successor was Naphtali Phillips (1773–1870). The Phillips family was different; very few of the second generation were in trade. This was a clan interested in the theatre, in writing drama, comedy, tragedy. Some recorded history; some were journalists, lawyers, and politicians, essayists, poets, and fiction writers. Jonas Altamount Phillips, a successful lawyer in what was probably the best Jewish firm in Philadelphia, seems to have been a Hebrew grammarian. His son, Henry M. Phillips, Jr. (b. 1838), was a scholar of international repute. He was a lawyer, mathematician, archaeologist, a philologist interested in the science of language, a translator from the Spanish and the German. In his later years, he was secretary of the American Philosophical Society. The American founder of the family was Jonas Phillips, of Philadelphia, known for two letters he had written. In July, 1776, he wrote a fellow businessman in Amsterdam describing the revolt of the colonials against the British Empire; in 1787, the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia received from him a letter asking for religious and political equality for the Jews of his state. He was dismayed that the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 maintained political disabilities against Jews despite the fact that they were patriots.15

Jonas’s son Naphtali, who had begun as a printer, edited and owned New York’s National Advocate, a Tammany paper; Phillips, a sachem, was high in Tammany councils. He remained a politician and, when no longer active, was gracefully retired by the Democrats, who provided a sinecure for him in the customs office. He had many literary interests: in 1816, he preached a memorial sermon for Gershom Seixas; he was called upon no doubt because he had married into the Seixas clan. In 1828, he wrote a series of sketches on the Revolutionary War period, a work which was serialized in New York and Philadelphia papers. Originally, the vignettes had been published anonymously by “An Old Philadelphian.” When in the last decade of his life he prepared a sketch outlining the history of Shearith Israel, he stood out as one of the very first historians of American Jewry.16

Naphtali Phillips had a large number of siblings, since Jonas fathered more than twenty children—most of whom survived infancy. Aaron J. Phillips (1792–1847), a younger brother of Naphtali, spent his life in the theatre. Both a manager and an actor, he was best known on the stage as a comedian and for his character roles. Aaron began acting in 1815; in the course of years, he built up a following in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. In New Orleans, he appeared in a series of monologues of a comic and serious nature, and included some readings from Shakespeare. It was in 1822 that his nephew, Noah, wrote a a play for him in which he could shine as the star—The Grecian Captive, which dealt with Greece’s struggle for freedom. Aaron came riding onto the stage on an untrained elephant, which, to the amusement of the audience and to the discomfort of the orchestra, took time out to “extemporize.” Two other Phillipses were also actors and managers: Moses Mendes Seixas Phillips and Henry B. Phillips, the latter known for his portrayal of Isaac of York in a dramatization of Ivanhoe.17

Very probably, the best-known literary craftsman of the immediate family was Jonas B. Phillips (1805–1867). Though he was to produce a volume of poetry in 1836 and was also the author of a tragedy, he was primarily a writer of melodramas and comedies. In 1827 he wrote a series of Gothic stories published anonymously under the title Tales for Leisure Hours. When in 1830 New York celebrated the revolt of the French against the restoration monarchy, Phillips wrote a “petite” drama: Three Days in Paris or the Triumph of Liberty. The Park Theatre was jammed; people crowded even onto the stage. He was to write at least eight plays. One was a drama dealing with the heroic Roman general Camillus. In the preface to the play, Phillips, like other American-born playwrights, wrote that his work was an American product and expressed the hope that it would advance the cause of the native literature and help repel English theatrical invaders. A facet of his career that merits mention is that he is probably the first American Jew to publish his songs. At least four that he wrote appeared between the 1830’s and 1841. This was the period when Henry Russell, the English composer and singer, was concertizing throughout the country. But writing plays and songs was only an avocation for Phillips; he made his living as an assistant district attorney for the city of New York.18



One man in the Phillips clan has been given little mention as yet; he may be deemed the most important member. This was Jonas Phillips’s grandson, Mordecai Manuel Noah, undoubtedly the best-known layman in the American Jewish community during the first half of the century. Noah, a fifth-generation American, was a journalist, a politician, a sheriff, Surveyor of the Port of New York, a consul, a playwright, a Jewish community activist, and a proto-Zionist. Born in Philadelphia, he was reared by his grandfather. His father had deserted the family; his mother died when Noah was but seven. The youngster then went for two or three years to the all-day school conducted in New York by Seixas. This seems to have been the full extent of his formal secular and religious schooling. Essentially Noah was self-taught. Very little is known about his life until he was about twenty-six. There were at least fifteen years of struggle until he began to find himself. Most of this time, it would seem, was spent in Philadelphia. The ambitious lad was apprenticed to a gilder and carver, who sent the youngster to Canada selling carved images, the products of the shop. One wonders whether Noah ever became a master craftsman. His was certainly a full life. He busied himself in amateur theatricals and became a young Democratic stalwart; Noah was only fourteen when he gave a Fourth of July oration; the boy was a patriot; his father and grandfather had both served as militiamen in the Revolution. It was probably during these Philadelphia days, that Noah picked up the honorary title of “major.” It was, one may assume, a gubernatorial reward for hard work on the hustings. Tradition has it that he served as a reporter at the state capital in Harrisburg. By this time his career was foreshadowed: Noah was to be in the main a playwright, a politician, and a journalist.19


At the age of twenty-six, Noah settled in Charleston, then the metropolis of the South. He was already a good writer; shrewd, ambitious, he was determined to make a career for himself. He studied law, but as yet had not passed a bar examination. The town looked upon itself as the Athens of the South, but Noah was not too impressed. He had come from Philadelphia, a cultural center, and thought that Charleston was lagging in the sciences and in the fine arts. Identifying with the leaders of the Jewish community, Noah hastened to damn dissidents in Congregation Beth Elohim—he was never to be a flaming liberal. Under the pseudonym Muly Malak, he wrote articles for a local paper. Eager to further himself politically, he became a war hawk in the days preceding the outbreak of hostilities with Great Britain. Actually, he set out to be provocative; he was a young man in a hurry. Attacked as an un-Christian Turk, as a Jew, he challenged his opponent to a duel, but fortunately the seconds were able to arrange an honorable settlement. A second quarrel, this time with a Jew, culminated in a duel in which Noah wounded his challenger. Thus he was able to prove to the world that he was an honorable Southern gentleman—imperative if he was to make a career in politics. His record as an enthusiastic Democratic activist had secured for him the consular post at Riga on the Baltic. A number of outstanding Democrats rallied to his support, including Uncle Naphtali Phillips, the Tammany wheelhorse. Despite his fervent patriotism and his known physical courage, Major Noah did not volunteer as a soldier after war was declared. He was resolved to serve his country politically, not militarily. Because the Continental-Napoleonic wars were in progress, there was no future for a consular officer in Russia-ruled Riga; Noah was happy, therefore, to accept a similar appointment in Tunis on the Barbary Coast. He set out for Europe in 1813, fell into the hands of the British, and when released by them moved on to the Continent, reaching his post finally in 1814.20

CONSUL AT TUNIS, 1814–1815

Why did Noah want such a post? It was a means to an end. He craved influence and power; apparently he could never forget that he had come from a broken, impoverished home. As an apprentice, he was flogged; he said it had been good for him, but this may well be a sentimental posteventum rationalization. The North African consulship was his first real opportunity in life, a chance for status, recognition, and profit. (Consuls customarily engaged in business, but there is no evidence that Noah ever made any money at this job.) While in Tunis, he acted the grand seigneur. Judging from what he wrote in his Travels, he did not cultivate the local Jews socially, though some of them were politically powerful. Noah, in fact, may well have seen more of his fellow Jews than he admitted, for in the Travels, an apologia, he strove to demonstrate what he had accomplished as an American civil servant. He reports having been most courteous to the Christians and their clergy in this Moslem state; he took notice of Sundays and the Christian holidays: “I did not forget that I was representing a Christian nation.”

Though the consul’s prime job was to protect American interests in Tunis, Noah was entrusted with a very confidential mission. He was enjoined to ransom enslaved American sailors in neighboring Algiers, a country with which the United States was then at war. While he was engaged secretly in this special assignment, an exceedingly difficult one, he was recalled by President Madison and Secretary of State Monroe on April 25, 1815. The Washington authorities said that he had ransomed only two sailors, and it was charged that he had spent too much money at this task; his drafts were not honored. In the letter to Noah, handed him by Stephen Decatur in Tunis, Monroe wrote that “at the time of your appointment as consul at Tunis, it was not known that the religion which you profess would form any obstacle to the exercise of your consular functions.” For Noah, the situation was fraught with great personal danger; he was no longer a man with diplomatic immunity. If he could not meet the obligations he had incurred as consul, he faced imprisonment in Tunis. With remarkable courage and a great deal of ingenuity, he managed to satisfy his creditors and to return to the United States, but he came back here indignant, embittered. Rejection by his government, after what he regarded as his honest attempt to accomplish the almost impossible, was probably the greatest trauma he was ever to experience.21


Though Noah had ransomed a number of Americans, or men thought to be Americans, there is no question that he had not rescued ten of the enslaved men whom he was called upon to free. The State Department officials resented the fact that he had employed as his agent an expatriate American whom it distrusted. There was no accusation of malfeasance, though they were convinced that Noah had paid too large a premium in discounting his American bills. Noah could well have responded that the funds he expended were less than 10 percent of those spent by Col. Tobias Lear, the last consul to Algiers. It may well be that, according to their lights, Monroe and the President were justified in recalling him, but they could not have been unaware that, by divesting him of his diplomatic status while he was still in Tunis, they were putting him at the mercy of a merciless despot. This was thoughtless and cruel. They knew he did not have the means to redeem himself once they refused to honor his draft. Undoubtedly, there was animus in his recall. Noah suspected that Col. Lear was behind it all, though there is no proof. Monroe and Madison, too, must bear responsibility for this callous act. Madison was not a competent administrator.

Noah returned in 1816 and set out to vindicate himself. That same year he published his Correspondence and Documents Relative to the Attempt to Negotiate for the Release of the American Captives at Algiers, Including Remarks on Our Relations with That Regency. Three years later, he published Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813–14, and 15. Both books were apologias for his conduct; both were attacks on Madison, Monroe, and their associates. It was the consul’s contention that his experience marked the first time since the adoption of the Constitution that religion was offered as an excuse for restriction on the right to hold office. Noah insisted that he had been dismissed because of his religion. If an American Jew cannot go as a consul to a Moslem country, then an American Catholic cannot go to England, an American Protestant to France or Spain. Jews had earned the privilege and immunities of citizens in two wars with Great Britain. If the United States deprives them of rights, where else can they go! This type of discrimination will put an end to emigration from abroad. If this letter of dismissal remains on record, it will serve as a precedent to disqualify Jews from holding office. Point blank, then, Noah accused the Madison administration of giving “sanction to bigotry”—the very phrase used by Washington in his letter to the Jews of Rhode Island. Noah was making it quite clear that the government had betrayed George Washington himself. Conscience, he wrote, is a private affair between God and the individual. Liberty is very important in America. “We cease to be free when we cease to be liberal.” He made his recall a Jewish issue.22

Within a year after his return, Noah’s accounts were settled more or less to his satisfaction. It is probable that Madison and Monroe realized that they had erred in dragging in the issue that a Jew could not serve the United States government as a diplomat in a Moslem country. Neither the President nor his Secretary of State was anti-Jewish. Madison, who had been helped generously by Haym Salomon when the Virginian was a delegate to the Continental Congress, had been quick to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Jew. In 1813, the President had not hesitated to appoint John Hays, a Jew, as collector of internal revenue in the Illinois country; Monroe later appointed the same man Indian agent at Fort Wayne in 1822. Noah’s vigorous protestations disturbed them very much; both Monroe and Madison were politicians; Monroe wanted to be president. The Jews in the country numbered less than 3,000 souls, yet this small urban middle-class group was not without influence. Uncle Naphtali Phillips, of the National Advocate, would have to be placated; Isaac Harby in Charleston, editor of the Southern Patriot, a Democrat and a Madisonian, rallied to Noah’s defense. Noah himself wrote a strong letter indicting the administration for religious bigotry. If its attitude persisted, he wrote, Jews would have to leave this country and go to a place where liberty holds her residence. Tobias Lear, who may have been Noah’s bête noire, committed suicide in 1816. Frightened at the hornets’ nest he had stirred up, Monroe recruited Abraham A. Massias, a Jewish army paymaster, to pressure Harby. Even after Noah’s accounts were adjusted, Madison and Monroe were still on the defensive. Noah was about to become editor of the National Advocate. Offering Moses M. Russell, a consular post, they assured him that Noah had been recalled solely because of incompetence. The fact that Noah was a Jew, said Monroe, was one of his best recommendations! In a friendly note to Noah in 1818, Madison wrote, “Your religious profession was well known at the time you received your commission, and that in itself could not be a motive in your recal [sic].” Noah, as a Democratic politician, had to work with the administration in Washington, but no matter what he said in public he probably never forgave it.23


Soon after the Department of State settled its accounts with Noah, he was appointed editor of the National Advocate, probably in May or June 1817. Now he was one of New York City’s notables. In July of that year, on the forty-first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he addressed a congeries of societies, ethnic, charitable, and fraternal. In this discourse, he glorified the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, and, like later Civil War orators, waved the bloody shirt. He exulted in the glorious victories of the recent War of 1812–1815—the second war of independence—when the Americans under the Star Spangled Banner had triumphed over the British Navy. The Americans were a race of heroes, this land would yet become the asylum for Europe’s unfortunates. Mexico and South America, too, were destined to be free. For these United States Noah foresaw a great future in education, science, literature, and the arts. This was his prophecy three years before Sidney Smith in Great Britain saw fit to deplore the low cultural level of the Americans. Anticipating President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address one hundred and forty-four years later, Noah said: “The greatest struggle should be, not for power or office, but to see who can render the most effectual service to the commonwealth.” By 1819, he was a member of the New York Historical Society; in 1820 and a generation later, in 1850, he spoke to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen encouraging the members in their efforts to provide and maintain a library for apprentices. He was also called upon to raise his voice when the Americans responded to the cry for help from famine-stricken Ireland. He advocated improvements and reforms in the city’s administration; he favored public health measures, good water, charities for the disadvantaged and the helpless. In the course of his life, Noah was to identify himself with many communal organizations; he was recognized as a civic leader by his fellow citizens.24


After a fashion, Noah was also a leader in the New York Jewish community; indeed, he was probably the best-known Jew in the United States. Certainly very little was done in the metropolitan Jewish community in which he was not involved. Major Noah was the favorite Jewish speaker at synagogal dedications and consecrations, particularly if Christians were present. He could do the Jews proud; he could be depended upon, for he was a Light to the Gentiles; he was the self-appointed voice of the Jews to the Christians. It is questionable, however, if Noah was ever part of the Jewish elite which made the ultimate decisions. Affluent Jewish leaders like the Hendrickses, the Josephs, some of the Harts, the Moseses, and the Nathans probably had much more power and much more to say about Jewish life. Noah was never president of Shearith Israel—in fact, he was thrown off the board twice, once at the time of the secession of the Ashkenazim and again at the time of the Damascus Affair. The elite was not happy with the way he sided with the out-groups; he was certainly more open-minded than the Sephardic leadership, for he was a Jewish cultural pluralist; he was willing to give Jews of a different point of view an opportunity to express themselves. Never was he narrow-minded enough to demand that all Jews conform to the prevailing Sephardic pattern. Throughout the decades since his recall from Tunis, his Jewish identification was unquestionably strong. After reading a discourse of Noah’s, the Attorney General of the United States, William Wirt, wrote his friend John Myers, of Norfolk, that persecution kept Jews alive; persecution, not Providence, was the key to Jewish survival. There is every reason to believe, too, that rejection had made a good Jew out of Noah.25

Noah enjoyed representing the Jewish community, and the Jews, in turn, were glad to use him. He was admired because he was witty, articulate, because he wrote and conversed brilliantly; he was a fine orator. The editor had a wide knowledge of World Jewry; he knew the names of many of the great Jewish Europeans; he had probably met some of them on the way to Tunis. Noah was something of a cosmopolitan, while most of his Jewish friends in America were parochial. His membership in Jewish organizations was a measure of his identification, but here, too, he was very probably politically motivated; he never forgot that he was seeking power and a following; he was always the politician. Still, one cannot question his sincere interest in secular and Jewish education. Years earlier, in 1821, he had been a protagonist of the 1821 Institution of M. E. Levy, who sought to establish a Jewish school for the study of the arts, the sciences, and agriculture. Like all Jewish leaders of his generation, he believed in a return to manual labor—for other Jews.

Unlike some of his Sephardic confreres, Noah was sympathetic to the 1825 Bnai Jeshurun seceders; they were, or at least said they were, interested in education, particularly of the youth. He was eager to further Shearith Israel’s Polonies Talmud Torah, the Society for the Education of Poor Children, and Anshe Chesed’s Lomde Torah Association of which he was the president. Yet, he sent his children to a Christian boarding school in Schenectady, although he was wont to assure his friends and followers that, religiously, Christian schools were not good for Jews. By the 1840’s, Noah knew that the school question was actuel. Immigrants had been coming in since the late 1830’s; schools would be sorely needed. In 1843, he suggested that a Hebrew “college” be established; actually what he had in mind was an elementary day and boarding school. The religious instruction was to be completely traditional. The secular subjects were to include the classics, French, and bookkeeping. German was not mentioned; it had no prestige in the early 1840’s as the uncouth Germans poured in. Possibly Noah preferred to forget that his father had been born in Mannheim. It is by no means improbable that, when Noah plumped for an academy, or a college as he called it, he may have wanted to run one himself as a private enterprise; he needed the money. He was interested also in adult education and joined Shearith Israel’s Hebrew Literary and Religious Library Association. It was inevitable that, as a journalist, Noah would look with favor on the rise of Jewish newspapers in the 1840’s. His relations with the Jewish philanthropies were close; they provided funds to educate the children of the poor.26

As a Jewish community leader, Noah was among those who vigorously protested the persecution of the Damascus Jews; Shearith Israel’s failure to play any part in the protest did not deter him. In 1842, he became head of the Hebrew Benevolent Society and remained its president till his death. In 1849 several years after his election, the Hebrew Benevolent Society and the German Hebrew Benevolent Society came together in a common banquet in order to raise funds—in a way, the beginning of the “federation” movement which would blossom in the 1890’s. Wealthy Jews came to these fund-raising dinners to give money and to mix with important Gentiles; Christians came primarily to garner Jewish votes and support, though they also recognized Jews as liberal givers. The governor of the state gave a large donation, as did Jenny Lind, the singer, who was here on tour. This annual fund-raising dinner soon became normative with many Jewish philanthropies; it was to last until displaced, to a degree, by the annual drive of the federations. The year Noah died, he was working valiantly to establish a Jewish hospital in New York City, a difficult task, inasmuch as metropolitan Jewry was in no sense homogeneous.27


Noah constantly rallied to the defense of his people. He was annoyed when newspapers identified Jewish malefactors and criminals by religion. Maryland’s failure to permit Jews to hold office as late as the first quarter of the nineteenth century grieved him; he wanted the emancipatory “Jew Bill” to pass. He watched with dismay as David G. Seixas was dismissed—unjustly he believed—from his post as head of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. Like all Jews, he deeply resented the gubernatorial and occasional presidential proclamations calling on Christians to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with prayer; Noah and his coreligionists insisted that the day was one of thanks and prayer for all American citizens. This defensor Judaeorum raised his voice in anger in the 1850’s when the United States and Switzerland proposed to sign a treaty which tolerated discrimination against American Jewish citizens in certain Swiss cantons.28

In one respect at least, Noah was a typical Jew: missionaries and missionizing raised his hackles. Whether he was right or wrong, he was convinced, as were many of his fellow Jews, that Jewish converts to Christianity lacked integrity. Editor and publisher Noah forebore to express this contempt publicly, knowing full well as he did that vast numbers of Christians were dedicated to the saving of souls, for them a sacrosanct task. Politician Noah did not want to offend voters and subscribers; they were all his clients. It puzzled him that John Quincy Adams, a Unitarian, was for a time a national officer of the conversionist American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. Yet Noah, truly realistic, differed from most American Jews in his evaluation of the dominant Protestantism. His objectivity is almost startling; Jews and Christians had much in common; even the evangelical Christian societies were not to be condemned forthwith; they furthered knowledge of the Old Testament. Christianity and Judaism were historically and religiously close; Christianity was a daughter religion; much that the younger faith taught was Jewish; the two could work together. Who knows, Christians might yet become Unitarians or even Jews! However, there was an area where Noah was closer to the Christians than to the Jews. He seems not to have been opposed to current Sunday legislation which aimed to close most retail shops on the Lord’s Day. The Sunday-closing law had to be observed, he thought, though he certainly knew that this meant the loss of a business day for every observant Jew. If shops were kept open on Sunday, Jews would disturb Christians at worship. The law of the land had to be respected.29


Noah’s home was that of a typically cultured native American Jew. Some ceremonies were probably observed. Having gone to Hebrew school, he could no doubt read Hebrew, and there is every reason to believe that he kept a kosher home—after a fashion (otherwise his fellow-members at Shearith Israel would have been scandalized). Passover was celebrated; it was an important holiday in his calendar. In September, 1825, Noah went to Buffalo to proclaim the establishment of a Jewish colony and was on the road during the High Holy Days—patently absent from services, but this does not seem to have disturbed him. On Christmas, his children hung up their stockings. When Noah was forty-two, he married; his bride was a Jewish girl, Rebecca Esther Jackson, about seventeen at the time. The London branch of the family approved of the marriage despite the disparity in ages. A relative wrote to Rebecca: “It is better to be the old man[’s] darling, than the young ones drugg[drudge].”30


Noah spoke and wrote like a Jewish religionist and was one. (Even in those days only a few Jews were meticulous in observance or in synagogal attendance.) To a degree, of course, his religiosity was superficial; essentially, he was an “ethnic” Jew, strongly influenced by the romantic, political impact of the American and the French Revolutions and very much inclined to believe that everyone—Jews, too!—had a right to life, liberty, and happiness. While still in his twenties, perhaps even earlier, he was convinced that the United States was the best place for Jews, though he wavered between predominantly Jewish settlements and free integration with non-Jews here. He was certainly not adverse to settling Jews together in groups. The United States had grown out of a series of colonies founded on religious, commercial, and philanthropic grounds. Almost as old as these early Christian settlements were those established by Jews in the West Indies and South America during the 1600’s. There had been talk, too, in the 1700’s of founding large Jewish colonies in North America. During the 1780’s, when the Americans were driving out the British, some German Jews contemplated setting up separate enclaves here. Assuming that they meant what they said, they were prompted by the hope of sharing in American freedoms.31

By the nineteenth century, this country had begun to shelter diverse colonies, religious, secular, utopian in character. No later than 1816, Jews again began talking and writing of colonizing fellow-religionists here. It was then that Moses Elias Levy thought of settling Jews on his Florida lands, even though the province was still under Spanish rule. Then, in Germany, came the post-Napoleonic political reaction which culminated in 1819 in riots and in attacks on Jews. Economic dislocation after the Continental wars and the rise of a national religioromantic sentiment in Central Europe touched not only the Gentiles but the Jews also, predisposing the latter to emigration and colonization. That same year, William D. Robinson, a Gentile American businessman, called for the settlement of impoverished European Jews in the Mississippi Valley. There can be little question that Noah, too, was moved by the German attacks on his people. A German newspaper, the Koblenzer Anzeiger, reported that he wanted the oppressed German Jews to migrate to this haven of refuge. This much is certain: the following year, in 1820, he presented a petition to the New York state legislature, asking it to sell him Grand Island in the Niagara River as a site for a colony. The legislators were sympathetic in view of the suffering of the German Jews, but took no affirmative action. That same year, responding to a newspaper editorial in the Washington National Intelligencer which questioned the value of a rural colony for Jews, Noah thought it might be advisable to settle his European coreligionists, an urban folk, in Newport, Rhode Island. At least let them come here where they would have the right to live wherever they wished; the whole country lay before them. America offered them liberty; here they would be spared the excesses to which they had been exposed in Central Europe.32

To speed the emigration of European Jews seeking a future in America, Noah hoped that the administration in Washington would give him an important post in Vienna, or The Hague, or Copenhagen, or some other continental city. He was convinced that his appointment would be a visible, tangible guarantee of the opportunities awaiting Jews in this land. Given such a position, he was sure that he could attract wealthy Jews here, men with capital. This mercantilistic plea was but a rationalization; it was imperative for him personally, psychically, to secure another diplomatic or consular assignment—an effort in which he was never to succeed. In the meantime, during the years 1819–1820, Christian conversionists here were talking of a colony for Jewish-Christians, and in 1825, for the purpose of sheltering these converts, they did rent a farm at Harrison, in Westchester County, New York. Noah was aware of what they were doing; they were equally aware of his plans. He continued to reach out in all directions. In 1821, he and a handful of Jewish enthusiasts set out to create a national organization for the purpose of establishing a colony for children and young adults in the West. The prime goal of these devotees was to stop the inroads of apathy and assimilation. In 1825, Noah was back where he had started in 1819. He had conjured up grandiose plans to bring Europe’s oppressed Jews to Grand Island. He proposed to set up “a City of Refuge for the Jews” to be called Ararat—reminding everyone of the mountain top on which in the Bible the ark of the primeval Noah, after the deluge, had finally found rest. Here again his travail was in vain.33

Noah’s 1820 petition to the state legislature asking for the purchase of Grand Island, the 1821 flirtation with Moses Levy’s Institution, the 1825 Ararat colonial scheme: all these were a form of territorialism, the desire for an autonomous Jewish close settlement in some—any land. This reaching out by Noah was only one phase of his determination to help World Jewry. As early as the years 1811–1812, Noah had already begun to concern himself with the emancipation and survival of Jews overseas. The Tunisian trauma heightened his Jewish loyalties, his “nationalism.” True, America was World Jewry’s Land of Promise, yet at the same time he thought of settling persecuted Jews, especially those subject to Czarist Russia, in a land of their own, in Palestine. This is Zionism, pure and simple. It is worthy of mention, however, that even before Noah’s day in the 1780’s, immediately after the United States achieved independence—there were intimations that individuals here in the United States were thinking of the reestablishment of the ancient Palestinian state. In 1784, a Jewish officiant suggested in a prayer, that since the thirteen colonies had achieved independence, it might well be possible for the Jews to regain their political freedom. In the 1790’s there were rumors that Napoleon might give Palestine back to the Jews. Seixas, the New York minister, began then to dream of restoration, though his expectations were never unequivocally clear. In 1807, he dared to hope that Napoleon, fulfilling a prophecy in Hosea 6:2, was about to establish the third Jewish commonwealth. It is frequently difficult or impossible to determine whether American Jewish “Zionist” utterances were merely mouthing of standard liturgical phrases or whether Jews of that day actually hoped for a reborn Palestinian state in their own time.34

Nationalism began flourishing in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century; Noah was not exempt from this influence. There were ideological, political, and economic upheavals and ferment in Europe after 1815 and in the Middle East from the 1820’s on. Perhaps Noah never knew the phrase “birthpangs of the Messiah,” but he might very well have hoped that something would happen or was about to happen, to bring forth a Jewish state. When in 1825 he dedicated the Ararat colony, he renounced it “temporary and provisionary.” It was the “declaration of independence” of the real state that was yet to be born in the Holy Land. At Ararat, Jews here in the free United States, were to be taught how to govern themselves so that they would know what to do when they finally returned to Jerusalem. Noah, orthodox in his theology, had no choice but to believe that God would one day gather together his scattered Jews and restore them to their land. Nevertheless, he was quite willing to give God and the Messiah a push. As a territorialist, he was willing for the time being to establish a preparatory colony here in the United States; the ultimate state must of course rise in the Promised Land. That time, he believed, was not far off.

Noah was at the least a proto-Zionist. His belief in an ultimate Restoration was probably influenced by current Protestant concepts; sooner or later God would bring his people back to the land which he had promised them. These Christian hopes for the Return were strongly held not only in the United States but also in England, where they went back at least to 1608. In the mid-seventeenth century the appearance of the Jewish “Messiah” Shabbethai Zevi served only to convince the English Christians that the Restoration was imminent. Easily a dozen works on the subject had appeared in that century; by 1818, books and pamphlets numbered more than thirty-five. Because it meant much to English Christians to convert the Jews of Palestine—thereby proving the superiority of the Christian faith—they established a mission at Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. To cap their enterprise and anticipate their hopes, they installed a convert as Anglican bishop. This was meet and proper. If Jesus should reappear in the long awaited Second Advent, he would be greeted by the bishop, a fellow Jew. To be sure there was more than one reason which compelled English interest in Palestine; they wanted to link the isthmus of Suez with Egypt and India; they were set on keeping the French out of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean basin where they had once been powerful. A Jewish buffer state in Palestine would serve English imperialism and simultaneously fulfill the biblical prophecy of Restoration. All this came to a climax decades later, in 1917, when Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration.35

There was an active Restorationist in this country, too—Warder Cresson (1798–1860), a Christian religious enthusiast who believed that God was about to gather the Jews together in Palestine. In 1844, Cresson secured an appointment as consul to Jerusalem without pay, but it was almost immediately revoked. In 1848, he himself became a Jew, and changed his name to Michael Boaz Israel. When he returned to Philadelphia, his family sought unsuccessfully to have him certified insane. The Palestine program he formulated in the early 1850’s was quite a practical one: agriculture, schooling, small compact family-like settlements—miniscule colonies—with an international Jewish organization to back them up, a sort of proto-Palestine Foundation Fund. Cresson-Israel also wanted to set up a soup kitchen for poor Jews in Jerusalem; feeding them would keep them out of the clutches of the Christian missionaries. Central in his thinking and planning was the importance of teaching the Jews to support themselves by the ennobling pursuit of farming, but he accomplished nothing.36

Noah in his dream of Restoration had the sympathy of the evangelicals. These religionists were sure that the Jews would be restored to the land of their fathers because of the biblical promises. Ultimately, said these Christians, all Jews will come to Jesus; he will then reappear and usher in the Millennium. (There are variations of this grand design.) To a degree, Jewry went along with this Restoration concept. The Jewish Messiah will yet make his appearance, but there will be no conversion of Jews—it is the Christians and all the nations who will come to Judaism, as the Bible has promised. Though Noah’s Restoration hopes were dependent on the Holy One, Blessed Be He, who would one day implement his promises to his people, they could give him a helping hand. With God’s help, but also with Jewish muscle and money, and with the benevolence of the Great Powers, the Palestine state would yet rise again from its ashes.

Noah’s Zionism actually came to the fore no later than 1818. As has been suggested above, Jews throughout history have had their politicoreligious pseudo-Messiahs who were prepared to reestablish the Jewish state. This desire goes back at least to the first century of the Christian era. In a sense, Noah was a link in that millennial chain. On April 17, 1818, he made an address at the consecration of the rebuilt Mill Street synagog. A new building was needed; the old one had been erected in 1730 when at the most there were 500 Jewish souls in all of North America; now there were at least 3,000. The editor rehearsed his hopes. The Christian clergy must stop attacking Jews. The Jews here must improve themselves morally and culturally. Let them foresake commerce and go into crafts and farming. The prospects for the Restoration are now excellent with the Turkish Empire about to collapse. One hundred thousand Jews could march on Palestine-Syria, conquer it and establish a state. (This idea of a Jewish army is probably Napoleonic.) And the money to finance this expedition? The Jews are wealthy; they hold the purse strings. As early as 1816, Niles’s Weekly Register reported that rich Jews were ready to buy Palestine. Noah was going along with the myth that Jewish bankers (the Rothschilds) were powerful; they could and would supply the necessary funds. But, he hastened to add, until all this comes to pass, America is Jewry’s chosen land.37

Noah sent a copy of his speech to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. In their answers, all three stressed the freedom accorded the Jews in the United States. Adams in another letter expressed the hope that Noah would put himself at the head of this proposed army of 100,000. Jews in the new state would be able to improve themselves culturally and become liberal Unitarian Christians! In another note to the editor, Adams wrote that he was conscious of the anti-Jewish prejudice that still persisted; he knew several Jews personally; they were fine people. Abraham had given religion to the Christians and Moslems, to the largest part of the civilized world. In writing to Jefferson, Noah stressed the privileges conferred upon Jews. American liberalism is influencing Europe; Jews there are already attaining distinction. Noah wrote as if all Jews here in the United States had already received all rights; he said nothing of the five states whose constitutions still denied them equality. Jefferson in answering Noah was more realistic. There is prejudice. Let the Jew study and acquire knowledge; the consequent cultural improvement will bring him respect. The responses of Adams and Jefferson make it abundantly clear that the Jews of their day were not looked upon as an enlightened people.38

In the 1830’s, Noah continued to concern himself with Palestine and its future as a home for Jews. Somehow or other it was hoped that the unrest in that part of the world, the growth of state nationalism in Europe, the July Revolt of 1830, would all afford an opportunity for the Jews to reestablish a state of their own in the ancient homeland. Jews were never permitted to forget Palestine, for whose rebirth they prayed three times a day in their synagogs; messengers from the Holy Land were constantly arriving in search of funds for the poor in the cities and the students in the rabbinical “colleges.” These apostles were treated gently; the yeshivah students in Palestine prayed for the end of the Exile, for a speedy Restoration. Humble and impoverished Palestinians were deemed important, for they served God on behalf of those at ease in the Diaspora. Noah befriended one of these messengers, Enoch Zundel, who had tarried in New York for almost a year collecting funds (1832–1833). When Zundel moved on to Philadelphia in his quest for help, Noah gave him a cordial letter of recommendation, though it may be that the major was merely speeding the parting guest, an expensive one. New York businessmen were well aware that, at best, the collections were often consumed by the expenses, sums entrusted to the messengers were frequently misappropriated. Zundel, however, was good to Shearith Israel; he gave the synagog two pounds of Palestine earth to further the tradition of springling a handful in the coffin at the time of burial. (Many years later, Captain Uriah P. Levy, commander of the Mediterranean fleet, brought back a whole wagonload for the congregation.)39

In 1834, 1837, and 1844, Noah continued to hammer away at the Palestine theme, advocating the purchase of the country by Jews and citing portents that the Restoration was at hand. How much of all this he himself believed is of course impossible to determine. Two of these addresses were made to Gentiles, whom he titillated theologically. In an 1837 discourse, adhering to an old theme, he maintained that the North American Indians were Jews—descended from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. Thus the Scattering was complete; God would now collect his people as he had promised. The conjunction of political circumstances continued to be favorable. The Jews must help themselves; even more it was incumbent upon the Christians to aid the Jews. In 1844, he harangued an audience, many of them Christians: Americans enjoyed their freedom in a land of their own. We have helped restore the Greeks—now give the Jews a home of their own! We have helped the South Americans; Negro freedmen here are being dispatched to Africa, to Liberia; even the Indians have territories of their own in the West. Let the Christian conversionists rally around the Jews and assist them to establish a home in the land of their fathers. Jews can do wonders with the country, but they must have Christian support—without American, French, and British aid, the Russians cannot be held back as they drive south to the Mediterranean and east to the Indian Ocean. Man can effect the Restoration; the Jewish state can rise again through human agency. A Jewish Palestine properly supported and governed can become the richest, most powerful, most advanced state in the world.40

The Christians who listened to Noah in 1844 as he spoke in New York’s Tabernacle had no choice but to reject his offer of collaboration because he, the Jew, had rejected God, Jesus. Traditional Jews rejected Noah’s advice to work closely with the Christians in order to reestablish the Third Commonwealth; they were convinced that the ultimate goal of Christianity was conversion of the Jews. This was also Isaac Leeser’s conviction in a lengthy review of the 1844 discourse. What is more, contended the Philadelphia minister, the Christians will never tolerate a viable Jewish state. If indeed Judea is to rise again, it can only be through the agency of God himself. Years later, during the Civil War, Leeser modified his views, possibly aware of the fact that notable European Jews were then thinking seriously of extensive Palestinian settlements. Quite likely adopting some of the Noah’s ideas, Leeser ventured the opinion that the Jews could erect a buffer state in Palestine, linking East and West on the highway of the nations. Jews could do a great deal for the Holy Land. They had no other home anywhere. Palestine reborn would bring them the respect of their neighbors. The Exile imposed a physical and moral yoke upon Jewry.

Scarcely more than three years after Noah’s appeal to the Christians in New York’s Tabernacle, the 1848 Revolutions—the “Spring of the Peoples”—swept through Central Europe. It is by no means improbable that the fall of the Metternich system and the strong resurgence of nationalism may have revived Noah’s interest in the ancient homeland. Thus, when a Jerusalem apostle, Yehiel Cohen, appeared in New York and appealed for funds to rebuild a synagog in Jerusalem, Noah lent a ready hand. Cohen announced that this was the first Jewish sanctuary to be erected in the city since the rise of Christianity. Noah saw himself rebuilding the ancient temple! In a November, 1848, address, he once more genuflected in the direction of the Christians; Jesus was a reformer, teacher, brother, prophet, but always the Jew, and a good Jew. Noah did not say a word against Christianity or Islam: were not both Jewish in origin? Had they not learned much that they taught from the Jews?. The major had a vision of an ecumenical Jerusalem with the Mosque of Omar flanked by the Jewish Temple and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Christians listened with rapt attention to the good tidings but left in a hurry when the collection was taken up. New York Jews raised some money, but profiting by sad experiences in the past, they bypassed Cohen and sent their funds directly to the responsible authorities in Jerusalem.41


Over the years Noah had developed a strong sense of ethnicity. The shock of his recall from Tunis and the anti-Jewish taunts to which he was exposed in his political and newspaper career only heightened his commitment to his people. This loyalty—an amalgam of Diaspora nationalism and Zionism—and his passionate American patriotism were synthesized by him. This is the real core of the man’s thinking, of his ideological odyssey. As a confessing Jew, Noah believed that his people would be restored in the fullness of time. Thus he was a Restorationist. Yet, as a man faithful to his fellow Jews and zealous for their survival, he wanted them to set sail for America. Thus, if only in intent, he had to become an American Jewish colonizer, even though the colonization program proved short-lived. As a showman, he made the most of it; he let no one deny him his hour in the limelight. Anything but stupid, Noah was fully aware that he would be ridiculed for his pretensions to leadership. It was not long, therefore, before he abandoned the role of an American colonizer. Then—this was after 1825—he became a Palestine state builder, a Zionist. As an informed journalist, he believed, as did most intelligent students of foreign affairs, that the Ottoman Empire—the Sick Man of Europe—would soon collapse. It was his hope that the Jews could crawl into the interstitial political spaces, that they would take advantage of the rivalries of the Great Powers and set up a state of their own in what had been Ottoman Palestine.

This scenario was actually played out to a considerable degree in Palestine and in World Jewry during the next century. Probing his Zionist motivations further, we may ask: was he sincere? Did he mean what he said or were his “discourses” a public relations device? These are questions which must remain unanswered. What is sincerity? What man in the public eye ever ceased to put his own interests first? Noah enjoyed center stage. He wrote plays, but in real life was always an actor. Noah faced every situation, confronted every event as if it were a part in a drama in which he played the stellar role. He did want to help Jews overseas. Noah would never have settled in Jerusalem himself—except as president of a Jewish state. Question: Was his emphasis on Palestine as a homeland for persecuted Jews the reverse of his nativist American coin? For he had become a nativist. Would he have preferred to direct Jewish immigrants to Palestine rather than to the United States? This is to be doubted; it is very probable that, not withstanding his conservative, even reactionary attitude toward immigrants in later decades, he would have welcomed America-bound Jews. He felt for them; he wanted them here; he aspired to be their leader, their voice. What manner of religionist was he? He flaunted his Judaism, playing with it in his appearances before Christian audiencess. The editor was at all times a journalist and a politician seeking through his writing and his talk to become the the center of attention; recognition for him was every bit as important as the implementation of his plans.42


In all American Jewish histories Noah assumes importance because he was a Jewish communal figure of significance. Quantitatively, however, his Jewish activities were minor in his life, relatively inconsequential in his career as an American citizen. Most of his time was spent on the job which provided him with bread and butter—journalism, his first and last love! He had been a full-time newspaperman since 1817, following his return from Tunis. Over a period of some thirty-five years, he edited several papers, dailies or weeklies. Some he owned, though he had to co-opt partners to help him with the financing. He was most successful with the first, the National Advocate, which he edited from 1817 to 1824, for Uncle Naphtali. The first papers followed the Democratic line; with the Evening Star in 1834, he became a Whig, at least for a time. Noah switched his allegiance, resentful that his fellow Democrats had not taken care of him; they in turn rejected him, because he had not been loyal to the dictates of the party’s leaders. The Union (1842) was edited by him for less than a year; it was anything but successful. Nevertheless, a prominent Jew, Aaron Levy, hoped that The Union would help him in his business as an art dealer. Would his friend Noah give his gallery a puff? “As you have the power of writing men into the presidential chair so well, you can write A. Levy’s establishment, 151 Broadway, into more notice where ladies & gentlemen may pass an hour with much interest.” Levy was referring to the fact that, as an editor, Noah had helped put William Henry Harrison into the presidency.

From 1843, on Noah edited Sunday’s Times and Noah’s Weekly Messenger. To make both ends meet, he had to do hack editorial work. Noah always managed to make a living, though he was never very successful financially. His papers never enjoyed a large circulation, although they were well edited, stimulating, and enlivened with human interest material. He amused his readers with wit and an occasional bit of scandal. Editor Noah carried on a feud with Charles King, a politician and editor who was later to become president of Columbia University. King was a very proud man, secure in his family traditions, his dignity, and the unshakable conviction that he was an aristocrat. It must have been with a wicked gleam in his eye that Noah reported how King had appeared at a fancy dress ball disguised as a gentleman and no one had recognized him. The major was never to become one of the great antebellum American editors because he could not compete with a generation of journalists that produced a William Cullen Bryant, a Horace Greeley, a James Gordon Bennett, and a Henry J. Raymond. He could not compete with one-penny papers like the Herald of Bennett, an enemy, who did not even have the grace to write an obituary of Noah when he passed away.43


Very few newspapers could survive without political patronage in that day. Only too often they were the instruments of parties or factions. This was apparently true of most of those that Noah edited. It is equally true that he wanted to publish a readable paper, to increase circulation, to make money, but even more he sought recognition; he wanted to hold office. In the early 1820’s, he became sheriff of New York County. The fact that a Jew could be appointed impressed James Fenimore Cooper upstate, and in 1828, Cooper wrote: “The sheriff of the city of New York … was, a few years ago, a Jew! Now all the Jews in New York united would not make 300 voters.” While in office, during an epidemic of yellow fever, sheriff Noah unlocked the doors to the debtors languishing in jail; he did not want them exposed to the disease. Since he was the responsible officer, it is quite probable that he had to pay the debts of those whom he had released, albeit for humanitarian reasons. Apparently the very thought of an infidel Jewish sheriff shocked some Christians. There is a contemporary story with variants: “It would be a pity to have a Jew hang a Christian,” said one of the faithful to Noah. To this, he is reputed to have answered, “Fine Christian that had to be hanged.” In 1828, when the office became elective, Noah ran and was defeated; others on the same ticket won. Anti-Jewish prejudice seems to have brought about his rejection.44

Only once did the major hold a lucrative office and that for a relatively brief period, 1829–1832. Politically, he was unlucky; he does not appear to have been inept, though some of his contemporaries thought he was. His support of Jackson brought him the profitable post of Surveyor of the Port of New York. In this instance, his loyalty to Jackson, the head of the party, paid off, but he was not reappointed in 1833. He had failed to support the President in his bitter fight against Nicholas Biddle and the Bank of the United States. Circumstances beyond Noah’s control made it almost impossible for him to do so; he was not a free agent. Several years later, in 1841, he was appointed a justice of the New York Court of Sessions; he had been admitted to the bar in 1823, but evidently had never practiced law. However, unhappy in his new post, he resigned the judicial office after a very short time. As a judge, he was not permitted to edit a paper; he was a fish out of water.

By the 1840’s, Noah was moving to the right. It annoyed him that his tailor could sit next to him at the opera and venture an opinion on Italian music! The man, said Noah, “should be only a judge of broadcloth and neat fit.” Noah was an anti-prohibitionist and an anti-Mormon, though he was quick to decry persecution of anyone because of religion. The anti-immigration nativists found a supporter in him; Noah was proud of his multi-generation American lineage. Native-born Americans only should exercise political control; citizenship was a privilege that foreigners should be able to earn only after a generation of waiting. His attack on newcomers was aimed at the Irish, but he did not hesitate to condemn Protestants for their anti-Catholic attacks and for sensational salacious exposures of the Church such as Six Months in a Convent and the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. In his opinion, it was ironic that the Jews had “to admonish Christians to live together in brotherhood and affection.”45

Living in Charleston as a young man during the years 1811–1813 certainly predisposed him to the institution of slavery. Later, as a Democrat, he was eager to placate the South and keep it in the Union; he was sympathetic to Southern aspirations. He supported the Texas Revolution and the war against Mexico; he was proslavery, an anti-abolitionist. Was he a racist? From a present-minded point of view, yes! But then this judgment would require historians to dub racist the majority of antebellum citizens in the North; most Americans were simply not ready to abolish the system of black bondage, and in this respect Noah was a typical American. In 1813, on his way to Tunis, he was detained briefly in Europe, where he saw four “Black gentlemen” in a theatre; they were from Santo Domingo. “It would be highly honourable to us,” he said, “if our policy in the south could, with safety, hold forth a greater equality of rights to the Blacks.” But this early liberal statement was unsupported by his later convictions. Ever since the early 1830’s, he had been of the opinion that the Union could be saved only by tolerating slavery. Later, as he sought to win the South for the Whig Party, he was even more vigorously proslavery. For him, the peculiar institution was fully justified; the Bible approved of it; biologically, the blacks were inferior, were they not?

However, he was no secessionist; the Union has to be saved; Nullification was wrong. The major was not hesitant in sharing his political opinions with his readers. In the days when he was editing the National Advocate, he once wrote (more or less facetiously?): “I have a great notion to offer as a candidate for President myself; it is time that there should be a Jew President; it would be unanswerable proof of the perfect freedom of our political institutions.… I should make a good President.” And the platform of this Democrat? There would be no taxes in time of peace, no loans and no sinecures; salaries would be modest; the army would be small; but there would be an adequate navy. All unnecessary offices would be abolished; public agents would be subject to accountability; there would be no large appropriations; the budget would be balanced; men would have to comport themselves with simplicity without any pretensions to aristocracy.46


With the rise of the State of Israel, many Jews saluted Noah as the first American Zionist. Historians of American Jewry have also emphasized the significance of this journalist as American Jewry’s first professional writer, as an accomplished belletrist—this in a generation which produced Isaac Harby, Jacob N. Cardozo, Dr. Elias Marks, S. B. H. Judah, Jonas B. Phillips, Dr. D. L. M. Peixotto, and Penina Moïse. Noah did write well; the irascible John Quincy Adams confided to his diary that Noah was a “sprightly writer.” An editor of the Tribune (Horace Greeley?) referred to him as “one of the most brilliant, spirited, and graceful paragraphists in the country.” Aside from his work as a journalist, as a popular orator who published provocative “discourses,” and as a dramatist, what did Noah write? In 1809, the twenty-year-old aspiring litterateur had reissued an edition of the first volume of Charlotte Ramsay Lennox’s Shake[s]peare Illustrated [sic]. Noah added some critical notes and biographical sketches of the writers whose books had served as sources for Shakespeare’s plays. Ten years later, he brought out his Travels—the same year he helped establish The New York Literary Journal and Belles Lettres Repository and probably contributed to it. Noah’s Essays of Howard on Domestic Economy first appeared in 1820; they were republished in 1845 and 1847 as Gleanings from a Gathered Harvest. Some of the articles in these later editions may not have been his; as a protagonist of the South and its way of life, he also thought it wise to omit an earlier essay in which he had opposed the traffic in slaves.

The Poughkeepsie Casket, a literary journal, contains an article by Noah. One of his literary sketches was picked up and republished in The Literary Chronicle Weekly Review of London. He almost became a historian of American Jewry in 1841 when he began collecting material to write an account of the Jew in the Revolutionary War. What a pity that he did not persist in his enterprise. Apparently none of the data he gathered has survived. Another project of his—there must have been many—was a publication of a National Volume, which was to be nothing less than an anthology of the finest writings of notable Americans. As a litterateur proud of his work, he could not fail to be concerned with the problems of protecting writers. In 1837, he joined other men of letters in presenting a memorial to the national government praying for an alteration of the law regulating copyrights. Among the other signatories were S. F. B. Morse, the artist and later inventor of the telegraph, William Dunlap, the playwright, and Longfellow, the poet.47


Noah will always live in American history as an early dramatist of some distinction. He was no more than eleven, a youngster in New York, when he began to evince an interest in the theatre. Still a teenager, but now in Philadelphia, he became very active in an amateur theatrical group, editing plays for his fellow-devotees and helping produce them. Admission was free. Noah saved his money and bought a season’s ticket for the professional theatre. The theatre was for him an institution of social significance, a view which many at that time rejected, convinced as they were that the stage encouraged immorality. Seeing a good play, said Noah, always improved him. The theatre kept youth off the streets and out of the taverns. In 1808, the budding dramatist wrote a two-act historical drama adapted from the French opera, Leonora. He called the piece The Fortress of Sorrento. It was never produced, but was published—replete with a quotation from Virgil on the title page—by David Longworth, of New York, in his Dramatic Repository series. Longworth paid Noah by giving him a complete collection of all the plays in the Repository. Thus Noah now had the beginnings of a good theatrical library. Young Noah’s drama may well be the first published belletristic work of an American Jew. By 1812, he was in Charleston and, by his own account, cutting a wide swath. There he wrote a melodrama for a very charming actress. It was a “breeches” part. She was bound to do well in it; she was plump and had beautiful golden hair and a dazzling white complexion. He called this play Paul and Alexis, or The Orphans of the Rhine, and it was his first play to be produced, first in Charleston, then in New York, and later in London. After its Charleston debut, the play, reworked by others, was given a new title, The Wandering Boys of the Castle of Olival. In the next generation, in its new guise, the drama appeared on the stage very frequently and was enjoyed by audiences as far south as New Orleans.

Noah’s most productive years as a dramatist were from 1819 to 1822 when he dashed off four plays. The first was a historical drama which he called She Would Be a Soldier, or The Plains of Chippewa—the story of a woman who, disguised as a soldier, followed her lover into camp, was apprehended, and was about to be shot when her sweetheart saved her. The play deals with the battle of Chippewa, one of the few occasions in the War of 1812 when the United States army emerged victorious; by 1866, this drama of adventure and suspense had been produced at least eighty times. Two performances at one time brought in nearly $2,400, though one may well question if Noah ever derived any financial benefit from this or any other of his plays. When She Would Be a Soldier was put on the boards in New Orleans, a reviewer there wrote: “When our country can boast of such writers as Mr. Noah, we see no necessity our importing British literature and British plays by the bale and by the hogshead.”48

Because the heroism of the American sailors in the Barbary Wars captured the imagination of theatregoers here, one can understand why Noah wrote The Siege of Tripoli in 1820. This was a benefit performance for the author, but here, too, he was not to enjoy the fruits of his labor; the theatre burnt down immediately after the show was over. The generous Noah gave his purse to the actors. The same drama was produced in Philadelphia, but under the title of Yusef Carmalli. No copy of the manuscript has been preserved. The following year, Editor Noah wrote Marion, or The Hero of Lake George, a three-act drama of the Revolutionary War. Like Washington Harby’s Tutoona, it dealt with the battle of Saratoga, where the Americans had compelled Burgoyne and his army to surrender. The play was produced on November 25, Evacuation Day, to commemorate the departure of the British from New York, which they had occupied in 1776. The military showed up in force, helping to pack the house; it is said that a crowd of 2,000 was present. Well over a hundred years later, the drama was revived by the students of Columbia University. Marion was followed in 1822 by The Grecian Captive, or The Fall of Athens, a play in blank verse about the struggle of the Greeks to regain their freedom from the Turks. In contemplating the brave Greeks, Americans proudly relived their battles with the British. All told Noah was to write about a dozen plays, among them a number which he called “interludes” and which all had backgrounds in American history as their titles eloquently testify: The Siege of Yorktown, The Erie Canal, New York State and Its Constitution of 1822.49

Most of Noah’s plays were written hurriedly, in a few days, for a special occasion or for a favored actor. On the whole, judging from the number of performances which some of them enjoyed, he was a successful playwright; they were often good box office. A typical cultural nationalist, Noah wished to further American drama in a day when many here still preferred European scripts. Although writers and dramatists in this country frequently adapted productions from European models, most Americans sought to emancipate themselves from British tutelage in theatrical matters. Men of Noah’s generation were to write about 150 plays on the American Revolutionary War alone in the decades before the Civil War. They were thrilled with their own achievements. For Noah, too, the theme of rebellion and freedom was to dominate his dramas; the golden thread that runs through all four plays in the years 1819–1822 was the triumph of liberty, the defeat of tyranny. His plays never failed to point a moral; they were preachy, moralistic; they dealt with justice, heroism, respect if not reverence for women. When, in 1833, cousin Jonas B. Phillips dedicated one of his plays to him, he said that Noah had advanced the American drama. This was true, for the major had furthered the art in every sense of the term. His was an avid interest shared by many Jews throughout the United States; it is an involvement that has persisted to the present day.50


What was the nature of the man, the journalist, the public servant, the playwright, the drama critic, this Zionist, this Jew? He was a fighter like his grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who lived again in the grandson. Noah displayed inner strength and energy; he was audacious, a quick thinker, a clever conversationalist, an excellent orator, a fine writer. In the larger general community, he always had to struggle against odds because of his religion; prejudice against Jews in the early nineteenth century was constant. Without means, though not without friends and family, he learned to survive as a journalist in a highly competitive field. He yearned for a career in politics, but fate was not kind to him; some of his contemporaries thought him a dreamer, naive, not crafty enough to survive. Noah was never involved in any questionable financial deals; within the limitations of his time, class, and professional politics, he was a good citizen, one with strong conservative leanings. Conscious of the American consensus, he believed that Jews must be careful not to violate the religious sensibilities of their neighbors. This was a Christian country.

In no sense was he an eccentric, as some would imply. If he assumed grandiloquent titles, then in this he was no more orotund than the Masons. The orator Noah had a tendency to exploit his Judaism vis-à-vis the Christians, who were almost always theologically prurient; he set out deliberately to cultivate the followers of Jesus; he thought it good public relations, good apologetics, and in many respects it was. Many religious Christians admired him. The Asmonean obituary included a quotation from The Evening Mirror of New York. Noah, said the editors, was a zealous Jew, but “a practical Christian.” In a way he was a real pioneer, for he was one of the first Jews to enter forcefully into the life of the larger general community and yet remain a loyal Jew, active in all things that concerned his people. Every Jew in every decade has to effect a personal synthesis of Americanism and Judaism; this has been going on for three centuries. The confluence of cultures will vary with every individual of course; the emphases are rarely balanced. Stress will be either on the American or the Judaic aspect of one’s life. Noah, a loyal Jew, nevertheless wanted to stay close to the Protestants or, more exactly, to the Protestant-tinged American civil religion.51

Until his death in 1851, Noah was unquestionably the best-known Jewish layman in this country. This was due to his writings, his articulateness, his relationships with Christians. It would appear, at first glance, that the major would have been an integral part of New York’s Jewish elite, the group who “controlled” the country’s largest Jewish community. This is not necessarily true; one may well question whether he was, in fact, a trusted member of the power structure in the city’s Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community. In the eyes of the Christians and of most Jews, too, he was a leader. Was he a great Jew? That is a different question. Great is a relative term. He was competent; he enjoyed high visibility in his own day. From a twentieth-century perspective, Leeser is more important than the New York editor. It was imperative for early nineteenth-century Jewry that there be a Leeser. For the present-day historian, the devout, dedicated Philadelphia minister looms large. There was no one else in his generation to carry on the work which was so essential for Jewish survival. Religiously, Noah was of no real significance.

It is worthy of mention that there is no extensive obituary of Noah by Leeser in the Occident. This is very strange. Jealousy? Possibly. It is probable that Leeser did not think too much of the man as a Jew, though he surely realized how important he was as a public figure, as his people’s champion. Though not devout, Noah was not a marginal Jew. He sincerely wished to aid his coreligionists, particularly the oppressed who lived abroad. He talked of bringing them here, or if that was not to be, he was eager to see them go to Palestine and live a full life there either as emancipated citizens or in a state of their own. Noah was possessed of a strong ethnic sense, yet the motivations that impelled him were philanthropic, not nationalistic. In essence, in the bosom of his family he was a good husband, kind and generous, a decent human being, but not one consumed with the passion of a great moral ideal. This seems to be the consensus of the Jews and Gentiles who knew him well.


American cultural advancement during the years 1776–1840 cannot be divorced from European influence. British North America and the early American republic were cultural satellites of Europe till the second half of the nineteenth century. Europe in that day was luxuriating in a Golden Age. Europe’s Jews, too, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests, entered into a new cultural world; individuals speedily became eminent as writers, poets, novelists, musicians, economists, publicists, philosophers, orientalists, and physicians. Relatively little of this intellectual explosion is reflected in the general culture either of American Gentiles or Jews. European critics, not unmoved by malice, looked with contempt upon the United States and its literary accomplishments. Even an American intellectual like Emerson once said that “there was not a book, a speech, a conversation or a thought in the State of Massachusetts during the years 1790 and 1820.” This is of course an exaggeration, yet it is indicative of the low esteem in which an eminent American could hold the achievements of his fellow citizens. The criticisms were true to a degree. By present standards, the public schools were certainly inadequate; many children received no education whatsoever; two-thirds of the Americans in Vincennes could not read, and students at West Point had to use some French textbooks for lack of English ones. It is estimated that, before the year 1800, fewer than 100 good books had been published in the United States.53

Nonetheless, cultural advances were made in this country during this period—there was a growing interest in medicine; there were many good private academies; colleges and professional schools were making their appearance; institutions of higher learning for women were established. There were hundreds of lyceums, an assortment of libraries for the masses and the elite; newspapers, magazines, literary reviews were published. This was a generation that witnessed the rise of learned societies. People began to manifest skills and interests in sculpture, architecture, music, opera, drama, theatre. There were excellent landscape artists, historical painters, portraitists; possibly as many as 2,500 people sat for Sully. The country had writers, pamphleteers, and political scientists like Thomas Paine, Jefferson, and Madison. This was the period in American history that was to record the rise of utopian colonies, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism. It cannot be denied that most readers preferred English authors to American, but this was also the age when the native classicists of the next generation were beginning to feel their way: Washington Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe, Bancroft, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier. Let American historians stop beating their breasts—the United States was in no sense a cultural wilderness. By 1790, there was a foundry in America that could supply typefaces for Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and other learned languages. Many Americans were culturally nationalistic, but in a constructive sense, eager to create a literature and a civilization that would bespeak America at its best. For political and psychological reasons, they were impatient to emancipate themselves from England, to counter the accusation—often enough true—that they were a provincial people.54


If it were possible, it would be helpful to determine the degree to which the typical Jewish shopkeeper—not the Jewish notables!—participated in the general culture and to compare the advances in learning and aesthetics made by middle-class Jews with those of Gentiles of the same station. Attempting an answer to this question requires a distinction to be made between immigrants and natives. In the early nineteenth century, there were a few university-trained newcomers, particularly physicians. The typical immigrant had very little secular schooling, for very few opportunities had been available back home where Jews were second-class citizens. Had the situation in Europe been otherwise he would not have braved this frontier. Illiteracy, however, seems to have been rare. There were illiterate women and had always been some in this country since colonial days. Even Mrs. Azuby, wife of the Charleston minister (1785–1805), could not sign her name. Still, most immigrants were literate; though a substantial number seem to have been uncouth. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, a member of the committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence, once asked Rabbi Seixas with whom in his congregation the clergyman could carry on a conversation. The incident implies that the immigrants were relatively numerous and uncultured. Seixas himself referred to some of his flock as a motley crew. There were a few ambitious immigrants who were eager to improve themselves culturally; these men were the men who stood out, who acquired learning, who became philanthropists and Masons of high degree. They raised themselves up, as it were, by their own bootstraps. There were definitely one or two such persons in every town.55

The Jewish native-born were determined to pursue secular studies because learning improved one’s chance for a livelihood; education enhanced status. In 1779, Mordecai Sheftall, who had been a quartermaster general in the armies of Georgia and was then a prisoner of the British, wrote his wife Frances: “Put the poor children in school that they may not be intierly lost in this corrupt age.” Culture among the natives was of varying degrees. Lower middle class Jews sent their children to the various free schools, even though they resented the inevitable Christian orientation; possessing scanty means, they had scant choice. Such Jewish all-day schools as existed were expensive, inadequate—and relatively short-lived. Middle-class and upper-class Jews frequently patronized Christian schools despite their denominational character. The typical America-born Jew could read and write passably well and even possessed a small library. His secular culture was often in inverse ratio to his commitment to ritual and observance. If a native was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, its rationalism and skepticism, then as a rule he was less committed theologically; he was a constant reader of secular works. Theologically, Jews were influenced by concepts and phrases emanating from the Protestants, the dominant status group. Protestantism and civil religion were closely related; the Jews nearly always tended to follow the dictates of the latter. The push toward assimilation, however, was retarded by the rejection to which Jews were exposed. In addition, a positive reason driving Jews to resist lay in the many substantial advantages in remaining part of a protective Jewish community and enjoying social-welfare security. Jewish identification was a comforting psychological haven.56

There was a tremendous change in American Jewry from 1776 to 1840 where general education was concerned. When the Revolution began, all Jews were still disabled politically, and their education at best was limited to the three R’s. By 1840, there were many Jews who were interested in the arts and sciences. Barnard Jacobs, a circumciser and petty businessman, had kept his circumcision records in Hebrew; his knowledge of English was limited. His son Solomon was a highly literate, cultured Virginian, a good writer, and a one-time mayor of Richmond. Acculturation proceeded in the United States with almost shocking rapidity. Was the typical native-born Jewish businessman better educated than his Gentile rival? Available data and methodologies can neither prove nor disprove this. The evidence suggests that the Jew was at least the equal of the Gentile intellectually and culturally. In attempting an evaluation of the cultural achievements of both immigrants and natives, it is advisable to divide the Jews into two groups: the first is the typical Jewish businessman with sufficient schooling to run his shop or carry on his trade. There were others—a minority, to be sure—who were reaching out to improve and advance themselves intellectually. It did not take even a generation to make a generous, respected Charleston gentleman out of a Polish immigrant. This phenomenon would repeat itself constantly in American Jewish history, particularly in the twentieth century when some of the impoverished Russian-Polish newcomers would ultimately become college professors or men of notable achievement in American culture.

Culturally aspiring men in the early national period were interested in the arts and sciences; individuals became officers of scientific societies. Jews were booksellers and publishers, graphic artists, owners of art galleries, songwriters. Jews, almost exclusively males, began attending the colleges and universities, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale. A few, but very few, became academicians; denominational schools—as most were—did not welcome Jewish instructors to the faculties of the arts and sciences until the second half of the twentieth century. In general, however, Jews were slow to matriculate in the schools of higher learning; traditionally, Jewish youth went into trade at the age of thirteen. Colleges offered Jews little unless they were prepared to study law or medicine; by 1840, however, there were quite a number of men in the professions. Writers of a sort now made their appearance. Bibliographies of these decades record sermons, a history of the Florida Indian War, orations, theological works, polemics, apologetics, dramas, Hebrew grammars, an anti-conversionist magazine, legal digests, and commercial compendia. Works on medicine and the sciences, on travel, on poetry, were published; a treatise on economics appeared as well as translations of Old World literature and an anthology of prose and verse.

Individuals prided themselves on the libraries they owned and supported the semi-public library associations. These cultural traditions among Jews can be traced back to colonial days. In writing to a son, Abigail Franks told “Dear Heartsey” (Naphtali) to take off two mornings a week to read, an hour every day at least. After the Jews were accorded political rights, some took advantage of the growing tolerance; opportunities began to open. There were always men, women also, in the towns and villages who were reading; members of the middle class, they found the time to improve themselves. New sources are constantly being unearthed, showing their concern for belles lettres and the fine arts. Adeline Myers, of Norfolk, was an accomplished woman; she wrote beautifully; her brothers, John and Samuel, were much interested in local theatrical productions. The South Carolinian, Philip Melvin Cohen, became secretary and treasurer of the Friendship Literary Society in 1825; Uriah H. Judah (b. 1810), of whom almost nothing is known, was a contributor in 1839 to the Temperance Talisman; a kinsman of his, De Witt Clinton Judah, wrote for The Poughkeepsie Casket.57

The Jewish intelligentsia varied in its religious interests: Rebecca Gratz was over on the right; Leeser was in the center; Noah was left of center; Isaac Harby was on the left. The colonial Jew Joseph Solomon Ottolenghe (d. 1775), a convert to Christianity and a member of the American Philosophical Society, had written on the breeding of the silk worm. Dr. David de Isaac Cohen Nassy, the Philadelphia physician, a member of the same Society in the 1790’s and author of a study on yellow fever, was a Deist. As writers, Jews were culturally Americanistic; with exceptions, they felt they owed no loyalty to those lands where they had been deprived of the Rights of Man. They were devoted to America because of what the country had done for them; for the first time in their lives, if they were immigrants, they found themselves free men and women. Even in his role as a political proto-Zionist, even as he talked of setting up a tiny Jewish colony on Grand Island, the messianic Noah was always strongly American.58

Noah said, in a note to his 1818 Discourse, that the weight of Jewish talent here in this country was in the Southern states. Was his claim true? A case can be made out for the South. It is a fact that there were quite a number of individuals there who studied the classics and modern languages; it is true, too, that the South then sheltered a large percentage of American Jews, probably as much as half. Charleston, in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, was the country’s largest Jewish community. Were there fewer immigrants in the South? Was acculturation speedier there? Apparently there was more homogeneity in that region, more acceptance by Jews of the dominant Gentile American mores. Jews in the South deliberately patterned themselves on what they deemed to be the genteel tradition; individuals built up good libraries and ran good private schools; they sought and received civic appointments; they were elected to public office and cultivated their talents in order to justify the municipal and communal honors which they received. For Southern Jewish intellectuals, making a living was of course important, but learning, gentility, the amenities, local patriotism were always high-ranking desiderata. When in 1858 a wealthy Charleston merchant sought a governess, he laid down the following requirements in a letter to Leeser: she must be well-educated, know French, be able to teach music and painting, and possess the ability to cultivate the moral sense among the children. (But, in seeking a governess, this gentleman turned to the North!)59

The qualities of the well-bred became part of the “Charleston Diaspora” whose members were found as far north as New York and as far west as San Francisco. Talented Charlestonians like the Harbys, Philip Phillips, and a number of others left for greener pastures. Myer Moses, one of them, went to New York where he found Dr. Peixotto, Isaac Gomez, S. B. H. Judah, the Jonas Phillips clan, and the multi-faceted Noah. There was also a handful of university-trained Germans who preferred to remain in the North. By the late 1820’s, New York had become the national metropolis. In the North, the academies and the colleges were better; the number of Southern Jewish students who matriculated in them was substantial. In the South, the Jews admired the landed, “aristocratic” planters; their compatriots in the North patterned themselves on the merchant princes. The emphasis in the North may have been less on learning and more on business and industry; the bourgeois democratic tradition was stronger in that part of the country. To repeat, was Noah right? Was there more talent in the South? The evidence is not conclusive. There was a different type of talent in the North, but there were many cultured Jews there. They seem to have been less partisan politically, to have put less emphasis on the literature of the past; they faced the future with its numerous cultural and industrial challenges.60

From the vantage point of America as a whole, what—if anything—did the Jew contribute to general culture during the years 1776–1840? In the history of the United States, the Jews of that day do not stand out as belletrists, as poets, historians, great journalists, technologists, inventors, scientists. Yet, relatively speaking, the group as a whole had made very real advances in the years since Lexington and Concord, advances in literature, music, the arts, law, medicine, the social sciences. In some of these areas, there were some good names; they stand out especially in journalism and in the theatre. By the 1830’s, the plays of five Jewish dramatists had appeared on the boards in several cities—and this at a time when Jews numbered less than one in a thousand. It is not too much to say that this urban group was culturally aware and productive.

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