REJECTION OF THE JEW: THE PEOPLE 1776–1840
THE EXTENT OF PREJUDICE, THE WORD “JEW” AS AN EPITHET, THE SMEAR TACTIC
Though Sunday closing ordinances never set out to harass Jews, no one can question that there was anti-Jewish prejudice in all circles of society. When angered by Jewish disregard for the Lord’s Day, individual Christians, even the judiciary, voiced a bitterness that was tantamount to Judeophobia. Jews were convinced that they were exposed to bias on the part of some of their neighbors. The Jews who testified to this malaise were the articulate, the cultured, the leaders, the wealthy, often prominent citizens. When Emanuel De La Motta arranged for the cornerstone laying of the Savannah synagog in 1820, he described his fellow-Jewish Masons as “Hebrews”; the non-Masonic Jews became “Israelites.” To a degree, at least, he seemed to avoid the word “Jew.” By so doing, he and his coreligionists were but reflecting the prejudices of their Christian neighbors. Anti-Jewishness was frequently manifested by employing the term “Jew” as a dirty word. Following time-honored European and Christian traditions, the word “Jew” was a synonym for a cheat. “To Jew,” as a verb, was common in American folk parlance. It was frequently applied even to Gentiles. To call a Christian a Jew was to suggest that he was unworthy, a scoundrel. In this sense, it was even employed by Daniel Webster on the floor of the Senate.1
That Jews believed their neighbors often looked askance at them is amply documented for the early American republic (1776–1840). The postrevolutionary period and the new federal Constitution inaugurated no messianic era. Many Christians continued to look upon Jews as a “hated and despised race,” as it was said in 1781. When a sketch of the houses on the Savannah waterfront was drawn in 1786, the artist gave the family name of every Christian occupant; several houses, Jewish homes, were simply marked, “Jews”; they were an ethnic blob. In his memoirs, the Unitarian minister Samuel J. May, who was close to the Hays family in Boston, relates that the children of his day were taught “to dread if not despise Jews” (ca. 1805). Hezekiah Niles, editor of the Weekly Register of Baltimore, opposed the disabilities to which the Jews of Maryland were subject. Jews had to be emancipated politically, he said, despite the fact that they would not labor like other people. When Thomas Oliver Larkin—later, an important California pioneer—was engaged in commerce in the Carolinas during the 1820’s, he believed that the Jews had dispersed themselves so that they could cheat to their hearts’ delight. God has inflicted the plague on New York in the 1820’s because the Christians had elected a Jew as sheriff, said a good Christian. Jews, asserted the author of Israel Vindicated, are looked upon as a degraded race. Judah Touro, wrote a Christian admirer, gave most of his fortune to Christians, though he was fully aware that anti-Jewish prejudice was rife. In 1827, Dr. Edward Chisholm, of Charleston, insulted G. P. Cohen, but refused to give him satisfaction, to meet him in a duel, because, so he maintained, no Jew was his social equal. James Gordon Bennett, of New York’s Herald, called Noah a blasphemer, a Shylock. The Jews, said Bennett, murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes.2
Because dislike of the Jew was taken for granted, politicians frequently “smeared” their Jewish—and Christian—opponents, merely by identifying them as Jews. It was thought that this device would win votes. This political tactic was not unknown in England; it had been used successfully to frighten the people into revoking the emancipatory Jew Bill of 1753. The English were then warned that if given the vote, Jews through their wealth would seize control of England, establish a Sanhedrin, denaturalize English Christians, and honor the memory of Pontius Pilate, who had crucified Jesus. In the early days of the American Revolution, a Carolina Christian Whig planter was denounced as a Jew by a Tory opponent because he was a good friend of the Jewish patriot Francis Salvador. In the 1790’s, when the Jeffersonians became a political threat, anti-Jewish smears were employed to halt the rise of left-wing Democratic societies. In the late eighteenth century, in New York City, individual Jews had eagerly joined these new liberal organizations; some had become officers; in Baltimore, Reuben Etting served as lieutenant in the pro-French military force known as the Sans Culottes. James Rivington, a New York Federalist and a former Loyalist, fearful of a Jefferson victory, denounced the Democrats as Jews, of the tribe of Shylock, wild-eyed French Revolution radicals, atheists, property-equalizing types. This attack was directed against Solomon Simson (d. 1801), vice-president of the local Democratic society and a frequent president of Shearith Israel. Yet Rivington was no “anti-Jew.” One of his best friends was Moses M. Hays, of Boston. Rivington was merely trying to defeat his political opponents. When he published a general almanac, he included a Jewish calendar listing the Holy Days.3
The rivalry between the Federalists and the Democrats (Democratic-Republicans) reached a peak in 1800 when the Jeffersonians battled for the presidency. Since all is fair in politics, as in love and war, the Federalists seized every opportunity to smear their opponents. John Israel—there is no proof of his Jewish origin—was in 1798 a leader of the Jeffersonians in Western Pennsylvania, in Little Washington and Pittsburgh. He was a printer, editor, and politician. Since Israel was a Jewish name, ergo John Israel was a Jew, and since Jews were all bad, why elect them?
And if they have no faults or vice
You then must make it up with lies.…
Israel’s editorial office was dubbed “the synagog.” One Democrat warned Western Pennsylvania liberals that the Federalists wanted to amend the Constitution to establish Christianity as the national church, thus making it impossible for a Jew ever to become President. Apparently the attempt to smear Democrats as Jews garnered few votes, for the Federalists, nationally, soon stopped their attempts to denigrate their opponents as Jews. A substantial number of the Children of Israel were Federalists. And the Pittsburgh Jews? What was their reaction to these attacks? There is no evidence as yet that there was a single confessing Jew in town. One could be a vociferous Judaeophobe and yet never have seen a Jew.4
John Israel’s “Jewish” background, if any, remains unknown; there is no question, however, about Israel Israel, of Philadelphia; he was a son of Michael Israel, a Jew. Israel Israel was a Revolutionary patriot and a very active Jeffersonian. The attacks on him as a Jew must certainly have interested him in view of the fact that, thanks to his Christian mother, he was an ardent Christian churchman. Political infighting between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans was venomous. In Philadelphia, Joseph Dennie, a Federalist editor, identified his Christian Democratic foes as “canting and cheating Jews.” This was good politics. Actually he was no Jew-hater, for the very next year, in reviewing a pro-Jewish play in his Port Folio, he wrote: “we praise it for its evident tendency to obviate those unjust and illiberal prejudices which have too long been entertained in every country except this against that unfortunate race of men.” The Gazette of the United States, a conservative Philadelphia newspaper, attacked the editor of Aurora, one William Duane, saying that he was an expelled English clothier whose original name was Jew Aine. William Cobbett, editor of Federalist newspapers in New York and Philadelphia, said that Democrats—Jews—were bent on circumcising all Christians! When Cobbett libeled Dr. Benjamin Rush, the latter sued and won very handsome damages. Cobbett then revenged himself by attacking Moses Levy, one of Rush’s lawyers, an ardent Democratic-Republican. Cobbett represented Levy as using the traditional stage English jargon which presumptively only Jews mouthed. Actually there is no holograph letter extant in American Jewish correspondence reflecting this type of mispronunciation; it had, however, been traditional in eighteenth-century anti-Jewish English dramas and comedies. Levy, son of a Gentile mother and himself a practicing Christian, was a third-generation American; his family had been in the country for about a century. He was a cultured man who was to serve as a judge for many years.5
In Philadelphia, Joseph Dennie, then editing the anti-Jeffersonian Gazette of the United States, sent “An Observer” in July, 1800, to report the proceedings, when the Democratic Republicans met at the local State House to name their candidates for the state assembly and for the select and common councils. What did this Federalist reporter see on that Wednesday night? A gang of intoxicated, illiterate yokels, miserable wretches, the “refuse and filth of society,” “infamous and abandoned creatures,” perjurers, and seducers of naive black women, and among them all Citizen N.…, the bankrupt Jew, who spoke with a Jewish stage accent. Citizen N.… was Benjamin Nones (who had an accent but it was Gallic; he had been born in France). A Revolutionary War veteran with a fine record, Nones had migrated from his native Bordeaux to Charleston in 1777. When the city was threatened by the English two years later, the young alien offered his services as a volunteer in a “foreign legion” and fought the British in the Carolinas and in Savannah; according to the testimony of his superior officer, Nones had distinguished himself by his heroic conduct under fire. After the British occupied Charleston, a large number of the Jewish patriots fled north to Philadelphia, where they helped build Mikveh Israel congregation in 1782. Nones was among them. Back again in Charleston in 1783, he got into an altercation on political issues with a Mr. Baron. The latter, evidently anti-French, denounced Nones as a “French rebel.” This phrase, which seemed to constitute a bitter insult, led to a fight in which Nones was almost killed. The Charleston mob—strongly sympathetic to the “subjects of the great and generous ally of America”—went looking for Baron and, had it found him, in its ugly mood, would have made short shrift of him.
Nones liked Philadelphia well enough to spend the rest of his life there. Alhough influenced by Deism and French thought—he was a Frenchman!—he was no freethinker, for he served as parnas of the congregation for many years, beginning in 1791. He was a merchant, a notary public, an official interpreter in the French and Spanish languages, and above all a good father who reared a family of unusual children. A generation after his death he was still a tradition on Chestnut Street—for his loud, stentorian sneezes. (He never, if he could help it, ever sneezed in the house itself; he always chose the street, as his startled neighbors could well testify.) Above all, he was a zealous Jeffersonian, a diehard Democrat, and when he was attacked as a Jew, a Republican, and a poor man, he wrote and forthwith carried over to the Gazette a spirited reply which its printer, Mr. Caleb P. Wayne, refused to publish. Nothing daunted, the aroused protestant sent his indignant answer to the Philadelphia Aurora where it appeared August 13. Here are excerpts undoubtedly polished, one suspects, by an accomplished writer:
I am accused of being a Jew, of being a Republican (a political liberal), and of being Poor.
I am a Jew. I glory in belonging to that persuasion … whose votaries have never murdered each other in religious wars … I am a Jew … and so too were Christ and his apostles.…
I am a Republican!… I have not been so proud or so prejudiced as to renounce the cause for which I have fought, as an American … and which … I shall hold sacred until death.… I am a Jew, and if so for no other reason, for that reason am I a republican.… in republics we have rights, in monarchies we live but to experience wrongs.… no wonder we are objects of derision to those who have no principles, moral or religious.…
But I am poor, I am so; my family also is large, but soberly and decently brought up. They have not been taught to revile a Christian because his religion is not so old as theirs.6
By 1823, Charles King, one of the owners and editors of the New York American, was associated with the faction of the Democratic Party that worked to keep Mordecai M. Noah out of the sheriff’s office. The fact that Noah was a Jew helped defeat him—it was not, it would seem, the prime cause—and the New York American and King joined in the hue and cry against the Jew. There was bad blood between Noah and “Charles the Pink,” as Noah was to dub him. The suave, handsome, cultured gentleman, with his aristocratic background and his fine English Harrow education had no use for the flamboyant autodidact who guided the destinies of the National Advocate. King was basically a conservative; Noah, more a Democrat; on local, state, and national issues they were often on different sides of the fence. The editor of the New York American not only had a temper, he was also vindictive, for in the issue of Saturday, October 25, 1823, he published an anonymous attack on his Jewish fellow citizens, emphasizing that a Jew was a “Jew” before he was a patriot, and as such he could not properly fill any public post. This was certainly a thrust at Sheriff Noah, who lusted for public office. No Jew, said King, because of his inherent lack of patriotism, had the right to be the editor of an American newspaper; thrust number two at Editor Noah; and, finally, because the Jew was no Christian, he sought to turn one Christian against the other for his own purposes!
The answer to this diatribe came two days later from “An American Jew.” One suspects the writer was Noah—he was the man who was directly attacked, and he had the press at his disposal for an immediate answer—but it could have been some other New Yorker. The writer, whoever he was, did not handle “the King” with kid gloves, but raked up his Federalism, his “Toryism,” his opposition to the 1812 War, and above all his “traitorous” exoneration of the English who had shot down some rioting American seaman in Dartmouth Prison. But the outstanding theme in this open letter was the bold challenge to King or to anyone who would dare to raise his voice or pen against the principle of civil, political, and religious equality for the Jew as guaranteed by the Constitution. Here on this soil the Jew had struggled hard to achieve equality of rights—even at this date he was far from having accomplished his purpose in several of the states—and he was determined, desperately, to keep that freedom which he and his fellow Jews had won by the sacrifices they had made and the blood they had shed on the battlefields of the land. The writer was bitter, almost hysterical, at this attack on the right of Jews to live like other Americans, and he was resolved to smash any anti-Jewish Toryism before it had even a chance to draw this free and liberal United States down to the level of a still medieval-like Europe. He believed that, for the Jew at least, eternal vigilance was always the price of liberty. Not surprisingly Noah and King supported different candidates in the national election of 1824. In Philadelphia, Zalegman Phillips, a lawyer, and an important Jacksonian, was also active in this same presidential campaign. To lessen his influence, a political opponent attacked him by insinuating that he was a gambler, a swindler, and—like other Jews—determined to cheat and thus “crucify” Christians.7
THE IMAGE OF THE JEW IN BELLES LETTRES
To no inconsiderable degree, anti-Jewish onslaughts were prompted by the belief of Gentiles that Jews were an inferior group, culturally, spiritually, and religiously. There is no question that some eminent Americans, Jefferson, for instance, believed that secular learning was not much cultivated by American Jewry. The Jews could have answered—and this would have been true—that there were millions of other Americans whose education left much to be desired. They could have pointed out that, if culturally they were held in low esteem, it was because they were, in part, an immigrant group coming from lands where they had experienced economic, political, social, and educational constraints. The writings that most profoundly influenced Christian attitudes to Jews were the Gospels. The prejudices emanating from the Christian Scriptures were reenforced by religious poetry, tracts, Sunday School textbooks, novellas, stories, and histories that had been published on this continent ever since the mid-seventeenth century. Church literature occasionally said a good word for Jews, but as a rule children and adults were taught by the churches that Jews disliked and persecuted Christians. The Sons of Abraham were ready, if not eager, to do away with Jesus; their religion, their Law, was a burden; their ritual had no spirituality. Jews could save themselves only if they accepted Christianity. The implication in all orthodox Christian literature was and is that Jews are being punished for rejecting their Savior. In a sense, this notion is implicit also in Hannah Adams’s History of the Jews, which dates from 1812, and it also explains the myth of the Wandering Jew, doomed to wander till the end of time. This mythical character was a Jerusalemite who pushed Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha and staggered under his burden on the Via Dolorosa: “Go faster, Jesus, why dost thou linger?” To which Jesus answered: “I indeed, am going but thou shalt tarry till I come.” The Son himself had cursed the Jew. European literature in the form of chapbooks and novels on the Wandering Jew began to be republished here in the United States as early as 1760.8
The conviction that Judaism is spiritually inferior to Christianity prompted most Christians to oppose intermarriage with a Jew, usually a woman. Such a marriage would be a mésalliance. By the late eighteenth century quite a literature of stories, novels, plays and dramas dealing with this theme had developed. If a hero falls in love with a woman and discovers that she is a Jew, the shock is almost traumatic. Pious Christians, rejecting intermarriage, found a solution in the Jew’s conversion. In almost no literary work of this day does the Jewish woman retain her ancestral faith; convinced of the superiority of Christianity, the heroine becomes a proselyte—cheerfully! If the father in those stories is not a miserly villain but a fine human being, he usually has a kind word to say for Jesus. Where intermarriage is tolerated in the literature, it is an unmoneyed Christian, man or woman, marrying into a rich Jewish family; the about-to-be converted Jewish heroine is invariably an heiress. In one novel of 1839, the Jewish woman falls in love with a Christian scoundrel, and when the father will not allow the marriage, she sickens and dies. This theme recurs again in a ballad written in 1899 by the famous songwriter Charles K. Harris, author of “After the Ball Was Over”; he called it “A Rabbi’s Daughter.” When the father, the rabbi, does not permit his child to marry her Christian lover, she lies down and dies. The song was never to become a best seller. There are exceptions to the stereotype of the Jewess marrying a Christian and embracing Jesus, but they are indeed rare. Such an exception is Charles Brocken Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800). This is the story of Achsa Fielding, an American Jewish woman who had already once been married to a Gentile. Her father had offered no objection to her first marriage, nor to her second either, both to Gentiles. She is wealthy and assimilationist in her views. This is a very unusual approach for a book written at the time, but it is realistic, for it actually depicts what was then going on in the English-speaking world, in England and in the United States. Intermarriages in which neither the man nor the woman felt constrained to convert were not infrequent; husband and wife remained formally loyal to their ancestral faiths.9
One might think that belletristic works were very influential in shaping public opinion about the Jews, but this is moot. Belles lettres merely maintained and nursed prevailing stereotypes. The real makers of opinion were the churches; millions went to worship services; hundreds of thousands read tracts, which on the whole were unsympathetic to Jews and Judaism. Plays dealing with Jews and Judaism, either read as literature or seen on the stage here in the United States, were few in number. About eighty plays with at least one Jewish character had been written or produced in England since 1584; by 1821, twenty-eight of these had been staged here. A few American plays, in addition, were presented here, but were not produced abroad. Up to 1823, only about five or six American plays portrayed Jewish characters.10
THE JEW AS SCOUNDREL, BUFFOON, AND SAINT
Plays presented in England during the years 1584–1840 often depicted the typical Jew as a veritable beast. Later in the eighteenth century the Jew, at times, plays a different role; he is often presented as a buffoon, the comic relief, the poor fool who allows himself to be cheated. His stage English is almost unintelligible; every “s” becomes “sh,” a mode of speech persisting into the nineteenth century. To heighten the comedy, Christians very often appear disguised as Jews. Sometimes the role they assume is a serious attempt to conceal their identity; more often, they appear as Jews to titillate the interest of the audience, to amuse theatregoers. Thus two Christians come out on the stage disguised as Jewish old-clothes dealers; each suspects the other to be a Gentile; accordingly they challenge one another to speak Hebrew and respond by mumbling Latin and Greek phrases; the spectators apparently found this very funny. On occasion, Jews appear as decent human beings. As early as the sixteenth century, one London drama depicts the Jew as an honorable person; the Christian is the scoundrel—but, complimenting the Jew, the judge in the play says: “Jews seek to excel in Christianity, and Christians in Jewishness.” More frequently, even when a decent Jew is portrayed, he, too, exhibits some traits not worthy of emulation. In short, the typical stage Jew was money-mad, cruel, an enemy of Christians and Christianity; his villainy runs the spectrum from wickedness to utter depravity. Very few vestiges of humanity are apparent.11
This histrionic stereotype of the Jew began in 1592 with Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, whose protagonist, Barabas, the Jew, is a killer, a poisoner, a traitor. The pejorative picture reappears in Shakespeare’s Shylock, the cruel, avaricious, vindicative Merchant of Venice (1596–1597). This became a popular play here and may have been the very first produced in this country—in Williamsburg in 1752. Shylock was popularized in James Burgh’s Art of Speaking, an English elocution book reprinted here in many editions ever since the late eighteenth century. Excerpts from the Merchant of Venice were incorporated to show cruelty. Publishers frequently reprinted English belletristic works, plays, stories, and novels in which a warped picture of the Jew emerges; he is a social climber, a cheat, a smuggler, a profligate, a moneylender, a usurer, a miser, a crook, a forger. In one of the plays, the Jew sings a song describing how Moses had commanded him to rook the Gentiles. In the Barbary pirate plays so popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Jew is a traitorous enemy of the United States; he is an oppressor of American slaves in North Africa and, even when presented as a friend, is bent on feathering his own nest. American theatregoers were given the pleasure of gaping at weird types. One and the same man was a Methodist minister, a peddler, an informer, and an old-clothesman, and spoke with the traditional Jewish stage accent.12
In 1839 John Lothrop Motley published a book, Morton’s Hope, in which he described vividly a Jew who was fat, vulgar, sneaky looking, baldheaded, and a moneylender. The father of the Jewess in this story was a crook. Motley, a very distinguished American, would later write some famous works, among them his histories of the Netherlands. He was to become this country’s minister to Austria and to Great Britain; posthumously, he achieved immortality by election to the American Hall of Fame. In 1835–1836, Edward Henry Durell lived in New Orleans and wrote a book, New Orleans as I found It, a work in which he incorporated the story of a Jewish character whom he described in detail. This man, Moses Solomon, hoped to make money selling coffins for victims of the prevailing yellow fever. He himself died of the plague. Before his death, he described how he had shot his own brother, who was trying to murder him. Solomon was an utterly amoral, depraved and vile person. Durell, like Motley, was a cultured man; he had a knowledge of German and French, served later as a judge, and was once mentioned as a candidate for the vice-presidency. It is important to note that men of stature—and there were a number of them—did not hesitate to write books delineating Jews as contemptible human beings: the implication is that Jews as a class are bad, very bad.13
Durell wrote in the 1830’s. At that time, political liberalism had become the distinguishing attribute of the American republic. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its amendments were now venerated documents, classical hallmarks in a hopeful new world. The Rights of Man had been promulgated in France; the new egalitarianism was spreading slowly in Europe; by July, 1830, there was leftist political ferment in a number of lands. All this was to touch belles lettres—there would be a new look at the Jew, the “scoundrel” and the “buffoon.” The new literary approach had already documented itself in the last quarter of the eighteenth century when the Enlightenment began to make itself felt. This humanitarian revolution, emphasizing tolerance and justice, was reflected in the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise (1779).
In the early 1770’s Richard Cumberland, the English dramatist, wrote two plays; they were typical in embodying unattractive Jews. In 1794, however, he wrote The Jew, or Benevolent Hebrew; Sheva, the central figure, a moneylender, is all that is noble; in fact, he is almost too good to be true. This is the first time in generations that a play was written and produced in which the hero was a Jew. Cumberland, seeking to strike a blow at prejudice, lets Sheva expatiate on the plight of the Jews:
We have no abiding place on earth, no country, no home. Everybody rails at us, everybody points us out for their may-game and their mockery. If your playwrights want a butt, or a buffoon or a knave to make sport of, out comes a Jew to be baited and buffetted through five long acts, for the amusement of all good Christians.
Cumberland’s play was presented in London in 1794; the following year saw three editions published in the United States, in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, where the comedy was “performed with universal applause.” Though this phrase was a publisher’s puff, the comedy was indeed very popular; numerous editions appeared in a few years. Before 1797, it had been presented also in Charleston, Providence, and Hartford, and theatregoers were to have the pleasure of enjoying it all through the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century.14
In the 1850’s, The Jew was produced in German in New York City; before 1900 it was to be translated into Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish, Czech and French. By 1808, however, Cumberland had returned to the almost sacrosanct traditional portrayal of these exotic infidels, for he now wrote a comic opera and a farce with less attractive Jewish characters mouthing their lingo. Still, Cumberland’s success with his pro-Jewish play certainly stimulated others to write in a similar vein. A. F. F. von Kotzebue, influenced probably by the German translation of the Cumberland comedy in 1795, cashed in on the new vogue of a good Jew. Cumberland’s Jew, said the German playwright, had rekindled his confidence in human kindness. Kotzebue thereupon wrote two plays with attractive Jewish characters; both were produced in English in this country, one translated by John Howard Payne, grandson of a Jew. Payne cut out the minor role of the Jew. Was the translator sensitive to matters Jewish? Following in Cumberland’s wake, Thomas J. Didbin, an Englishman, wrote two plays with benevolent, honest Jews. One was a farce and the other a comedy; by 1808, both had been presented here in a number of American cities.15
The late eighteenth century saw published in this country not only plays, but a novel, too, showing Jews in a good light. In 1807, Royall Tyler, a New Englander who became chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, wrote a picaresque novel, The Algerine Captive. This work, one of America’s first long prose narratives, had two Jewish characters: one was mercenary and treacherous; the other, honorable. In the course of his narrative, the author went out of his way to show the absurdity of the blood libel—especially important since ritual murder accusations were frequent in the late eighteenth century, and Jews were then being put to death in Europe because of this false charge. Yet even for Tyler, Jews were still moneylenders and usurers. There is one thing that he had in common with Shakespeare; neither, it would seem, knew any Jews. There was probably not a Jew in Vermont in the 1790’s, when Tyler lived there; he may have seen a few in Boston where he was born. Some Lopezes, Hayses, and Touros still lived there in the late eighteenth century, but no community had taken shape. In 1819, Scott wrote Ivanhoe; by 1820, it had already been adapted for the stage. Within a few years, at least eighteen different dramatizations of the novel made their appearance in England and in the United States. The story was popular; it ran true to form; it had a proper, if not a happy, ending; the Jewess did not marry the Christian; the proprieties were not offended. It is strange, very strange, that the classic tolerance-epic of modern times, Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, was not produced on the stage in English till 1912—and then in an Episcopal church in New York City.16
THE JEW IN AMERICAN BELLES LETTRES, 1776–1840: A SUMMARY
There was always a great deal of interest in the Jews during this period, despite the fact that or even because most Americans had never seen a Jew. But they knew all about Jews through the New Testament, through Josephus, through sermons heard in the pulpit, through the liturgy, through conversations with fellow-Christians in the missionary societies, and, of course, through Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. It is almost incredible, but it is reported that in one year alone, in 1594, at least twenty dramas with at least one Jewish character were written in England; and this at a time when there was hardly a known Jew in the country! In studying the literary image of the Jew in the United States as mirrored in fiction or drama, it is important to remember that the British certainly had a jaundiced view of the Jew, a view which stretched back to the Middle Ages and its monkish chroniclers, to a time of mass murders. This prejudice was not erased when in 1656 Jews were again allowed to set up a religious community in the realm. Great Britain’s Jews were not given political rights until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. English prejudice was transmitted here through novels and plays; most dramas and comedies presented on the American stage were of English origin. On the library shelves of the American Antiquarian Association are some 1,150 fictional works published or reprinted in the United States between the years 1800 and 1850. Over 280 have some reference to Jews and their religion, but in only twenty-two do they play a role. The themes are almost monotonous in their constancy: the moneylending Jew is clever and crooked; his daughter will marry a Christian; she will even die on the battlefield with a cross clutched in her hand. Noble Jews are not totally absent, but in general the image reflected in the literature of the period is a negative one.17
What influence, if any, did these writings exercise? That is the question. It is quite possible that Mr. Simms, of Charleston, might go to a play featuring a Jewish scoundrel, but when he saw Mr. Cohen, Mr. Lazarus, or Mr. Mordecai, he hastened to greet them graciously; he knew they were fine citizens. On the other hand, for some who sat in the theatre, portrayal of the Jew as base and inhuman was accurate. These individuals had no doubt that the evils portrayed on the stage were true to life and justified the contempt with which they viewed these avaricious aliens. The Jews, always fearful, resented the anti-Jewish presentations. It was little consolation to the thoughtful among them that Catholics, too, were constantly under attack or that Yankees were considered “sharper” even than Jews. Jews only knew that they were being hurt; they were annoyed by these literary assaults and stage caricatures, but it was not until the first quarter of the twentieth century that they created a national organization to fight misrepresentation in the communications media. Their B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913. Then Jews, politically and economically powerful, were able to induce newspapers and news agencies like the Associated Press to stop printing attacks on them. Indeed, as early as the 1790’s, with the rise of the new humanitarianism, Gentile litterateurs knew full well that they had been perpetuating denigratory stereotypes which in no sense held up the mirror to actuality. Even though a realistic picture of the Jew was not to be presented for many decades, writers knew that the nasty Jew on the stage had no relationship to the decent Jew in the pit. Accordingly, some authors in their prologues, or somewhere else, apologized in advance for their aspersions. It is immaterial whether they meant it; they knew their attacks were unfair. Barabas, The Jew of Malta, was infamous; when the play opened in the United States for the first time in 1821, there was an apologia in the prologue:
Then far from us long be th’ invidious aim
To cast opprobrium, o’er the Hebrew name.
Having made their apology in advance, the producers then proceeded to present this hellhound, the Jew. Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, an American, wrote the play Slaves in Algiers in 1794. In the early glow of American egalitarianism, she had to justify her introduction of a Jewish villain. Knowing that the Jewish people would be smeared, she hastened to make clear that the evil Jew is only a symbol in a war. Here is a moral play; she is holding up vice to ridicule, she said.18
Even in those days, playwrights and producers were not Sunday School teachers; their prime concern was the box office. Whether saints or sinners were reflected in their writings, they attempted to give audiences what the writers thought the people wanted to hear and to see. There was no special animus on the part of the authors; the Jew was merely another puppet to be jiggled for the amusement of the spectator. Dramatists and novelists were convinced that the public was interested in the Jew primarily as a moneybags. The word Jew spelt filthy lucre—filthy because it had been acquired dishonestly. (There may be an element of envy here, since Jewish businessmen had high visibility on the wharves and on Market Street.) Despite the growing political liberalism, the stereotypes of the detestable Jew persisted. Political equality for all? Yes! Of course. No question. The Jew is really different? Yes! Of course. No question. In 1831, James Fenimore Cooper wrote a historical novel he called The Bravo, one of whose characters, Hosea, the jeweler and moneylender, is a grasping Hebrew, a knave, greedy and a would-be murderer. Cooper knew that Jews in the United States were making careers for themselves. This pleased him; yet in the ambivalent world in which he lived, he could glory in American freedom and unhesitatingly paint Jews in the darkest colors.19
Most writers were probably not conscious of the ethical implications of their art; they may not even have been interested. Tom Paine was a great liberal, but in 1775 he exploited the common prejudices in The Monk and the Jew, a story in verse in which a Catholic compels a drowning Jew to accept conversion and then drowns him to make sure he will not return to his vomit, his Jewish faith. This is a “comic” story, at least as old as Luther’s Table Talk. Christians who disliked or despised Jews could not help but feel that Jews also disliked them. This conviction—incidentally, it may well have been false—was sufficient justification for rejecting Jews. Prejudice was a vicious circle; it preyed upon itself. Jews were unhappy with the prevalence of phrases that smeared them, because they were convinced of the efficacy of indoctrination through the written and spoken word. Shylock had been portrayed on the stage in almost every town in this country, at times by actors as gifted as Junius Brutus Booth. He was very convincing. George Washington in all likelihood saw The Merchant of Venice at Williamsburg or Alexandria, Virginia, when it was presented in those towns. It is known that on December 4, 1794, he saw a portrayal of Shadrach Boaz in The Young Quaker. Boaz is one of the worst scoundrels ever portrayed on the stage. It would be interesting to know what went through Washington’s mind as he watched the play. He knew very few real Jews—a dozen at the most, it would seem. Two were officers, veterans of the late Revolution. Certainly he knew that these men, David S. Franks and Isaac Franks, were not subhuman.20
ATTITUDES OF NOTABLES TOWARD JEWS
Were the great and the notable prejudiced against the Jews? In fact there were few distinguished Americans who did not on occasion enjoy the luxury of making derogatory remarks about Jews. Horace remarked that “Homer himself hath been observed to nod.” The historian must note these falls from grace; interpreting them is something else. Eager in 1797 to further a client’s interest, Alexander Hamilton, acting as a lawyer, had no hesitation in court in smearing an opponent as “Shylock the Jew.” His goal was to win the case. But Hamilton not infrequently represented Jews also; he was by no means their enemy. In his office records, Dr. Benjamin Rush put the word “Jew” after the name of his Jewish clients, but this was a descriptive term, objectionable possibly, but devoid of hostility; it was a non-affective form of identification, at least as old as the medieval charters. True, in the mind of this cultured, distinguished man, Jews were different; he was a pious Christian and very eager to convert them. Tom Paine, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and Washington Irving, among other writers of the early republic, used phrases or references that were patronizing, if not hostile, to Jews.21
Hugh Henry Brackenridge, father of the Hugh Marie Brackenridge who helped emancipate the Jews of Maryland, was himself a liberal associated with John Israel, of Pittsburgh, in the attempt to elect Jefferson in 1800. Yet in his novel Modern Chivalry (1792–1818), the elder Brackenridge used uncomplimentary language about Jews. Washington Irving, as a young political hack, attacked a Clinton Democrat as a “little ugly Jew.” The same reproach was used by the Federalists in Philadelphia in 1800, when they held the Democrats up to scorn. Irving also employed the word “Jew” as a verb, “screwing and jewing the world out of more interest than one’s money is entitled to.” Jefferson deemed Judaism a religion of low order; its doctrines, he thought, were often degrading and immoral. Madison, lending himself to the dismissal of a Jew from his consular post, cited as one of his reasons the man’s religion. Yet all these men were staunch proponents of political equality for all—white—citizens, regardless of religious belief. The Adamses were sui generis. Unlike Tom Paine and Jefferson, John Adams was a great admirer of Hebraism: “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation”; Abraham had given religion to “the greatest part of the civilized world.” His son, John Quincy Adams, though no admirer of M. M. Noah, the Jew, wrote a strong letter to the English in 1833, recommending that Jews be emancipated. No set of men could be better subjects, he said.22
When Francis Lieber, the social reformer and political liberal, edited the Encyclopaedia Americana, he paid homage to modern Jewish scholars, merchants, and philanthropists, but he did not fail to add that the disabilities to which Jews had been exposed had debased most of them and had encouraged ingenuity and cunning. The Philadelphia sales agents for his Encyclopaedia were E. L. Carey and A. Hart, in a way a Jewish firm. In 1837, William H. Prescott in his History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella discussed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and expressed his sorrow at the plight of this unfortunate people. Going on with his narrative, he reported that Jews had maintained a “pertinacious attachment to ancient errors” and had attempted unsuccessfully to propitiate Ferdinand and Isabella with “their usual crafty policy.” It is rather curious that this eminent historian would condemn Jews for trying to save their families and their fortunes and seeking to prevent their expulsion from a country where they had lived for almost 1,500 years and where they had given birth to celebrated cartographers, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and statesmen.23
Five years before Prescott published his Ferdinand and Isabella, Solomon Etting, of Baltimore, sat down to write a letter to a great American, Henry Clay, the well-known Senator from Kentucky and a candidate for the presidency. Etting wrote to find out why, in a public debate in the Senate, the Senator had described a man as “Moses Myers, the Jew.” Etting was nothing if not candid in his letter: “The term, Sir, you used was a ‘reproachful designation.’ Its use is considered illiberal. If therefore you have no antipathy to the people of that religious society [the Jews] … explain to me by a line what induced the expression.” At that time, Etting was sixty-eight years of age and was one of Baltimore’s most distinguished citizens. Fourteen years earlier the city had named a street after him. He had come a long way from the family’s humble beginnings in the little shop in York, on the frontier, where he was born in 1764 and where his mother, Shinah Solomon Etting, had charmed Captain Alexander Graydon and John Dickinson, the “Pennsylvania Farmer,” by her agreeable singing and her zest for fun and frolic. Young Etting had married Joseph Simon’s daughter; when she died, he remained within the Simon-Gratz circle by marrying Rachel, the daughter of Barnard Gratz. His business career and connections brought him first to Lancaster, then to Philadelphia and to New York. Wherever he went, he lived as an observant Jew and joined the congregation. Already as a boy of eighteen, he had learned the art of slaughtering cattle according to the Jewish rite; this implied that he had some knowledge of the Hebrew texts which discussed the laws of ritual slaughter. Etting’s last stop was Baltimore, where he first opened a hardware shop, but finally wound up as a merchant-shipper. He made money and during the first decade of the century, stood out as one of the founders of the Baltimore Water Company and one of the enterprisers seeking to establish the Baltimore East India Company, a million-dollar corporation, to exploit the China and Calcutta trade. From 1797 to 1826, he had fought to make the Maryland Jew the equal of all men before the law. Now he was greatly annoyed to hear that a distinguished Senator—whom he knew personally—had referred, disparagingly, to a Virginia merchant as “Moses Myers, the Jew.”
What were the circumstances that prompted Clay to make this remark? During the summer of 1832, there was an acrimonious debate in the Senate on the subject of the revision of the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations.” The wool, iron, hemp, textile, and other forces of the North and the plantation interests of the South were all jockeying for a tariff bill that would bring each of them a maximum of benefit. Hayne of South Carolina, Clay of Kentucky, and Webster of Massachusetts were among the chief disputants. In the course of the debate, Hayne, a free trader, protested against protectionist lobbyists; Clay, a protectionist, countering that the free traders were tarred with the same brush, denounced one of the Southern lobbyists whom he described as a small man with red hair “flitting” between the House of Representatives and the Treasury department. He went even farther and identified him as “Moses Myers, the Jew.” Myers, a third-generation American, was one of the leading citizens of Norfolk; his features have been preserved for posterity in a fine portrait by Gilbert Stuart. A number of Jews were disturbed and distressed by Clay’s remarks smearing a political opponent by identifying him as a Jew. Clay’s attack was not in accord with the spirit of liberal America. These Jews were certainly resolved not to keep silent nor to shrug it off; the Ettings and the Gratzes had a fighting tradition. Rebecca Gratz wrote at once to her Christian sister-in-law in Lexington, Ben Gratz’s wife: “Do, Maria, when you see Mr. Clay, ask what was meant by an allusion to Moses Myers, the Jew.” Clay, we know from Rebecca’s letters, had Jewish friends in Baltimore, probably the Ettings. He was close to the Gratzes, to both the Philadelphia and the Lexington branches. The whole clan was devoted to him and was eager to see him become President. Years later, Ben Gratz would serve as pallbearer at the great statesman’s funeral. Clay answered Etting immediately:
The remark was intended to describe a person and not to denounce a Nation.… I Judge of men not exclusively by their Nation, religion, etc., but by their individual conduct. I have always had the happiness to enjoy the friendship of many Jews, among [them] one of the Gratzes of Lex’n [Lexington].
Generally, Clay’s attitude toward his Jewish fellow citizens was friendly enough. A crackpot from Louisville, anticipating the jargon of the twentieth-century racist, even described Clay as a tool of the Jews and wrote a rambling letter to Clay’s rival Martin Van Buren pointing out all the machinations of Kentucky Jews and their close relations to Clay, whose son had even married one of these corrupt people. It is true that one of Clay’s sons married a Louisville girl reputed to be of Jewish origin. Indeed, many years later, one of Clay’s grandsons did marry a daughter of Ben Gratz. Just a year after Clay attacked Moses Myers, Augustus E. Cohen, a young Charlestonian Jew, wrote the Senator expressing his great admiration for him and asking for the privilege of reading law in his office. When, in 1851, the recently negotiated commercial treaty with Switzerland was presented to the Senate, Clay, Webster, and others refused to confirm it because it discriminated against American Jewish citizens: “This is not the country nor the age in which unjust prejudices should receive any countenance,” said the Kentuckian. This is the “Jewish” background of Henry Clay. The man was no anti-Jew and belonged to no religious sect but inherited illiberal phrases emerge in periods of stress.24
THE MINIS AFFAIR
One might think that antiquity of settlement is a defense against Judeophobic aspersions, especially against denunciations of the Jew as an alien. The Minis Affair proves that even pioneer Jews—“Founding Fathers,” as it were—are not spared. For many Americans, Jews were and are the eternal strangers and newcomers. The Minis family, however, came to Georgia in 1733, a few months after the arrival of Oglethorpe and the establishment of the new colony. Philip Minis (d. 1789) was said to have been the first white male child born in Savannah. In August, 1832, his grandson of the same name, Dr. Philip Minis, shot and killed James Jones Stark in an altercation. There had been trouble between the two for months. Stark had suggested that Minis name his horse Shylock (Shylock, too, was a moneymaker). He had also referred to Minis as “a damned Israelite”; “he ought to be pissed upon.” There was talk of a duel that was never arranged, and when the two met in a barroom, they both pulled their pistols. Minis was quicker on the draw and killed Stark. In the trial for murder that followed, Minis was found not guilty on January 23, 1833. But why had Stark despised Minis so? Considering the influence to which he was exposed, what choice did he have? A Jew was a Shylock, all that was evil. As a Christian, Stark had learned in Sunday School and church to look down upon Jews and their religion. Many, probably most, of the social and cultural influences that enveloped a typical Christian of that day in Georgia made for a measure of hostility to the Sons of Abraham. Philip Minis, a physician, left Savannah, married one of the New York Livingstons, and from all indications reared a family of Christians. Had he killed a man to defend his religion or his “honor”?25
Churchgoing Christians were taught that Christianity was the best of all faiths. Other religions, including Judaism, were held inferior and Jews as followers of Judaism were implicitly also inferior. Even non-churchgoing Gentiles—the majority in America—were exposed to and often adopted the traditional anti-Jewish prejudices. Thus, Jews have had their cross to bear ever since the establishment of Christianity. Not unaware of the fulminations constantly issuing from the pulpits of the land, Noah in 1818, delivered a discourse at the rebuilt Mill Street Synagogue in New York; he hoped that less asperity and more tolerance would flow from the mouths of the ministers of religion. His protest was mild, since he knew that there would be many Christians in the audience; “We never arraign the faith of others—let none then arraign our faith.” Protestantism, resurgent, kept pounding. In an 1827 address, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely (1786–1861), a cultured Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, called on the Christians of America to establish “a Christian party in politics.” Ely assured his auditors and readers that, if the important Protestant sects would only unite, they could rule the country. None but Orthodox and observant Christians should be allowed to hold office. “The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers” is what he called his sermon, and the title eloquently reflected his hopes: “We are a Christian nation; we have a right to demand that all our rulers in their conduct shall conform to Christian morality.” Had this “union,” as Ely called it, been successful, the Jews of the United States would have been in trouble.26
THE MISSIONARY MOVEMENT
The Protestant imperialism of an Ely was important, reflecting as it did the sincere aspiration of a large number of American citizens. The push for Protestant control was not unrelated to a coeval missionary movement which hoped to bring Jews to Jesus and considered it imperative that Jews convert. Why? Patterning themselves on the ancient Hebrews who had taught that there was but one religious truth, the Christians insisted “that truth we possess; it is your only salvation.” “For God so loved the world (and the Jews, too) that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Of course, if a true Christian insists on converting Jews, it is because of his desperate and truly sincere desire to “save” them, not to destroy them. Jews must be rescued spiritually for their own sake. This is not enmity; this is affection. Jews are the testes veritatis, the witnesses of the truth. If Jews, contemporaries of Jesus, accept Christianity, who can assert that the Jesus story is a myth, a lie agreed upon? The conversion of the Jews could be the final proof of the superiority of Christianity. Prophecy guarantees the conversion of the Jews. After their conversion will come the millennium, then the Second Advent of Jesus and happiness, time without end. Good Christians found it difficult to understand why the Jews rejected Jesus. Did they not realize that, if they persisted in their error, they were doomed to burn in hell for all eternity? Under no circumstances could the Jews be ignored; there could be no millennium without them. The apocalyptic hopes were all in vain; history and religion had no future if the Jews remained recalcitrant; hence the missionary movement.
Missionary efforts to convert Jews to Christianity are as old as Saint Paul. During the Middle Ages the threat of violence was almost never absent from proselytization, but with the dawn of modern times, force was frowned upon among Christians. Dialectic and appeal were favored, particularly in the period following the French Revolution when human dignity and the Rights of Man were emphasized. Around the turn of the eighteenth century, societies to Christianize the Jews were founded in England. The organized American missionary drive had its roots in the England of that day. Even earlier, however, Christians in this country had been busy trying to save Indian souls; some, like John Eliot, Roger Williams, and William Penn, wondered whether the Indians were not the Lost Ten Tribes. Converted Jews had played a part in the history of the Western Hemisphere as early as 1492. It may well be that the first person over the side on October 12, 1492, was the converso interpreter Luis de Torres, needed to speak to the Jews whom Columbus and his Argonauts expected to meet when they landed. Jews were everywhere in Asia. Solomon Franco, one of the first Jews in British North America, arrived at Boston in 1649, in a day when Governor William Bradford, John Alden, and Miles Standish were still alive. Franco soon returned to London where he served as the Jewish conventicle’s “rabbi” and then became a convert to Christianity. The first Jew to teach at Harvard—in 1722—was Judah Monis, a convert, employed as an instructor in Hebrew. There has never been a time when there were no converts to Christianity in this country; a few of them carved out notable careers for themselves.27
All through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries individual clergymen worked to convert Jews. Missionary booklets describing conversionist successes among European Jews were reprinted and eagerly read in the North American colonies and later in the new United States. In 1692, Increase Mather was sorely disappointed when a Jew he was trying to convert refused to see the light. The “hardnd wrech” sailed for Jamaica where he died in his infidelity. Ever since the late eighteenth century, there have been Christian Jewish missionaries in this country. The first was Joseph Hey deck (Heideck, Hideck, Heidek, Hydec), né Moses Levi. Heydeck came to the United States in 1787 and preached in Philadelphia and probably in Charleston, too. The latter city was the bridgehead from which he sallied forth to convert the Indians, the remnants of the Ten Tribes; evidently, he had not come here to convert latter-day Jews. Heydeck had a checkered career. Born in Germany in 1755, he became an Anglican in England and a Catholic in Germany; and then once again he turned to Protestantism, but died a Catholic. He labored in the vineyard of the Lord in England; in his later years he made his home in Spain, where he taught Hebrew, wrote several books, and engaged in scholarly pursuits. As was true of a number of other Christian Jews, his adherence to moral and scholarly values left something to be desired.28
In the year that Heydeck called on the Indians of the South to accept Christianity, Joseph Priestley appealed to the Jews in England to embrace the teachings of Jesus. Priestley was a scholarly scientist and Unitarian clergyman, but believed, like orthodox Protestants, that the Jews would be restored to their ancient homeland soon; he hoped, too, that they would first accept Jesus. The Galilean, said Priestley, was the greatest of all prophets, for only he had risen from the dead. Once Jews saw the light, the Gentiles, the heathen, would follow in their wake, and all mankind would thus be brought to the knowledge of the true God. Several years later, in 1794, Priestley came to the United States, where he maintained his interest in bringing Jews into the fold. His approach was low key; in no sense was he a typical professional missionary; he was a man of exemplary character and intelligence.29
By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, missionary groups were already formally organized in New England to convert the Indians, to bring religion to the white settlers on the frontier, and to save the heathen across the seas by bringing them the good tidings contained in the Gospels. The reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution and the revivalism of the Second Awakening in the late 1790’s gave birth to a fervent evangelical spirit. Conservatives fought American Jacobinism. The new crusading Protestantism overwhelmed the rationalism of the Deists, the freethinkers, and the religious liberals. “Reborn” Christians were determined, come hell or high water, to save their own souls, those of their neighbors—and those of the Jews. It was during this wave of religious euphoria, after the turn of the century, that the American Protestant Counter-Reformation brought forth missionary magazines, the American Bible Society, and the American Tract Society. Later, the country was to see the rise of the American Sunday School Union and dozens of denominational colleges and theological seminaries.30
Individual Christian Jews preaching the gospel began to make their appearance no later than the second decade of the new century. With one notable exception, they did not work among Jews. Disregarding the implications of the first amendment, the United States provided substantial subventions to missionary organizations which worked to convert the Indians. Joseph Wolff (1795–1862), a convert, missionary and Orientalist, was active at Philadelphia in 1837. He was already known to many Americans, for his Missionary Journal and Memoir had been published here in 1824. During his 1837 visit, he republished an edition of his book describing his conversionist labors in Europe, Africa, and Asia. When he preached in Philadelphia crowds flocked to hear him. It was probably not at all his purpose to devote himself to the conversion of American Jews. The most distinguished Christian Jew to labor in the American missionary field at this time was Ludwig Sigmund Jacoby (1813–1874). After his conversion to Lutheranism in Germany, this young Jewish proselyte came to Cincinnati in 1839 and there accepted Methodism. He became a Methodist missionary, working very successfully among German Christians in the Mississippi Valley. Jacoby, too, was not personally concerned with the task of Christianizing America’s Jews. In the course of his labors he published tracts and studies in German on the history of Methodism and, stricken with his last illness, wrote on the power of religion to help those who faced death.31
In earlier decades, Hannah Adams (1755–1831) had been very much interested in the conversion of the Jews. No missionary herself, Miss Adams was an educated cultured woman, a professional writer, one of the first of her sex in this country to support herself by her pen. In 1812, her History of the Jews appeared. The title page of Volume One bears a quotation from Deuteronomy 28:64–65, which describes the terrible sufferings of the Jews. Was this an intimation—though certainly not a witting one—that Jews would continue to suffer until they accepted Christianity? The title page of Volume Two reprinted Jeremiah 31:10–28 with its promise that the Jews would ultimately be gathered and restored; there was no doubt in her mind that at long last they would accept the faith which they had rejected for over 1,700 years. Her conversionist hopes are clearly expressed on the last page of Volume Two of the original Boston edition. There is every reason to believe that Adams was one of the Boston women who in 1815 gathered together to send money to the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. This group was influenced by reports of the success enjoyed by a Christian Jew, Mr. Frey, a missionary to the Jews in England. The following year, Miss Adams wrote A Concise Account of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. She and her friends then established the Female Society of Boston and Vicinity for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, the first group which set out in the United States to work for the conversion of Jews, though the money raised was sent to London.32
That same year, 1816, the movement to “save” Our Lord’s American cousins took on flesh with the arrival on these shores of Joseph Samuel Frederick Frey (pronounced Free). He called himself “Free” because the Apostle John had assured him: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (18:32,36). Frey’s original name was Joseph Samuel Levi. Born in Bavaria, he received a relatively good Jewish education there and was able, when young, to serve a Jewish community as precentor and shohet. At the age of twenty-seven, he accepted Christianity in New Brandenburg. Frey was intelligent and quick to learn. After he became a Christian, he acquired some knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Oriental tongues, wrote several books, and gradually built up a large library of his own. From Germany he went to England, where in 1809 he helped found the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. In 1816, after years as a missionary to his former coreligionists, he sailed for America, where he was soon ordained. He was no stranger to the pious here. A Short Account of Mr. Frey, a Converted Jew had been published in Hartford about the year 1807. Frey was to have an interesting, if not distinguished, career in the United States, though he was constantly haunted by reports that reflected seriously on his integrity. Shortly after his arrival, he helped some New York ministers organize the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews; the group accomplished nothing. Four years later, Frey and his friends sought a charter in New York for a new organization to evangelize the Jews. The legislators disliked the word evangelize; they feared that the society would breach the wall between church and state, but they did license the more pleasingly titled American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews.33
The new organization was concerned chiefly with the needs of European Jews suffering abuse or disabilities, which was the case in most European countries. “Melioration” meant that Jewish-Christians or would-be converts could, and should, come to the United States to enjoy opportunities denied them in their homelands. Frey, sympathetic to the blacks suffering in the South, also wanted to “meliorate” their servitude, though he played no active part in the abolitionist movement. Some of the best men—and best politicians—of this country were willing to lend their names to the new group; John Quincy Adams, Elias Boudinot, former president of the Continental Congress, and James Buchanan, as well as the president of Yale and a former head of the college in Princeton were among the directors. For a brief period the American Society spread like wildfire; hundreds of cells were established, even in villages that were never to see an Israelite. Though there was not a Jew in town, Portland, Maine, may have had two conversionist groups. The vice-president of one of them was that famous ascetic, the Rev. Edward Payson, who so belabored his congregants for their sins that some of them—after a Sunday workout—facetiously addressed one another as “Brother Devil.”34
Over the years, a vigorous, far-reaching literary program was developed; meetings to convert Jews became a social activity arousing fervent enthusiasm and devotion. Conversionist tracts continued to roll off the presses. Some items appeared in German; a Hebrew version of the New Testament was made available. Hannah Adams’s Female Society of Boston and Vicinity for Promoting Christianity among the Jews helped finance a missionary dedicated to the conversion of the Jews in Palestine. (Christian missionaries even succeeded in securing a very generous gift from Judah Touro to aid suffering Christians in Jerusalem.) In 1821, a Philadelphian reprinted a Hebrew translation of a catechism that had first appeared at London in 1689. It is doubtful that many Jews in the United States could read and understand a Hebrew tract couched in theological terminology entirely foreign to them. The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews began publishing two conversionist magazines, Israel’s Advocate in 1823 and The Jewish Intelligencer in 1837. The catchy titles of these Christian periodicals annoyed Jews, who feared that unwary coreligionists might think them Jewish publications. These missionary papers carried stories of Jews who had become converts. In 1823, Moses Stuart, the authority on Hebrew grammar at the Andover Theological Seminary, preached the sermon when the young Rev. William G. Schauffler was sent as a missionary to the Jews in Jerusalem. Here, too, the Boston ladies added their mite. Three years later, Rebecca Gratz, with something of a glint in her eye, regaled her Christian sister-in-law in Lexington with an account of a zealous Philadelphia matron who had bidden the Jewess to think of her soul and emerge from darkness to light.35
Frey seems to have been an excellent organizer and fund-raiser. He traveled, preached eloquently, and brought in substantial sums of money. One of the prime goals of the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews was to establish a colony, where foreign Jewish proselytes and novices, fleeing from Europe and from rejection by both Christians and Jews, would find a secluded haven. All these Hebrew Christians and would-be Christian colonists—impoverished drifters, for the most part—were expected to come over at their own expense and to exhibit credentials, a requirement which can only imply that the Society’s Christian leaders questioned the integrity and sincerity of the very people for whom the Society had been created. Here, in free America, however, the newcomers would be able to emancipate themselves from the “moral debasement of unbelief in Jesus Christ” and be rehabilitated through the gospel of hard labor on the soil. In view of the strong emphasis on isolation and on the virtue of backbreaking work, one is almost tempted to suspect that the Society was determined to punish these soft-handed denizens of urban ghettos, but if this was so, it was probably unconscious. The effort, in 1820, to bring Jews back to the soil was not to be limited to converts. It was part of a much larger movement, widespread in Europe and the United States among both Christians and Jews, to find salvation by a return to the simple life, the plough. In the American forest primeval, in a land where, presumably, no distinctions were made, all men would ultimately find economic and emotional salvation. “Agriculture,” declaimed Noah, “is the cradle of virtues and the school of patriotism.” The Society’s colony never got off (or more precisely, onto) the ground; the colporteurs who hawked the gospels made no converts, and as early as 1816 the Niles Weekly Register blandly informed the Protestants of America that converts would cost about $100,000 a head. But the hosts who filled out the Society’s rosters were happy; their participation gave them an almost euphoric moral and spiritual uplift. They saw nothing incongruous between their efforts to induce Jews to forswear their age-old faith and the solemn admonition of a typical state constitution: “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences.”36
CHRISTIAN OPPOSITION TO MISSIONS TO THE JEWS
Many Christians were opposed to missionary work; some, the Baptists particularly, believed such activity unscriptural. Of course, most Christian opponents of conversionist activity were in no degree moved by concern for Jews. These Christians had reasons all their own. There were religious associations which adopted resolutions denouncing organized missions: when God dispatched Jonah to call on the sinners of Nineveh to repent, the prophet was not commissioned by a missionary society; missionaries were working for money, not for God; it was against God’s will to employ a human agency to convert either Christians or Jews. As reported above, others said that it was too costly to maintain missionaries; it was all a waste of money. Some of these converts, it was said, reverted to Judaism after the money they had received ran out; converts were crooks out to exploit gullible Christians. Many Gentiles shared the view of an English Christian that the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews succeeded only in making bad Jews into worse Christians. The cost of manufacturing a half-Christian out of a whole Jew would support twenty poor but honest Christian families for twelve months, said another Christian adversary. One would-be wit wrote that, when Christians responded to the conversionist support of the Rev. Hosea Smoothtongue, they gave money in order to conceal their own Jewish style of cheating. Another smart aleck said that Christians cheated by Jewish clothiers ought to organize a society and call it the American Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jewed.37
It ought to be borne in mind that the 1816 anti-missionary, anti-Frey polemics, Koul Jacob and Tobit’s Letters to Levi, were either republished or written by Gentiles, not Jews. There were Christians, not necessarily philosemites, who were liberals. They feared the growth of orthodox Christianity; large national conversionist organizations might become politically powerful enough to breach the wall between church and state and establish Protestantism as the recognized national American church. The Jews had a right to their own religion, many Christians believed. These Gentiles would have agreed heartily with Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educator who, on April 7, 1799, wrote Johann Heinrich Daniel Zchokke, the German author, indignantly rejecting the proposal that Jewish children in a Christian orphan asylum be reared as Christians. This was religious prejudice, said Pestalozzi, who ended his note with the suggestion: “Commence conversion with yourself.” Many liberals believed that religion was entirely a personal matter; it was un-American to trespass on the religious sensibilities of others. It is this sensitivity that explains the action of the New York state legislature in refusing to charter the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews. An anti-conversionist Englishman, tongue in cheek, offered his own objection to Jewish missions. If converted, Jews would all eat pork, the price would soon go up, indigent Christians would find their staples too costly and would starve to death. An Episcopalian, attacking the Philadelphia Ladies’ Society for Converting Jews, said that an Episcopalian would deeply resent it if the Quakers were to try to induce him to leave his faith, or vice versa. Missionary work, he implied, is a form of harassment and will only serve to evoke stronger Jewish loyalties. The Old Testament ethics are excellent; leave the Jews alone; we Americans believe in religious liberty.38
JEWISH OPPOSITION AND ANSWERS TO MISSIONARIES
Jews were, and still are, deeply offended by the overtures of missionaries. In large part, their hypersensitivity stems from the fact that they have no understanding whatsoever of the mystique of Christian theology. The Christian concept of salvation is incomprehensible to them. The drama of Christ, the crucified savior, is for most Jews irrational; they fail to realize what Jesus the Christ can mean to a truly pious Christian. For such a man, salvation is a religious experience completely independent of cultural accomplishments. The true Christian who loves his Jewish neighbor wants him to be “saved”; the Jew who is pressed to apostatize—and who not infrequently is intellectually superior to his would-be converter—receives the invitation to surrender his own spiritual and ethical traditions as a gross insult to his human dignity and his spiritual integrity. It is true that Jewish tradition speaks of a share in the world to come, of piling up mitzvot for the afterlife in the Garden of Eden (Paradise), but Jews, nonetheless—perhaps because of the need to struggle for survival—are characteristically minded to address themselves to the problems of this world. Their commonest retort to Christian soul-hunters is: We have an ethical way of life; leave us alone; look after your own Christian sinners.
In answering Christian appeals to convert, Orthodox Jews resorted to exegesis, logic, and history. Exegetically, Jews and Christians stand on the same ground: the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is “true.” Christians, interpreting certain proof texts in Isaiah and Daniel, claim that they document the authenticity and return of Jesus who is God, Savior, and Messiah. The Jews, denying this, maintain that the prophetic verses refer to events at the time of the prophets. Logic? The Jews declare that the concept of the Trinity is irrational; three are one and one is three, is irrational. History? The Jews dismiss the contention that they have been cursed because they rejected Jesus. Obviously, they reply, this is wrong; Jews are prosperous; Jesus has brought war, not peace, to the world; there is virtually no such thing as Christianity; what is called Christianity is but a swarm of sects with different theologies. Let Christians bear in mind that there are numerous converts to Judaism, born Christians who have come to believe that Judaism is a superior faith. Judaism is not moribund; it is alive and vital; it is in the ascendant. Witness the Unitarian movement which is moving theologically in the direction of Judaism. Reacting to the aggressiveness of the missionaries, Jews resorted to apologetics and polemics. They reprinted older English works, prepared new ones, and called on liberal Christians to come to their defense. Conversionist assaults compelled Jews to become literary and articulate. The books and pamphlets, Tobit’s Letters to Levi, Koul Jacob, Israel Vindicated, Solomon H. Jackson’s Examination and Answer to a Sermon Delivered by the Rev. George Stanley Faber, Jackson’s magazine, The Jew, Levi’s letter in The Correspondent, and Leeser’s Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights all attest to the fact that the Jews and their friends were determined to oppose the conversionists vigorously.39
If the Jews of that generation had been asked whom they most detested, they would have answered apostates who attempt to convert their former coreligionists. The scholarly Moses Stuart of the Andover seminary, pointed out that a defector from Judaism is called a meshummad, and he translated this word quite correctly: one who “ought to be devoted to utter destruction.” The Jews did not wish their condition to be “ameliorated”; they did not think that their religion was inferior. On the contrary, they were convinced that no moral revelation would ever supersede the pronouncements at Sinai. The missionary denigration of Judaism was insulting and dangerous; it stimulated prejudice against the Jew who was already frightened and always conscious of the disabilities under which he labored in Europe and in the United States. In the year of grace 1820, there was no country in the world, not even Holland, France, or England, where Jewish citizens were accorded complete equality. The missionary movement was deemed cruel, for through bribery—as the Jews conceived it—children were weaned away from their parents and families were shattered.40
The Jews were so prejudiced against proselytization of any type that they were even hesitant to accept converts from Christianity into their synagogs. Following a mid-eighteenth-century ordinance of Shearith Israel of New York City, the Charleston Jews, as late as 1820, adopted the following article:
This congregation will not encourage or interfere with making proselytes under any pretence whatever, nor shall any such be admitted under the jurisdiction of this Congregation, until he, she, or they produce legal and satisfactory credentials, from some other Congregation, where a regular Chief, or Rabbi and Hebrew Consistory is established; and, provided, he, she, or they are not people of color.41
A generation later, a zealous Jew in Baltimore wrote to President Tyler to protest that General Winfield Scott had presided at a missionary meeting in that city. In his answer, Tyler made it clear that the General had acted in his capacity as a private citizen; every American had the right to freedom and choice in matters of conscience. But, said the President, the government itself did not appear officially in any religious act; in this respect the guarantees of the Constitution would know no diminution. “No religious establishment by law exists among us.” This almost pathological fear of missionaries has persisted among Jews to the present day. Despite the fact that in the State of Israel the number of converts to Judaism far exceeds the number of Jews who opt for Christianity, that republic in 1977 passed a law punishing severely anyone who offered material benefits to a Jew in order to induce him to change his religion.42 1977 passed a law punishing severely anyone who offered material benefits to a Jew in order to induce him to change his religion.42
Were missions to the Jews really anti-Jewish? Jews thought so; Christians did not. Christianity, in seeking to convert the Jew, wanted to assure him of everlasting life. All this was on a conscious, overt level, but subconsciously, Christian salvation would have to mean Jewish destruction. Conversion would amount to cultural and religious genocide; Jews would disappear—loved to death! When defections did occur, Jews comforted themselves for these losses with the thought that no self-respecting individual would ever change his faith. But they were wrong. Some defectors from Judaism have been very notable, persons of character and distinction. Practically all Jews would have subscribed wholeheartedly to the following poem written by “An Israelite” in 1850:
When thou canst wash the Ethopian white,
Govern the winds, or give the sun more light,
Cause by thy word the mountain to remove,
Control the seas, or hurl the bolts of Jove;
Then hope—but not till then, to turn the Jews
To Christian doctrines, and to Christian views.43
Thoughtful Jewish leaders believed that the best deterrent to conversion was education. Polemics alone was not the answer; they wanted a more positive approach. Jewish education would produce committed Jews. To reach this goal, they encouraged the writing of textbooks and the establishment of all-day schools, afternoon schools, and in particular Sunday Schools.
MISSIONS TO THE JEWS: A FAILURE?
The endeavor of the American Society for Meliorating the Conditions of the Jews to house Christian Jews in a colony and to encourage the conversion of others was an egregious failure. The number of proselytes to Christianity made by Frey and the Society could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. The costs in general for supporting conversionists and their charges were horrendously high. For a brief period the American Society was successful in establishing numerous branches, but the enthusiasm soon waned and these local organizations disappeared. The women, who may well have been the mainstay of these cells, turned to other reform causes: concern for prisoners, abolition, temperance, suffrage, charity. There can be no question that missions to the Jews accomplished almost nothing if the prime goal is borne in mind. The Jews summarily rejected all advances of the Christian enthusiasts who would have them become part of the Body of Christ; the mission on the whole was indeed a failure. Yet, the movement was not without its successes, and these deserve mention. In dozens of societies, members came together as Christians engaged in a religious enterprise—a gain for the Church Universal and a gain for the individual. The social interchange was healthy; it brought excitement into what might otherwise have been a drab existence. Tracts were read, verses in the Bible were scrutinized. This type of inquiry was interesting, stimulating. What a glorious moment in the lives of some of these men or women to be privileged to listen to the preaching of a converted Jew—in the flesh!—a precursor of thousands yet to come to Jesus! By contributing their pennies, these pious Christians were saving souls both here and abroad, even in Jerusalem where Jesus himself had walked in all his glory. These prayerful Christians were enriching themselves spiritually; they were speeding the Second Coming and the Millennium. All this was vitally real and comforting to the handful who actually gathered together in Fishing Creek, South Carolina, and in Shawangunk, New York. Who dares to say that these congeries of devout men and women had failed!44
THE EXTENT AND SIGNIFICANCE OF REJECTION 1776–1840
In the decades before 1840, American Jews were nothing if not realistic in evaluating their status in the American polity. They could not fail to know that, comparatively speaking, they were fortunate; yet they were conscious that they would always be suspect because of an anti-Jewish prejudice which could trace its roots back for over 2,000 years. They were aware of the state constitutional restraints still in force, but they were equally cognizant of the fact that, in commonwealths where they had established communities they had been granted full equality in the brief space of thirteen years, 1777–1790. An existing mild anti-Jewish sentiment persisted despite the fact that not only the native-born but even the immigrant Jews eagerly and speedily adapted themselves to the American way of life. Jews resigned themselves to the inevitable; there would always be a dividing line between Jews and Christians; there was little they could do to surmount this barrier as long as Jews called themselves Jews. Religious, commercial, and social prejudice was reflected in the press of the day. Yet, this negative view of the Jew was not always prompted by an affective hostility. The Jewish stereotype in the press was traditional; the association of the Jew with avarice and cunning was in many instances purely mechanical, automatic, superficial. Dr. Philip Mazzei, Jefferson’s neighbor and friend, referred to the Dutch people as “the most vile Jews of Europe.” Mazzei was a political liberal; “Jew” was a popular word for a Shylock type. Jefferson knew exactly what Mazzei meant to imply. The question is, how significant socially were these gibes? Students of early America know that there were often items in the press that dealt with Jews objectively, even sympathetically. Normally, newspapers and magazines did not set out to flatter or to denigrate the “Hebrews”; they were good copy because they were exotic; the story is the thing!45
In general, Jews were resentful of any anti-Jewish news item, of any unfriendly act, of any discriminatory law or ordinance. They were wont to exaggerate the prejudice they saw and sensed. If they tended to be somewhat paranoid, it was because they knew that there had never been a generation that had not mourned its murdered dead; there had never been a century without its catastrophe. In 1349, Strasburg celebrated St. Valentine’s Day by cremating alive almost 2,000 Jewish men, women, and children. The iron, the rope, the flame had entered the souls of the descendants of the prophets. They were always apprehensive. Here in the United States, Jewish acceptance of the inescapable was ameliorated by the realization that, compared to their kinsmen in Europe as well as the blacks, the Catholics, the abolitionists, the Masons, and the Mormons in America, their lines had fallen in pleasant places. They were accepted as respectable Americans. It is very likely that, in the 1820’s and 1830’s, Jews here realized how fortunate they were when mobs, often led by “gentlemen of property and standing,” incited the rank and file of society to acts of violence against non-Jewish targets. It was an age when American savagely turned against American for economic, religious, political, and ethnic reasons.
William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, was dragged through the streets of Boston at the end of a rope before being thrown into jail. Anti-abolitionist mobs burnt down an assembly hall in Philadelphia and set a black orphanage on fire. Nothing like this ever threatened American Jews in those unhappy days. Political conservatives turned fiercely against the Masons. Even the Masons themselves did not hesitate to employ the smear tactic. Many years earlier, in an intra-Masonic feud, one group had smeared a rival leader Emanuel De La Motta by emphasizing his Jewish origins. Masonry was suspect, for it had been concocted by Jews, Jesuits, and French infidels, so its enemies said. Early nativists attacked the movement because of its secrecy and ritual, its pretension to antiquity, and—what was even worse—its Jewish founders. Masons, Catholics, and Mormons—so it was believed—were out to destroy the American republic; Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, was lynched by his righteous neighbors. The masses did not welcome immigrants; hostility to strangers was an American tradition. Anti-immigration prejudice in the 1830’s nourished a nativism which, in the next two decades, was to beget vigorous and powerful “American” parties and singled out Catholics for attack. Christian hated Christian; the animosity against Catholics was open, pronounced, unrelenting. Jews were nowhere exposed to the verbal abuse showered on American Catholics; they were not the prime targets of prejudice. Long before 1776, hatred of Catholics had become an American tradition honored and cherished by the Protestant masses. A blatantly anti-Catholic newspaper now made its appearance. Israel’s Advocate and other Christian magazines frequently attacked the Jewish religion; at times, they even printed unkind remarks about Jews, but they never attempted to incite their readers to violence against them; they were not overtly anti-Jewish.46
Most hated of the Catholics were the Irish, of whom between 1820 and 1849 over 250,000 came to this country. They were denounced as labor competitors, religious enemies, and subverters of American liberties. In 1834, the Catholic-haters burnt down the Ursuline Convent and school in Boston—though most of its pupils were Protestants. A year later, Protestant militants began to print scurrilous defamatory anti-Catholic works such as Rebecca Theresa Reed’s Narrative of Six Months’ Residence in a Convent and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, both of which went through several editions. Ten years after the Boston school was gutted, riots between Catholics and Protestants broke out in Philadelphia. Over a dozen people were killed; about 100 were wounded; two churches were destroyed, and the state militia had to be called out to separate the embattled Christians. The Jews watched all this with dismay; Rebecca Gratz, describing “the scene of war” in 1844, wrote:
Unless the strong arm of power is raised to sustain the provisions of the Constitution of the U. S., securing to every citizen the privilege of worshiping God according to his own conscience, America will be no longer the happy asylum of the oppressed and the secure dwelling place of religion.
If the Jews did not count their blessings they should have done so; they were well aware of the Judeophobic post-Napoleonic reaction in Europe, since so many of them were Central European immigrants. Nationalistic Prussia, romanticizing its Teutonic past, had forbidden Jews to preach in the synagogs and to use Christian given names. Russian anti-Jewish legislation was brutal. Conscious always of the pinpricks of their neighbors, American Jews failed to see how much more fortunate they were than millions of their fellow Americans, black and white, who were under constant attack. The few Jews here were not harassed; they escaped notice; the restless masses had other concerns.47
Since anti-Jewish violence was absent, Jews refused to be intimidated by states which might be deemed inhospitable. If they saw a chance to improve themselves economically, they would not and did not hesitate to settle where they were still politically disabled. Jewish newcomers from Central Europe were probably not even aware of existing political disabilities in some of the commonwealths where they made their homes. Every correct. The United States—the federal government—gave to bigotry no sanction. Jews chose to emphasize this blessing. A generation later in 1818, Noah told his people: “for the first time in eighteen centuries, it may be said that the Jew feels that he was born equal and is entitled to equal protection; he can now breathe freely.”48
NOTES AND REFLECTIONS ON ANTI-JEWISH PREJUDICE 1776–1840
Writing about prejudice against Jews, Jefferson summed it up neatly in a letter to Noah in 1818:
we are free by law; we are not so in practice; public opinion erects itself into an Inquisition, and exercises its office with as much fanaticism as fans the flames of an Auto-de-fé. The prejudice still scowling on your section of our religion, although the elder one, cannot be unfelt by yourselves.49
Most likely, the ultimate source of anti-Jewishness in that day was Christianity, with which it came to these shores in the transatlantic crossing. Over here, as in the old country, anti-Jewish prejudice was fostered by the churches and encouraged substantially by the religious and the general press, by the theatre, and by belles lettres of English and American provenience. The Jews who moved furtively through several acts of melodrama were villains; good Jews were hard to find. All agencies and media of communication hammered away at the theme: Judaism as a religion was in no sense comparable to Christianity. Many followers of Christ who had never even seen a Jew were consequently anti-Jewish. The word Jew was a most convenient epithet; some Gentiles were damned as “Jews.” Few people, even the most notable, forebore to use this insult when they wished to besmirch an opponent. For the most part, except in business during the day, or in the Masonic lodge at night, Gentiles and Jews kept apart socially. Intimacies between Jews and Christians are rarely documented. Social rejection, however, was not necessarily Jewhatred; Gentiles, like Jews, wanted a postprandial social life of their own. The Jews were sometimes deemed untrustworthy in the world of commerce, though economic envy and rivalry during this period did not make for conflict. The Jews were too few in number.
Many citizens in the early days of the republic believed that Jews were not entitled to political privileges despite the promises that prefaced almost every state constitution. Jews were not Christians; this was a Christian country; Protestants only, it was contended, were entitled to full rights. Israelites must defer to the will of the Christian majority. Out of respect for Protestantism, the dominant American faith, Jews were not permitted to do any business on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. Conscious of the of respect for Protestantism, the dominant American faith, Jews were not permitted to do any business on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. Conscious of the promises inherent in the great political documents of the early years, Jews were indignant when they faced religious insensitivity, bigotry, and prejudice in a variety of guises. The state governors had no right in their public proclamations to address themselves to Christians alone. Jeffersonianism was never accepted as a Sinaitic revelation, even while the great Virginian was still alive; ultimately, however, it was to make political inroads which benefited Jews among others.
In 1826, Maryland Jews were finally permitted to take a test oath acceptable to most of them; four years later, they suffered a setback when the legislature refused to charter the Scattered Israelites, Nidhe Yisrael, Maryland’s first Jewish congregation. The grant of such a patent to a religious organization was normally an automatic matter, but an exception was now made in the case of the Baltimore Jews. It may have been that the legislators, as they intimated, felt that the Jews aspired to own too much church property; it may have been that the no-sayers of 1826 were still disgruntled at the thought of Jewish enfranchisement; it may have been that the petition of the members was disregarded because most of them were poor “Dutch” immigrants; the outstanding “Sephardic” names of Etting and Cohen were conspicuously absent. In any event, whatever the reason, they were not granted a charter at first, but these German immigrants were not bashful in seeking rights which other American religionists received without question. They persisted, and before the month was out, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was officially recognized by the state.50
In a notable picture, “Christ Rejected,” Benjamin West, the American-born expatriate, painted Jesus white and the High Priest who condemned him black. White is beautiful; black is ugly. (Apparently it was of no concern to West that his patron in Italy had been the artist Anton Rafael Mengs, a born Jew.) The Jews in the United States never doubted that the current prejudices directed against them were no real threat to their well-being. They were witnesses that egalitarian rhetoric sometimes overtook even bigots; the illiberals were entrapped in every state by its Declaration of Rights. Most vexing for the Jews was the missionary literature and religious bustle of apostate Jews. The writings and sermons of these latter-day apostles enraged Jews because of their attacks on the Jewish religion, which was denounced as a faith devoid of real spiritual quality. If this were true, then Jewish martyrs throughout the centuries had all died in vain. One way or another, Jews learned to live with these irritants. They saw clearly what was going on all around them; they fought back against enfringements on their political participation and against prejudice, but rejoiced in their relatively full acceptance into American life. In 1856, the North Carolina Supreme Court decided that Universalist Christians were incompetent to testify in a court of Justice. This sort of bigotry Jews were spared.51