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Jews who ran for office were often attacked but so were many other candidates. All’s fair in love, war, and politics, and the Chosen People were certainly not spared. If the Jews needed any consolation for the constant pinpricks of the Judeophobes they found it in the realization that their neighbors were beginning to accept them in the world of politics. Some Jews were eager to hold office. Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Bush, the Revolutionary War veteran, wanted George Washington to appoint him postmaster general in his cabinet. Conservative if not reactionary Shearith Israel did not hesitate to ask the President in 1843 to appoint Mordecai M. Noah as chargé d’affaires at Vienna from which vantage point he could help the Jews in the Balkans and the Middle East. Three years later the New Yorkers appealed to the federal authorities to use their good offices on behalf of oppressed Russian Jewry.

The émigré German Forty-Eighters, proven fighters for liberal principles, plunged into politics here; by the time Fort Sumter fell in 1861 Jews had made their protests heard in the Damascus, Swiss, and Mortara affairs. Concerned with problems on their own doorsteps Jews bared their teeth at the evangelicals who never ceased to insist that Jesus Christ was the real ruler of the United States: but this was one Jew whom American Jewry would never accept as their political overlord. Desultory efforts were made to remove all anti-Jewish political disabilities in the tidewater states and they succeeded despite the lack of any concerted plan of action. A few hardy souls were abolitionists like Michael Heilprin who also worked enthusiastically in Washington for Polish freedom in 1863. It was a Jew too who published the first Polish newspaper and the first Polish book in this country. This patriotic support for the Poles in their war against the Russians was indeed a turning of the other cheek to the smiters or a weighing of the relative wrongs wrought by two hostile forces, for the Poles like the Russians, had oppressed their Jewish neighbors for centuries. By the time the Civil War was over Jews almost everywhere enjoyed political representation on a local, county, state, and federal level. Jews had sat in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.1

Though the Jews of the 1850’s were considerably less than 1 percent of the population it was during that decade that they began to move forward politically. Many Jews joined the Democratic party and its organized machines in New York and Philadelphia and gradually they began to reap their rewards. They were honest, educated, and often wealthy. When New Yorkers sent Emanuel Bernard Hart to Congress in 1851, there were thousands of Jews in the city and their vote was of some consequence. Emanuel’s father, Bernard, was a veteran of the War of 1812, an important flgure on the New York Stock Exchange, and the grandfather of the writer Bret Harte. In 1857 the Philadelphia Democrats sent Henry Myer Phillips to Congress. He was the son of a successful lawyer and the grandson of the Revolutionary War militiaman, Jonas Phillips. Neither Hart nor Phillips was the first Jew from the North to serve in the House. Lewis C. Levin went to Congress in 1845 as a representative of the Native American Party. This nativist was in nowise associated with Jewry or Jewish institutions.

But even Levin was not the first Jew to serve in the national legislature; that honor goes to David Levy of Florida, who came to Washington as a representative and as a senator. Levy went to the capital city in 1841 as a delegate of the territory of Florida and when it became a state in 1845, he represented it as a senator. Reelected to that office in 1855 he returned home in 1861 when Florida seceded from the Union. In 1846 he had added the surname Yulee, probably at the suggestion or demand of his wife, a Christian, a daughter of a former governor of Kentucky. Yulee, a name occasionally used by his father Moses Elias Levy as a pseudonym, may possibly be an anagram of Levy. The Southern Jews in Congress were men of some eminence, sent North to Congress by Southern state legislatures because they were outstanding in a community where whites of great ability were not always available. The Alabama Democrat, Philip Phillips, came to Capitol Hill in 1853; that same year Judah P. Benjamin, Whig and later Democrat, one of the ablest of all Americans, took the oath of office as a senator.

Judah P. Benjamin had a great career; Yulee did not. After the war he was imprisoned by the North though he had played little part in the rebellion, and it may well be that he was singled out for punishment because of his Jewish origins. Yulee devoted himself to saving and repairing the railroad he had built, the first to join the Atlantic and the Gulf. Like Judah P. Benjamin he dreamed of exploiting the Pacific via Mexico and the Gulf, channeling trade eastward across Florida to Europe. In a way this was an attempt to compete with the North and to emancipate the South economically. Immigrants from Central Europe could and did use his road to move westward into Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. As a commercial entrepreneur he was a man of tenacity and vision. Levy County, Florida, is named after him.

Like Benjamin, Yulee was an assimilationist. As far as it can be determined he had no Jewish sympathies or affiliations; he was buried by a Christian minister and he may well have been a formal convert to that faith. His personal letters to his wife show that he was an ardent evangelical Christian. His brother Elias Yulee had become a Swedenborgian, a firm devotee of that denomination. It is easy to believe that both brothers had been alienated from their ancestral faith by their father who was a visionary, a social reformer, and an ardent Jew. Levin, Benjamin, and Yulee were Jews only by the accident of birth. To a much lesser degree this is true also of Philip Phillips after he left South Carolina. On the other hand both Emanuel B. Hart and Henry M. Phillips were very active in their local Jewries holding important communal offices. Undoubtedly the Jews of New York City and Philadelphia had aided these two men with their franchises.

It would seem that up to the middle 1850’s most Jews were Democrats; some were Whigs. Then with the rise of the Republican Party a minority of the Jewish voters joined the new party. A Christian historian of the Jews wrote in 1860 that Jews did not commit themselves to one political party alone. This was a pattern to which Jews would adhere for almost a century.2



Within a generation of the Declaration of Independence American Jews were holding elective and appointive office in municipalities, counties, states, and in the federal government, as they have continued to do to the present day. The only difference today is that as the governmental apparatus expanded a wider variety of offices has been available. Slowly to be sure, Jews began to rise in the political hierarchy. Wolfe Londoner, who held political office in both Denver and its county, was finally elected mayor. It was his misfortune, however, that he was compelled to vacate the office because of certain irregularities. Londoner built the county courthouse without graft, it was said. But he was a machine man and was aided in his political activities by William Barclay Masterson. Bat Masterson, as he was known, had been a peace officer in a number of frontier towns, Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone; in later years he was a sportswriter in New York City working on the Morning Telegraph. Londoner, who had a large Negro following and was generous in his gifts of watermelons to them, is supposed to have said: “I never cast bread on waters, but watermelons on Denver’s Ethiopia, and the scriptural promise may be true.” In Oregon Jews were elected as mayors in several towns and cities. One of these mayors was Joseph Simon. He started his political career as a member of the Portland city council and then began moving up: chairman of the Republican state central committee, president of the state senate, a member of the Republican National Committee, and, finally, United States Senator in 1898.

By 1870 this climb in office and authority was documented at the gubernatorial level. General Edward Salomon was the territorial governor of Washington and though he resigned under a cloud he was welcomed by his Civil War comrades in California who elected him a Department Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. Toward the end of this period when Progressive sentiment was at its height two immigrants, Democrats, rode into office on the coattails of Woodrow Wilson: Moses Alexander became governor of Idaho and Simon Bamberger was elected the chief executive of Utah. Alexander was the first Jew to serve as governor of an American state; there is little evidence to substantiate the report that David Emanuel, governor of Georgia in 1801, was a Jew or of Jewish origin.3


Congressmen in the House 1860-1920

There were thus but three Jews who served as governors of territories or states from 1776 to 1920. This modest percentage of Jews in high state office was paralleled by the relatively small numbers sent to the Congress, to both houses. There is no discernable pattern in the election of Jews who sat in the national legislative chambers. They came both from states with large Jewries and with small Jewries. Most of them were elected in states east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio where Jews were old-timers. New York—and this is primarily New York City—sent a little less than half of all the Jewish congressmen to the nation’s capital; elsewhere only Maryland and Illinois elected more than one Jew as a House member in this eighty year period. Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts each sent one Jewish congressman to the Hill. In a number of these states the Jews were chosen because they were loyal partymen; in others they were given the nod because they had strong Jewish and German support. Many of them were immigrants. Myer Strouse (1825-1878) was a Bavarian who came to this country at the age of seven, settled in eastern Pennsylvania, edited a farm paper from 1848 to 1852, and went to Congress, 1863-1867, from Pottsville as a Democrat. Later, as a lawyer, he defended the Molly Maguires, the secret organization of miners who were involved in labor violence in the middle 1870’s. Another Bavarian was Julius Houseman (1832-1891) who represented the people of Grand Rapids. He was elected mayor of his city where he made his living as a merchant and lumber entrepreneur. After he failed to be elected lieutenant governor in 1876 he went to Congress in 1883 as a Democrat with Greenback Party support. Pottsville in Strouse’s day had a thriving congregation but it is not known whether he was a member; Houseman helped build a substantial Jewish community in which he was active.

Julius Kahn (1861-1924) of Baden came to the states as a child of five and lived for a short time in Calaveras County where Albert A. Michelson’s family had also settled before trekking eastward to Virginia City, Nevada. The Kahns later moved to San Francisco. There Julius made a career for himself as an actor playing opposite men like Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson. Thus when he decided to go into politics he did not find it difficult to impress his hearers as an entertaining and forceful speaker. He had studied the poets and Shakespeare before he turned to law and finally to politics. He was elected to Congress as a Republican and served his fellow citizens from 1899 to 1924 with the exception of a two-year interlude. A member of the Committee on Military Affairs during World War I Kahn was one of the most influential men in Congress. In 1919 he became chairman of this very important committee.

Like Strouse and Houseman, Adolph Joachim Sabath (1866-1952) of Chicago was also a Democrat. He was already fifteen years of age when he landed in this country. In his native Bohemia he had left school at the age of thirteen and when he settled in Chicago he continued to work and clerk but also went to night school till he was admitted to the bar. Starting at the bottom in ward politics he worked his way up till he was elected to Congress in 1907 and served until he died. Elected and reelected twenty-three times, for a number of years this dean of the House was chairman of the Committee on Rules. Like many other Democrats during New Deal days he was sympathetic to Roosevelt’s program of social legislation. Representing many diverse European ethnic groups in Chicago it is understandable why he was a strong supporter of the reborn Czechoslovakia, the new Poland, and other succession states carved out of the old Russian and Austrian Empires. Kahn and Sabath, like most politicians, were joiners belonging to many Jewish clubs and societies. It is a tribute to America that these four Jewish immigrant politicians, among others, could go as far as they did. When all four left Central Europe, they left lands where they were not as yet emancipated.4


From the Civil War to 1921 four Jews served in the United States Senate: Benjamin Franklin Jonas of Louisiana, 1879-1885; Joseph Simon of Oregon, 1898-1903; Isidor Rayner of Maryland, 1905-1912, and Simon Guggenheim of Colorado who was in Washington from 1907 to 1913. None of these men owes his election to Jews; they were elevated because of their wealth or their service to their party. All were sent to the capital before the days of direct popular elections. Not one of these four was a national Jewish leader; three of them played a very modest part in the Jewish communities where they lived. Not one was an outstanding leader in the Senate, certainly not of the stature of a Judah P. Benjamin. Jonas of New Orleans was the son of Abraham Jonas of Quincy, Lincoln’s friend. The father was an antislavery man; Benjamin, the son, a proslavery man, served in the Confederate Army and represented his state in post-Reconstruction days when the Democrats were back in the saddle. His sister Rosalie married Adolph Meyer, also a Louisianian, who sat in the House from 1891 to 1908. Both men were Democrats and veterans of the War; after the conflict Meyer became a planter and banker and was appointed commanding officer of the state’s uniformed militia with the title of brigadier general.

Joseph Simon of Oregon was the one man who was closely identified with his Jewish community. He was on the board of the Portland congregation; he introduced an amendment to the synagogal constitution prohibiting future rabbis from sitting on the board after the present incumbency. This was a direct attack on the departing Stephen S. Wise, a bold and forthright liberal. This incident undoubtedly shocked Wise, convincing him more than ever of the necessity of establishing a “Free” synagog. When as mayor of Portland, Simon, a Jew, laid the cornerstone of a Methodist church, Jews had come a long way. In 1910, after the women of the city had called a mass meeting to protest the high streetcar steps, Simon, ever the gentleman, induced the tram company to lower the treads and thus spare the virtuous women of Portland the shame of exposing their ankles.5

Isidor Rayner (1850-1912) was the son of a Bavarian who arrived in this country in 1840. Though not unlearned in Hebrew lore, the father began life here, like many others, as a peddler; ultimately he became a wealthy merchant and real-estate entrepreneur. He was one of the founders of leftist Congregation Har Sinai in Baltimore where he had settled. Isidor, the son, thus came from a family of substance and liberal leanings. After spending six years in the House this able Democrat served his state as attorney general and then went to the United States Senate; he died in office. His leanings were definitely liberal although he was handicapped by the political machine from which he could not emancipate himself. Rayner had no sympathy for autocratic Russia and wished to abrogate the Treaty of 1832; he was an anti-monopolist and helped thwart an attempt to disfranchise Negroes. Though not a great man this cultured gentleman and fine orator was one of the better known and respected Democrats among the Washington senatorial notables. There was even some talk of nominating him for president in 1912 or pushing him for a position in Wilson’s cabinet. Despite the fact that he was a member of Har Sinai his funeral services were conducted by non-Jewish clergymen. No doubt this was done at the insistence of his Christian wife.

Like Joseph Simon, Senator Simon Guggenheim (1867-1941) was a Republican, but, as befitted a Coloradoan, he was a Silver Republican in a day when most Republicans were strong gold standard men. When in 1898 Guggenheim wanted to run for governor with the aid of the Silver Republicans and moderate Populists, the Guggenheim clan back East protested vigorously. The sound money bankers who financed the brothers would tolerate no silver heresy. Despite his friendship with Populists and their kind some Coloradoans also looked askance at him; to them he was an Eastern Jewish monopolist. Guggenheim had both liberal and conservative leanings. He believed in the popular election of senators and a federal children’s bureau but he favored the tariff system and wanted no part of the department of labor. Guggenheim became chairman of the board of the American Smelting and Refining Company. The wealth he acquired was used to help finance the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1925) which was dedicated to the furtherance of the arts, sciences, and humanities. All told he is said to have given about $20,000,000 to various philanthropies. Although by no means active in the Jewish community he did make generous grants to Jewish causes.6

Consuls and Diplomats 1860-1920

Jews had begun to serve in consular posts no later than 1785. Edwin De Leon (1818-1891) was consul general in Egypt in 1854. He was one of the Columbia, South Carolina, De Leons. It was in 1854 that Edwin rescued many Greek businessmen in Egypt who were threatened with expulsion by the Turkish authorities in Constantinople because of the machinations of European business competitors. He intervened, he wrote the United States minister at Constantinople, because of humanitarian dictates, fully conversant with the spirit of our American institutions and the genius of our nation. This was indeed an attitude not often manifested by American consular officers. De Leon, who had married out, had no interest in Jews as far as it can be determined. One wonders if he would have shown any concern for Egyptian Jewry had it at that time been subject to persecution. With the coming of the Civil War, this ardent Southron became an important, if unsuccessful, Confederate agent in Europe, working to secure the recognition of the Confederacy by France and England.7

While De Leon was in Egypt, August Belmont was serving his country as minister to the Netherlands. He appears to have been the first Jew to have received such a high diplomatic post. Belmont, who had come to this country from the Rhine Palatinate in 1837 as a representative of the Rothschilds, soon became a wealthy finance capitalist. He secured his social position through marriage to Carolina Slidell Perry, the daughter of the commodore who opened Japan to American trade. In 1860 he became the chairman of the Democratic National Committee holding the party together under most difficult circumstances. As an art connoisseur he assembled a fine collection and as a sportsman he served as president of the American Jockey Club.8

On rare occasions men like Lewis Einstein chose the diplomatic service as a career. Einstein, descendant of a Revolutionary War adventurer who came over with Lafayette, entered the service in 1903 and was later dispatched to Costa Rica (1911) and Czechoslovakia (1921) as minister. He was a cultured gentleman, a publicist, and the author of several historical works of some distinction. Wealthy, successful, and ambitious Jews who feared the rough and tumble of the political arena, preferred ministerial and embassy appointments. Most of these deserving Republicans or Democrats were shunted off to Constantinople; Turkey became the ghetto appointment. Four Jews occupied that post, Oscar Straus, Solomon Hirsch, Henry Morgenthau, and Abraham I. Elkus. After Elkus, a prominent New York City lawyer, returned from his tour of duty in Turkey, he was appointed chairman of an important committee to reorganize the executive branch of New York’s government. He sat on the bench of the Court of Appeals and as a commissioner of the League of Nations helped settle a dispute between Sweden and Finland. He was very active in the Jewish community and was one of the founders of the Jewish Institute of Religion. Ira Nelson Morris was an exception to the Turkish pattern; he was not shipped there if only because a Jew had already been dispatched to that post. Morris, the son of a great pioneer in the meat-packing industry, was assigned the ministry in Sweden.9

Twenty years before the first American Jewish diplomat sailed for Turkey to present his credentials to the Sublime Porte, Marcus Otterbourg had served for a few months as minister in Mexico. The German-born Otterbourg, who had begun life at home as a capmaker, learned languages in Paris and then crossed the Atlantic to Milwaukee where he became a workhorse in the Republican Party during its formative days. Under the tutelage of Carl Schurz he electioneered among the Germans, edited a German paper, and helped elect Lincoln. As a reward he was sent as consul to Mexico City on a pitifully small salary, later moving up to become minister. He served in the sad and difficult days after the execution of Emperor Maximilian. His tenure was of very short duration for his appointment was not confirmed by the new president, Andrew Johnson, who was not particularly fond of Jews. Major Alfred Mordecai, then chief engineer for the Imperial Mexican Railway, a Jew himself, had no use for Otterbourg, for the latter had refused to sanction the burial of an exiled Confederate general if he were to be buried in his Confederate uniform; any man who would impose such a condition was for the major, a “miserable scoundrel.”10

Oscar Straus was the first of the Jewish diplomatic contingent to arrive in Constantinople. He was minister there 1887-1889 under Cleveland, 1898-1900 under McKinley, and served his country there as ambassador under Taft. Cleveland, who was very close to the Straus family, would probably have preferred Nathan or Isidor for the post, but they chose to remain at the helm of R. H. Macy; the scholarly Oscar was not a particularly good businessman. It has been suggested, though it seems somewhat improbable, that the appointment of the Jewish Oscar Straus was intended as a rebuke to Austria-Hungary which had earlier demurred at the thought of accepting a Christian minister to Vienna because he had a Jewish wife. She was not salonfaehig (1885). During his first Turkish mission Straus intervened boldly and courageously to save many Jewish immigrants, primarily East European refugees in Jerusalem, who had been imprisoned as aliens by the Jerusalem authorities. Straus was able to secure their release.11

Solomon Hirsch, a Harrison appointee, succeeded Straus (1889-1892). Hirsch was a wealthy Oregonian, a Republican stalwart, a partner in the largest wholesale dry goods business in the Pacific Northwest. It was his task to take care of the Christian missionaries in the Ottoman Empire and apparently he did a good job. The Protestants knew that the Jewish diplomats, having no Protestant denominational preferences, would be scrupulously fair in their treatment of the Christian missionaries. They probably suspected—and they would have been right—that Jews always leaned over backwards where Christian religious sensitivities were concerned. As a congregational president, Hirsch had no doubt learned to be placatory and considerate. Hirsch returned to Oregon in 1892.12

The other two Jewish diplomats sent to Turkey in this period were both Democrats: Henry Morgenthau (1913-1916) and Abram I. Elkus (1916-1918). Morgenthau, a lawyer, real estate speculator, and capitalist, had helped finance Wilson’s presidential campaign. Constantinople was his reward though he was not particularly elated with this plum. He knew it was the “Jews” post and did not relish being stereotyped. It may well be too that Wilson looked upon the job as a sop to the Jews hoping to appease them because none was chosen to serve in his cabinet. In 1919 Wilson sent Morgenthau on a mission to investigate the killing of Jews in the new Polish republic. Morgenthau ascribed the problem there to poverty but his plans for the reconstruction of Polish economic life were rejected by the Poles. Many Jews were unhappy with his report on the Polish persecutions feeling that it was something of a whitewash. Morgenthau was an able, competent, and vigorous administrator. He supported the League of Nations and was chairman of the Refugee Settlement Commission in 1923 which effected an interchange of Turkish and Greek settlers in the two countries. This was a big task. He and Elkus were close to Stephen S. Wise but Morgenthau finally broke with his rabbinical friend because of differences on Zionism and, probably, questions of economic and social reform. Wise spoke his mind. Morgenthau always remained close to the Jewish community which he aided philanthropically. Some of his Christian contemporaries—and Jews, too—had little respect for his judgments in matters political and diplomatic.13

A Jewish Cabinet Appointment

After Straus returned from Constantinople at the end of his second mission he was appointed by the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. That was in 1902. Four years later the president appointed him Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Thus he became the first Jew to accept office in a presidential cabinet. The Jews wanted this recognition; it gave them a feeling of status, of security. Being a minority had always been a heavy psychic burden for them. The appointment was good politics; the Jews were unhappy that Republican Washington had done nothing or could do nothing to stop the barbarities—bloody pogroms in 1905—in Russia. Roosevelt is reported to have said of the appointment: “I want to show Russia and some other countries what we think of the Jews in this country.” The new Secretary of Commerce and Labor was intelligent, honest, and conscientious but he was no threat to the aggressive president; he probably had little to say. When Taft succeeded in 1909 he shipped Straus back to Turkey as ambassador. The excuse was that a good man was needed to put a stop to the Armenian atrocities. Straus went but when Roosevelt broke with Taft, Straus followed him and joined the Progressives. Taft, it would seem, had promised to keep Straus in the cabinet.14

Straus’s job was not politically important; the first really important post to be assigned an American Jew was the call to Judah P. Benjamin to be Secretary of State in the Southern Confederacy; the next was the appointment of Bernard Mannes Baruch as chairman of the War Industries Board in 1918. The parent body of the Board, the Council of National Defense, made little headway putting the country on a war footing despite an advisory commission of seven which included Samuel Gompers, Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck, as well as Baruch, a successful Wall Street speculator. Baruch, the son of a Confederate surgeon, was given almost dictatorial powers in order to get something done. Using the authority given him wisely and firmly Baruch justified Wilson’s confidence in him but in whipping the industrialists into line he made some bitter enemies. Some if not most of these industrial overlords believed that their needs took precedence over the needs of the country even in time of war. Henry Ford, a naive individualist, never forgave Baruch attacking him mercilessly in the Dearborn Independent; these attacks were renewed over a decade later by Father Joseph Coughlin, influenced possibly by the still living Ford. During the War, Baruch had the aid of Eugene Meyer, Jr., who as head of the War Finance Corporation helped finance industry for the all-out effort. At the peace conference in Paris Baruch was given a number of important tasks and for another generation this adviser to presidents was called in and given assignments of significance.15


If the three most important Jews in American political life were to be chosen, Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941) would have to be among them. It is interesting though not historically significant that all three were Southern-born though not “Southern” in sentiment, not even that magnificent intellectual machine that worked loyally for Southern interests, Judah P. Benjamin. Brandeis, a native of Louisville, graduated from Harvard with high honors, practiced law briefly in St. Louis, and then moved on to Boston where he continued as a legal practitioner till 1916. He became, if he was not already, a New England Brahmin in spirit. Yet he underwent a great internal change in the early 1890’s, possibly as a reaction to the violence inflicted on the Homestead steel strikers in 1892. Brandeis began to study the socioeconomic order and became a protestant determined to fight its abuses. As a reaction to its injustices, its evils, the Gilded Age evoked reformers of many hues: Populists, single tax men like Henry George, utopians like Edward Bellamy, and a Brandeis. It was not long before he was known as the People’s Attorney. As a civic reformer this man insisted on honesty and integrity in public life. He urged justice in the courts, obedience to the moral law, and economic opportunity for the individual. Bitterly opposed to monopoly, he demanded that the abuses of wealth, great wealth, be subject to social control. The new industrial order must always bear in mind the needs of the individual; the law must be adapted to this end. Workers and managers must cooperate with a sense of mutual responsibility. Labor has a right to bargain collectively, but like management no right to dominate industry. Thus it was that he sought to limit the hours at work, to establish a minimum wage, set up accident, sickness, and old-age insurance, and to regulate stock exchanges and banks. As far as it was possible he hoped to eliminate abuses in insurance, transportation, banking, and the public utilities. Life for the everyday citizen must be made fuller. He was always concerned about the humanitarian impact of the law. His reform interests ranged over the entire spectrum of cherished American hopes: civil liberties, freedom of speech, of press, and of assembly. Because he wanted ethics and morality to determine social decisions he laid the groundwork in a way for the New Deal of the 1930’s. By the early twentieth century he was one of America’s outstanding advocates of social justice.16


In 1912 Brandeis entered politics as a supporter of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat. Before this time the Boston lawyer had voted as an Independent, a Democrat, a Republican, and also as a Progressive. Now, as a man of national repute, he hoped for a post in Wilson’s cabinet, the portfolio of the Attorney General or of the Secretary of Commerce. The opposition to him was massive. Big business hated and feared him as a wild radical. (Even at best or at worst he was only a civic reformer, indeed conservative in some areas.) The charge of “radicalism” frightened the new president who was also certainly aware that this Jew whom he admired had no Jewish base, no following among his own people. Yet though Brandeis had but few Jewish interests his Judaic background was interesting. His family connections were unusually diverse. His parents and his in-laws were sophisticated secularist Forty-Eighters. His uncle whom he admired and whose name he had appropriated in part, Lewis N. Dembitz, was an Orthodox Jew, a Hebraist, a man of considerable Jewish learning. The Dembitz family, Brandeis’s mother’s family, originally stemmed it would seem from Galicia. The Goldmarks, his wife’s clan, were Hungarian in origin; Mrs. Brandeis was the granddaughter of an indigent itinerant Hungarian hazzan. To compound confusion there was even some Frankism on the Brandeis side, an ancestor who was influenced by Jacob Frank, the Christian-Jewish anti-talmudic pseudo-Messiah. When Brandeis married Alice Goldmark the officiant was his brother-in-law, Felix Adler of Ethical Culture fame. A sister-in-law of Brandeis had married Charles Nagel, a Christian, a St. Louis lawyer and politician who had succeeded Oscar S. Straus as Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the Taft cabinet. About Brandeis himself there were even rumors that he was once a Unitarian.

Almost overnight, so it would seem, in 1912, Brandeis, the cold New England marginal Jew, became a Zionist. He had been conscious of the movement for many years; he had not been unsympathetic though he had spoken out against hyphenated Americans, those with divided loyalties. Between 1910 and 1912 he began to study Zionism seriously, prodded probably by Jacob De Haas, a pioneer Zionist and friend of Theodore Herzl; in 1911 he began to contribute to the movement financially. What made him a Zionist? Resentment against the world of industry that had defamed him to the president and thus marred his political ambition? Was it purely a coincidence of timing that now, after two years of study, he was convinced that Zionism was an ideal to which he could give himself? Zionism attracted him; it was utopian, democratic, progressive, a potentially fascinating social experiment. It made no religious demands on him; he could be a Jew and a secularist. This appealed to him as he became an ethnicist and cultural pluralist, an anti-assimilationist.

In March, 1913, just a short time after the new cabinet, without Brandeis, was selected he became active in the New England Zionist Movement. There are those therefore who say that Brandeis became a Zionist because as a marginal Jew he wanted a leadership role. Others, much more explicit and hostile, maintained that he had no interest in Zionism but that he went out and bought control of the New England Zionist district in order to secure a ready-made Jewish following for his own political advancement. Taft, his bitter opponent, said that Brandeis had himself “metaphorically recircumcised.” There is no proof that expediency motivated Brandeis to join the Zionists though certainly he was not unaware that a Jewish following would help bring him political recognition. The whole question of motive is moot for if he came cynically to profit he certainly remained to pray. He became a devoted Jew ethnically, synthesizing Americanism and Zionism, establishing the similarity of the ethical and social ideals of both philosophies. He put it succinctly: to be a good American one has to be a better Jew; and to be a better Jew one has to become a Zionist.

To the day of his death he was loyal to this newfound love; he worked for the Balfour Declaration and the English Mandate for Palestine and gave large sums of money to the cause. On August 30, 1914, as chairman of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, he became the American head and soon the de facto world head of the movement. This was at a time when World War I had completely disrupted the Zionist Organization abroad.17

Brandeis did not permit his disappointment at being bypassed mar his relations with the president. He continued to advise Wilson, urging him to establish the Federal Reserve banking system which was then being advocated, in a different form, by the Hamburg-born Paul Moritz Warburg of Kuhn, Loeb & Company. Warburg was to become a member of the Federal Reserve Board and to serve it from 1914 to 1918. On January 28, 1916, Wilson, who had been moving to the left and no longer feared his wealthy Democratic supporters, nominated Brandeis for a post on the United States Supreme Court. Long before this, in the winter of 1852-1853, Judah P. Benjamin had been offered a seat on that bench by President Fillmore but had rejected it. The New Orleans lawyer was too ambitious to entomb himself and his high hopes for power and wealth. It was not until 1900 that an Arkansas Jew, German-born, was given an appointment as judge in a United States District Court. This was the first such appointment. Later in that decade two other Jews were appointed to serve in outlying areas, one in Indian Territory and another in Puerto Rico. It was not until 1911, in Taft’s administration, that the first Jew was called to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. This was Julian Mack, the Zionist and friend of Brandeis. He was soon followed by two others.18

Wilson’s nomination of Brandeis took courage; Brandeis had a host of enemies who delayed the Senate’s confirmation for about four months. Financiers and industrialists fought Brandeis on socioeconomic grounds; others like the Rev. Dr. James Burrell of the Dutch Reformed Marble Collegiate Church in New York criticized his selection for religious reasons. Burrett was an important person; he had been president of the World Council of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches and he was a vigorous anti-saloon and Sunday-observance evangelical. The Jew Brandeis, said the preacher, was an opponent of the religion of Jesus Christ. This is a Christian country! Seven past presidents of the American Bar Association, including Taft, voiced their opposition; many said that the People’s Attorney was unscrupulous, without character, a real threat to the American economic system. Was there any Judeophobia involved in this attempt to keep Brandeis off the Supreme Court bench? Brandeis may have thought so. In a letter to his brother Alfred written while the Senate committee debated the nomination, Brandeis said: “I suppose eighteen centuries of Jewish persecution must have enured me to such hardships.” But there is no real evidence that anti-Semitism played a role in the battle against him. Some of the big city senators may have disliked this reformer but they kept quiet fearing the Jewish vote and the charge, in those liberal years, that they were but tools of Wall Street. This time the Jews worked for him. He was now one of them; even Schiff supported him.

Wilson bided his time and finally intervened to help his nominee. The president admired and respected Brandeis, he was also aware that in the next presidential election he would need the Jewish and Progressive vote if he was to meet the challenge of a united Republican Party. In a letter to Senator Charles A. Culberson of Texas, Wilson, seeking Brandeis’s confirmation, pointed out that the attorney was a “friend of justice and of men.” Although Brandeis barely squeezed through the judiciary committee on June 1 he won a healthy majority on the floor of the Senate. He took his seat to become one of America’s great Supreme Court Justices, the most liberal voice on the court.19


Brandeis was undoubtedly the most distinguished civic reformer among the American Jews; he was certainly not the first one, nor the most interesting one. He was not stuffy but he was not a charismatic personality. Ernestine Rose was far more attractive. In a letter to the Albany Daily State Register, signed March 7, 1854, she wrote that it is “my duty to use my humble abilities to the uttermost in my power, to aid in the great moral struggle for Human Rights, and Human Freedom.” This is a good expression of the goals pursued by thousands of Jews in the decades before 1921.

Ernestine Rose attracted audiences wherever she went; some called her The Queen of the Platform. People came to hear “one of the downtrodden persecuted people called the Jews,” although she had no interest in Jews as such or the parochial problems they faced. Her goals were national, worldwide; she was an all-encompassing reformer. In spite of her rejection of Judaism as a religion she was no Jew hater, and when her friend Horace Seaver, editor of the liberal Boston Investigator attacked the Jews, she took him severely to task. She was unquestionably one of the great pioneers of women’s suffrage in this country.20

A somewhat younger contemporary of Ernestine Rose was the Philadelphia-born Simon Sterne (1839-1901), who practiced law in New York City. After a brief period of study in Heidelberg, and some travel in England where he met John Stuart Mill, he settled down as a legal practitioner. Among his clients were the imprisoned Confederate Jefferson Davis and the writer Mark Twain. Sterne was no flaming radical seeking like Ernestine Rose to save the world. As an anti-tariff Democrat he established the American Free Trade League in 1864, edited the New York Social Science Review, and in 1870 became the secretary of the Committee of Seventy which helped put Boss Tweed behind bars. Sterne was not the only Jew on this prestigious committee. There were several others including the physician Dr. Ernest Krackowizer who had been one of the leaders in the Vienna student revolt of 1848. Like so many others he fled to the United States after its failure. Here he became a distinguished surgeon.

In 1879 Sterne explained to a New York State Assembly committee how the people in this country were mulcted of $40,000,000 in stock market manipulations in which the Vanderbilts were involved. He detested corruption in government; he stumped for reform candidates in New York City, opposed monopolists, and by the 1880’s he was one of the leaders in proposing legislation to put a stop to the evils of rebates and unfair railroad freight rates. The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 owes a great deal to him; he was the counsel to the first Commission. Sterne used his influence to encourage legislation that would supervise big business in the public interest. This was his major contribution but not his only one. He was interested in proportional representation, reforms in the assessment and collection of revenue, and a better civil service. He worked to improve government in the towns and cities of his state, drafted a bill to make the Adirondack wilderness a park preserve, and wrote several important articles in Lalor’s Cyclopaedia of Political Science. He and Brandeis had much in common or is it more correct to say that the civic reformers of the late nineteenth century had common goals? Sterne was no radical, no socialist, not even a great friend of organized labor. He was opposed to all monopolies, not only those of the capitalists but those of the unions. Labor organizations could become too powerful depriving workingmen of their personal liberties. Strikes could be bad. In many respects he was an old-fashioned liberal: “Each individual in a community is naturally free to pursue his own happiness as in his judgment he may deem most expedient.”21

Brandeis, Rose, and Sterne demonstrated that some Jews were long interested in good government. The fight for good government or at least better and freer government goes back before the Revolution when Jews in the British North American colonies rebelled and went into exile. There were other nineteenth-century Jewish reformers. The émigré Dr. Abraham Jacobi was a Marxist. By the late 1850’s there was a communist club in New York City numbering Jews among its members. By then, too, Jews were already members of unions, fighting through strikes to achieve economic reforms, for themselves at least. When, during the Civil War, General William S. Rosecrans invoked martial law in St. Louis to suppress a strike, the journalist Charles Louis Bernays vigorously protested: We are fighting to destroy slavery and at the same time we are attacking free labor. Down South in Reconstructionist Louisiana Judge Morris Marks, a Republican, urged equal rights for Negroes.

One of the great fulminators against governmental corruption in the postwar years was the vigorous Isaac M. Wise. All he could do was thunder; his congregation would let him do little more. The scandalous Grant administration gave him, a Democrat, an opportunity to scourge the thieves. This political libertarian opposed centralization of power and high tariffs which, so he said, impoverished the masses; cynically, he added, this country is safe no matter who is nominated. The main question is: Who will divide the spoils and how will they be divided! Yet, there is no need to be utterly discouraged. The twentieth century will usher in a universal federal republic. While Wise was alternately damning the corruption of the Seventies, the “blackest and the most disgraceful in the history of the United States,” and at the same time looking forward to a world republic, the capmakers and the cigarmakers were striking to improve themselves. Many of the capmakers and their employers in the 1870’s were German Jews; the strikers emerged victorious. That same decade the cigarmakers, led by two Jews, Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers, went down to defeat.

By the 1880’s individual Jewish reformers were moving forward on the religious, civic, and moral fronts. Rabbis like Emil G. Hirsch wanted an ideal world, even though they ministered to congregations of wealthy tradesmen and industrialists. Disturbed by the abuses of industry and the sufferings of the masses, Jews in increasing numbers rallied around the standards of humanitarians and reformers. Isidor and Nathan Straus were unhappy with Tammany rule; Jews in the Philadelphia council fought the bosses, and many Milwaukee Israelites, including the Reform rabbi, pushed for good government and better working conditions for manual laborers. Out in Utah, Fred Simon, wholesale milliner and business entrepreneur, fought successfully to prevent the “Gentile” politicians from disfranchising the Mormons; in Louisville, Lewis Dembitz introduced the secret ballot at the polls; and in Chicago, Adolf Kraus effectuated the civil service laws which had been honored in the breach.22

Sam Gompers, who as president of Local No. 144 had lost a cigarmaker strike in 1877-1878, profited by the experience. He stayed out of labor political parties but used the American Federation of Labor, which he built, to improve the bargaining position of the workingman. He applied political leverage wherever he could. American success stories are not limited to millionaires like Joseph Seligman or Jacob H. Schiff or Bernard Baruch. Samuel Gompers attended a Jewish school in London from the age of six to ten and, still a child, went to work as a shoemaker and a cigarmaker. On his arrival in New York at the age of thirteen he continued as a cigarmaker becoming the head of his local which, like the mutual-aid societies, provided sickness, accident, and unemployment benefits. It was during the 1880’s that he set out to create an association of unions, and by 1886 he had fashioned the American Federation of Labor which he led, except for one year, till his death. He did not, like more politically minded contemporaries, seek to reform society; his goal was more wages, fewer hours on the job, and better working conditions for his followers. In all this he was successful by the time he died in 1924.23

The generation from the 1890’s to the first quota immigration act of 1921 attempted to carry through the promises of the 1880’s; Populists were succeeded by Progressives and the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson. The East Europeans who streamed in by the thousands and hundreds of thousands were for the most part too busy eking out an existence to think of politics, but as refugees from lands of oppression and poverty they resented corruption and appreciated civic freedom. The East Siders of the early 1900’s worked for better school buildings, better tram and transit services, cleaner streets, more parks, playgrounds, and markets for their pushcarts. Those who valued their votes fought Tammany, cast their ballots for liberal Republicans, Democrats, or fusion candidates. The cigarette-smoking intelligentsia voted socialist. Many Jews joined Citizens Unions, Good Government Clubs, and various civic reform and uplift societies in the major towns of the country. Individual reformers with panaceas of their own began to abound.

An anti-imperialist Philadelphia Jew in 1899 reproached the country for its seizure of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Edward Albert Filene, Boston department store owner, wanted to increase the wages and economic prospects of his employees; Adolph Nathan led the reforming Chicago Civic Federation. Nathan Barnert, erstwhile mayor of Paterson, clothing manufacturer and factory builder, wanted to clean out New Jersey’s Augean stables of corruption. During his lifetime his friends erected a huge twenty-foot-high statue to mark his career. Barnert did not discourage them; he was proud of the fact that he had started work at the age of eleven and had made more than a million dollars. All this in the 1890’s. In the early 1900’s after the muckrakers began their exposés of political and economic inequities Gustavus A. Myers wrote his volumes on Tammany and the abuses of the irresponsible wealthy. In 1914 Louis D. Brandeis in Other People’s Money attacked rapacious finance capitalists and the monopolists.24

When the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in 1909 and 1910 with the hope that Negroes would be accorded a larger measure of civic, economic, and political equality Jews were very active in leadership roles. David Lubin brought to birth an international institute of agriculture in 1910; Joseph Fels (1854-1918) devoted the last decade of his life to Henry George’s thesis that taxing land only would bring greater economic opportunities for all. Fels, a Virginian, was the son of a German Jewish peddler who later became a soap manufacturer. By 1876 young Fels, who had gone to work at the age of fifteen, was in the soap business for himself but it was not until 1893 that he began to produce the Fels Naphtha soap which was to make him a millionaire. Fels was a small man who wanted to do big things, nothing less than the abolition of poverty and the elimination of unemployment. He was not unsympathetic to Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorialism hoping that a new Jewish state would be open to new and radical ideas. When some of the members of the Fifth Congress of the Russian Socialist Democratic Party were stranded in London, Fels lent them money to go home. Among those he bailed out were Lenin, Trotzky, and Stalin. Annoyed because he had no largesse for the Fabian Society, Beatrice Webb referred to him later as a “decidedly vulgar little Jew with much push.” Fels was eager, almost over-eager, to help his fellowmen. The messianic role was a flattering one. If the Jews had a mission it was to teach Christianity to the Christians.25

The enthusiasms of the first decade of the new century continued unabated throughout the next ten years. Like many other liberals and reformers, Jews were determined to make the twentieth century the best of all worlds, at least in the United States. Like Brandeis, Samuel Untermyer, a native Virginian, frowned on the misdeeds of the great corporations and the powerful banks. And again like Brandeis he was a successful lawyer who had helped build powerful industrial combinations which he was later prepared to contain. In 1912 Untermyer was appointed counsel to the Pujo Committee of the House to determine whether there was a “money trust” in this country. He demonstrated that there was, that fewer than twenty financial institutions controlled the economy of this nation. Untermyer was a liberal Tammany Democrat, a supporter of Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, and an advocate of a graduated income tax and public ownership of municipal utilities. Like Brandeis he was sympathetic to Zionism and in the 1930’s led the boycott against Nazi Germany.26

The trend toward the left, toward liberalism on the part of Jews, a trend that was to continue through the twentieth century, was well in evidence by 1912. Jewish Democrats supported Wilson; Jewish liberal Republicans broke with the party of Taft and cast their votes for the Progressive Republicans or Bull Moose Rooseveltians. From 1912 on many New York Jews of all classes aligned themselves with the moderate left. Included were not only well-known social workers, rabbis, and academicians, but industrialists and bankers like Schiff and Adolph Lewisohn, and journalists like Walter Weyl and Walter Lippmann. By 1918 Belle Moskowitz, settlement house worker and supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, emerged as one of the chief advisors of Democrat Alfred E. Smith, guiding him in the areas of social-economic reform and government reorganization.27

To summarize, the liberals of that generation and the Jews among them, sought for more economic and political democracy; they were concerned with the rights of the individual in a society where the aggressions of capitalists were almost unimpeded. In a more specific sense, as concerned citizens responsive to what they deemed to be traditional rights and immunities, they were eager to protect the American laborer, man, woman, and child. By the end of the second decade of the century, many Jews throughout the country strove for laws defining minimum wages and maximum work hours; they urged the prohibition of child labor, fought for old-age pensions, for aid for mothers with dependent children, and for adequate housing in slum areas. In all these efforts metropolitan Jews were very active. On the state level as well—in Oregon, for example—Jews were leaders in reform legislation. They were in the forefront of those sponsoring free kindergartens, paid fire departments, mechanic’s lien laws, public power, free textbooks, state police, a nonpartisan judiciary, and the commission form of government.

One of the prime nurseries of civic virtues in urban working-class areas was the settlement house. Henry Moskowitz, who had run unsuccessfully for Congress on a Progressive ticket, Belle Moskowitz, his wife and a reform advocate in her own right, Lee K. Frankel, an executive of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and Jacob H. Schiff were very much interested in the New York East Side settlements. In a way these institutions are all typified or embraced in the thinking and work of Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940), the founder of the Henry Street Settlement. This native Cincinnatian, child of a family that came from Europe after 1848, organized nursing classes for immigrants in 1893. This was the beginning of a large undertaking that was to exert real influence on New York Jewry, and in a way, on the larger America. Out of the Nurses Settlement, which was financed in part by Schiff, came a city-wide nursing service managed by the city, public school nursing help, and a department of nursing and health of Teachers College in Columbia. Wald encouraged the creation of a federal children’s bureau and the town and rural nursing which was administered by the Red Cross. Impressed by her successes the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company employed the social worker Dr. Lee K. Frankel to introduce health programs for industry policyholders. But nursing and health care were only one facet of Wald’s activity. At the Settlement House she maintained a full program of classes, games, and entertainment for the children and youngsters of the East Side; she worked for better playgrounds and parks, for ungraded classes to aid handicapped children, for the abolition of child labor, for women suffrage, for the regulation of sweat shops, for good government and universal peace. Her catholic interests are reminiscent of the efforts of Ernestine Rose. Lillian Wald lacked the dynamism of Rose but in her own quiet persistent way accomplished more, if only because the Progressive Age was ready for reform.28


Political “reformers” among Jews, especially in New York City, ran the gamut from right-wing millionaire banker-patricians like Jacob H. Schiff to the socialists on the left. The latter were dedicated to change. Some Jews, socialists, Marxists, had come here, like Dr. Jacobi, as 1848 émigrés. Among them was Sigismund Kaufmann (1826-1899), a factory worker who later succeeded in passing the bar examination. Kaufmann organized a socialist turnverein, edited its paper, and published the first Marxist work in this country, the essays of Joseph Weydemeyer. Later Kaufmann helped found the Republican Party in Brooklyn, and in 1870 unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket. Unlike most socialists he identified with the Jewish community and was a member of a synagog. Curiously it was not a New York Jew who was the first to achieve political success as a socialist, but a Wisconsin schoolteacher and journalist. This man was Victor Louis (Luitpold) Berger (1860-1929), a Hungarian who emigrated here in 1878. After wandering about working as a cowboy and a factory hand he settled down in Milwaukee where he taught school. By the 1880’s he had become a socialist journalist and a leader of the party in Wisconsin. In 1911 the Socialists of Milwaukee sent him to Congress, the first of his party in the United States to go to Washington but not the first Jewish congressman elected in Wisconsin. Another early Wisconsin Jewish politician was Elias Rindskopf who received the majority of the votes in his congressional district in 1872. He was never seated; he had never become a citizen. Apparently Rindskopf’s incapacity to sit in Congress was not a great loss to his constituents; he and his brothers were part of the notorious corrupt Whiskey Ring that had been exposed during Grant’s administration.

Berger was no flaming radical bent on turning the world upside down. He was a gradualist, a socialist reformer whose social demands nestled comfortably within the ambit of contemporary progressivism. Because this anti-imperialist had opposed American entry into World War I, he received short shrift when he prepared to take his congressional seat in 1919. The House refused to seat him and under the terms of the Espionage Act of 1918 he was sentenced to serve twenty years in Leavenworth. In 1921 this judgment was reversed by the United States Supreme Court. Berger’s relations to the Milwaukee Jewish community were not unhappy ones. Though he had a substantial number of Jews in his district he never ran as a Jew. As a representative of labor he was in favor of immigration restriction. The Jews in town, however, probably voted for him because of his reform platform. He himself had once taught in a synagog Sunday school and always maintained his membership in a local Jewish mutual-aid burial society, but then all politicians are joiners.29

Obviously socialism had begun to make its impress on American Jewry by 1881 for Kaufmann Kohler, rabbi of prestigious Beth-El in New York City, took time out on a Sunday morning to preach on the subject. The liberal and reformist tendencies of the day had not left this distinguished theologian untouched. The state, he preached, must give freedom of action to every individual and provide ample opportunities for all by taxing the rich. Monopolies are bad. The people, he suggested, might help themselves if they develop cooperatives, banks, and insurance companies of their own. It is quite possible that Kohler was influenced by the programs of the Grange, the farmers cooperative associations. But, he insisted, socialism and communism are no answer; there is no panacea for poverty.

It was during this period of the 1880’s that East European Jews began to settle in American cities in large numbers. Some of them, not many to be sure, had been influenced by the revolutionary agitation in Russia. Leftist Russian and Polish immigrants coming here brought their socialist and anarchist ideals with them, and by the early 1890’s had established Yiddish papers and magazines to publicize their views. They bickered incessantly over details of doctrine; their intellectual disputations were exercises in dialectics which they took very seriously. Most of the leftists, even the anarchists, were pacific in intent. Alexander Berkmann was an exception. In 1892, in the wake of the Homestead strike, after seven of the steel workers were shot down by the Pinkerton detectives hired by the Carnegie Steel Company, Berkman attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the general manager of the mills. By 1897 Russian Jewry at home had created a Yiddish-speaking socialist party of its own, the Bund, the General Jewish Workers’ Association of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Within a very few years, by 1901, most Jewish socialists, both in Russia and in the United States, had somewhat lessened their emphasis on the cosmopolitan universalist character of the movement and had begun to think of themselves as Jewish socialists. They became nationalist, although not Zionist, in that they were concerned with their own ethnic problems. Yiddish became more than a vehicle to understand Marxism; it became a cultural end in itself. The East Europeans now developed the language as an instrument to further a culture of their own. The Russian pogroms from 1903 on, the intense European nationalism, the growing Zionist movement, kept pushing the East European radicals to the right. More and more they tended to concern themselves to save Jews, not the workers of the world.30

Even in New York City socialism never became a Jewish mass movement, but it had many ardent followers. Before 1921 all the socialists in the United States never mustered a million votes. In 1913 in a vote for mayor in the very heart of the East Side, the Eighth Assembly District, the various socialist groups polled less than 700 votes out of a total of about 5,200 and, undoubtedly, many of these 700 votes were cast as an anti-Tammany protest. In general, socialist candidates in New York City rarely received more than 20 percent of the Jewish vote. As the radical immigrants began to acculturate they started moving to the right. The progressive programs of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson appealed to them; the nationalism engendered by World War I overrode socialist universalism; prosperity brought conservatism.

Doctrinaire socialist leaders like the scholarly Morris Hillquit (né Hilkowitz) failed to elicit the enthusiasm of the Jewish masses. Hillquit and his friends were class oriented. They were not directly concerned with the Jews on Hester, Ludlow, and DeLancey streets; they were set to bring salvation to workers in every corner of the world. Hillquit the politician was not in favor of an immigration policy that would permit the submerged masses of Russia, Poland, Galicia, and Rumania to compete with American workingmen. When the Messiah would arrive to usher in a universal state of justice and equality no man would have to emigrate. But the Jewish pushcart peddler had no appetite for pie in the sky by and by. Thus when Hillquit ran for mayor in 1917 against a Tammany man and a reform candidate the Jews rejected him. He got but 13 percent of the vote. He was not fighting for Jews as such. When Henry Mayer Goldfogle ran on a Tammany ticket for Congress the Jews rallied behind him, not only because he was a Jew, but because of his determination to compel the Romanovs to recognize the American passport and accord some rights to Russian Jews. Goldfogle loyally served his Jewish constituents from 1901 to 1915 when they turned against him and voted for the socialist Meyer London (1871-1926). Unlike Goldfogle London was a Russian Jew, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant, bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh, a friend of the labor unions and the strikers. He had no ambition to be an American Karl Marx; it was his prime job to serve as the East Side ambassador in Washington. Like many socialists, London, too, was in essence an assimilationist, but as long as one Jew was in “exile” he would fight for that man. In 1917 he like Berger voted against going to war; the conservative reaction of the postwar years prevented his reelection till 1921. During the Red Scare days he was compelled to sit on the sidelines; the socialists, Jews among them, who were elected to the New York State Assembly were not even seated. It is a tribute to the intelligence and the decency of the New York Jewish establishment, including some of its most conservative leaders, that it was unhappy with this un-American action.31


Were the immigrant Jews political mavericks? No. Their tendency on arrival was to vote with the entrenched party. This was certainly true in the antebellum decade when they went along with the Democrats. With the rise of the Republicans in the 1850’s there was a shift on the part of some to the new standard. Some Forty-Eighters and other Jewish immigrants found the Republican platform attractive; though not abolitionists, they were antislavery, unable to subscribe to the equivocation of the Democrats. And as the Republicans grew in power and in conservatism many of the old-line Jews and the later East European newcomers in the hinterland found a safe anchor in the haven of Republicanism. Loyal Jewish Republicans even voted for Grant and defended him in spite of his anti-Jewish war record as reflected in General Orders No. 11. For many of them the party came first. In the South most Jews had voted Democratic and they were to continue to remain loyal till the late twentieth century. As a small white minority group Southern Jews had no choice unless they were willing to expose themselves to violence.

Unlike the Irish Catholics, Jews in the North did not align themselves with one political party. Their range of loyalties is reflected in the Yiddish papers which began to appear in the last decade of the century. These newspapers were Republican, Democratic, anarchist, and socialist. Politically the Jews, whether ghetto dwellers, Uptown acculturated and native sons of Israel, or those who lived in the vast areas west of the Hudson River, did not hesitate to shop around. Certainly members of the younger generation were their own men as they switched in 1912 from the regular Republican Party to the Rooseveltian Progressives and to Wilson. Many Jews were mindful that the old-line Republicans had done little to curb Russian excesses. The bald statistics are eloquent: of twenty-five Jews who went to Congress in the fifty-five postbellum years, thirteen were Democrats, ten were Republicans, two were Socialists. Of the four senators, two were Republicans and two were Democrats.

Jewries in Boston, Baltimore, and New York City were inclined to vote Democratic; the machines in these towns were powerful. The Jews of New York City, a substantial minority of all American Jewry, went along with Tammany, for the most part, even though some had no faith in the integrity of its leaders. But on occasion Jews voted for the reformers, fusionists, and socialist candidates; they did not hesitate to turn to the Progressives and the Wilsonians. That bulwark of financial conservatism, but not of reaction, Jacob H. Schiff was in touch with Theodore Roosevelt and later with Wilson offering both men helpful suggestions. Schiff wanted constructive railroad legislation and an improved banking system. He did not hesitate to make a liberal gift to the Wilson campaign.32



On the whole the Jewish immigrant, still unsure of himself and eager for low visibility, stayed out of politics. His prime job was to support his family. Politics in the Gilded Age was a dirty business. The cautiousness and feats of that postwar generation are reflected in the attitudes of congregational bosses. New York’s B’nai Jeshurun’s leaders called in Rabbi Raphall, one of the city’s most distinguished rabbis, and reprimanded him for publicly recommending a candidate for office. Most Jews were not passionate political partisans, unlike Mrs. Elizabeth Peters of Boone County, Indiana, who published a notice to the effect that she would not be responsible for the debts of her absconding husband. He was “a loafer, a drunkard, a gambler, a thief, a liar, and a Whig.”

Notable Jews tended to avoid office. Rarely did they succumb to “Potomac fever” as did Oscar Straus and Louis D. Brandeis. Some made a virtue of necessity; they had no choice but to serve. A few who lusted for office reached their goals. The rich and the generous who were politically ambitious accepted what turned out to be second echelon diplomatic posts. As early as 1876 Frank Lyons of Alabama was a vice president of the Democratic National Convention. In the 1890’s the brilliant lawyer Edward Lauterbach was chairman of the New York Republican County Committee; he was one of the important politicians who helped put McKinley into office. Following in the footsteps of his notable father, Edward Rosewater, the newspaper publisher and politician, the son Victor served in 1912 as chairman of the Republican National Committee and presided over the opening session of the convention when Roosevelt and the Bull Moose contingent broke with Taft and the regular Republicans. Years earlier replying to Isaac Leeser who had congratulated him on becoming the mayor of Galveston, M. Seeligson wrote that a Jew could achieve almost any position if he but demeaned himself properly. It is very probable that defeated Jewish candidates for office would have questioned this comforting assurance.

As a rule American Jewish newspapers were not instruments of reform. The publishers, too often dependent on advertisers and subscribers, dared not take a bold stand on controversial issues. They did attack corruption; no one was willing to defend sin. In one respect nearly all Jews were ambivalent. They shied away from political fighting but they wanted political recognition in the form of appointments. In presidential addresses to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations during Grant’s administration Moritz Loth urged his hearers to interest themselves in good government. Loth’s plea for Jews to fight the evils in politics was probably not typical.33


By the 1870’s the political parties were beginning to take note of the Jews; they were courted by the two major parties because they were increasing in numbers, particularly in New York, the key state in all elections. When Alton Brooks Parker ran for the presidency on the Democratic ticket in 1904 he went down to the East Side, visited a Yiddish theatre, and even ate a kosher meal. He still lost. The Democrats insisted that the Republicans had accomplished nothing with the Russian oppressors, but Roosevelt countered by pointing with pride to the Hay note reprimanding the Rumanians. In the second half of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century Jews were found in municipal, state, and national offices in slowly increasing numbers. Rarely if ever were these numbers disproportionate to their percentages in the general population of the urban centers. However, in the new states and new communities of the transmississippi West, where men of character and ability were prized. Jews were given offices frequently. Portland could brag of several Jewish mayors and a United States senator. But as towns grew and became cities Jews were no longer favored for office, pushed aside, as in Los Angeles, by the tide of Protestant transmigrants from the Midwest and the East. The generalization holds good, however, that with still larger numbers there came more recognition, albeit reluctantly. The entrenched Democratic gang in New York City waited till 1900 before it was ready to send a Jew to Congress to placate and represent the ghetto masses.34

Among the Jewish officeholders one may distinguish three types. The first included the competent honorable men who felt it was their duty to assume office. These men constituted the majority among the officeholders. When in the early 1870’s Henry M. Benjamin was elected to preside over the Common Council of Milwaukee, Isaac M. Wise wrote cynically that he would never become president of the United States; he was an honest man. Next came the professionals, men who made a career and livelihood out of politics. These men joined Jewish societies and organized Hebrew political clubs to round up the immigrant vote. Not all these career men were honest if only because they were subject to venal bosses. Herman Silver is a sample of an honest professional. It is said that this native of Prussia had more than a passing acquaintance with Hebrew for he had been destined for the rabbinate. In Illinois, as a Republican, he had run ahead of Lincoln on his ticket. He next appeared in Denver where he was one of the leaders of the Jewish community, serving as president of a congregation and a B’nai B’rith lodge. He became manager of the Denver Tribune, refused to run for mayor, but accepted an appointment as superintendent of the United States Mint. Then he pulled up stakes once more and moved farther west to Los Angeles where this time he agreed to run for mayor on the Republican ticket only to be defeated.35

The third type was the machine controlled officeholder or politician who ran afoul of the law. A notable example of a public servant whose integrity may well be questioned is Albert Jacob Cardozo, one of the most highly respected Jews of his day. After serving as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas this Tammany man was elected to New York’s Supreme Court in 1867 by a very large majority. It was during this campaign that some of his friends, soliciting the East European vote, issued a circular on his behalf in Hebrew assuring the readers that if elected he would not rigorously enforce the Sunday Blue Laws. When Simon Sterne and others destroyed the Tweed Ring, Cardozo resigned under a cloud. He was a man who could trace his ancestry back to colonial days, he was a respected member of the country’s most aristocratic synagog, a one-time president of the executive committee of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. His son Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, later an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, dedicated his life to the restoration of the family name stained by his father.

Much more picturesque was the Tammany henchman, Silver Dollar Charles Smith, whose saloon floor was plastered with silver dollars. Charley, a representative of the Eighth District in the New York State Assembly, was a proponent of the slogan: “What are we here for and what is there in it for me?” There is a large literature on Abe (Abraham) Ruef, the corrupt lawyer who ran San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906 through his ally and tool Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz, a one-time band leader. Ruef was no untutored ward heeler; he was a cultured man of good family. He did not limit himself to peddling licenses to fancy bordels. Interested in big money he sold franchises and privileges to companies operating the telephone, telegraph, street railway, gas, and water services. He pandered to the big corporations for a price, and divided the loot with the controlling board of supervisors. When the day of reckoning came the corporation heads escaped scot free and Ruef went to jail. Mayor Schmitz was soon reelected to the board of supervisors whence all blessings flowed. Crooks receive more attention than honest men; the latter are taken for granted; the former are far more interesting. It is worthy of note that in two of the standard histories of California Ruef received extended coverage, but the indexes of these two volumes do not even list the names of the eminent Jews who helped create the commercial and industrial enterprises that have made of California a great state. What is history?36


Did the Jews exert any real political power through their vote, through the offices they held? Certainly there were Jews who were town and county leaders, occasionally even an individual who was influential in state politics, but in general Jews as a community had little to say in state and national affairs till late in the twentieth century. Very rarely did they ever control the political apparatus; they were not powerful in the two leading parties. They might have exerted some influence if the masses in the metropolises had voted solidly; this they did not do. Was then there no Jewish vote? Of course there was and always will be a Jewish vote. When anything vital was at stake Jews stood together as in their opposition to the encroachments of church groups. With Isaac M. Wise they believed that “wherever the church rules, there is no liberty.” It was this same man who warned his people that it was only cowards who would not defend themselves when they were attacked. Jews voted as one to induce the Congress and the national administration to intervene on behalf of persecuted Jews in Europe and they secured a hearing because they were concentrated in strategic states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. From the 1880’s on American presidents in their messages and in their party platforms expressed concern for the sufferings of Jewry abroad. After 1917 when the Balfour Declaration favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine was issued and when there was talk of England’s ruling Palestine, Jews here set out, successfully, to predispose the president and the congress toward Zionist aspirations.37


Politically what were the Jews seeking? Basically, not power, or a party of their own. They wanted good government and because they sought honest leadership they shifted their votes about ever ready to support reformers whom they trusted. What Carl Schurz said of immigrants applied also to the Jewish newcomers: They were concerned with the success of America’s democratic institutions, sensitive to every failure, bearing in mind constantly the good repute of this land. After a fashion Gentile America was isolationist. Not Jewish America! Taking a page out of the socialist book—although unwittingly—the Jew, everlastingly messianic, was internationalistic. He wished to rebuild the whole world on the pattern of a liberal bourgeois America to the end that Jews everywhere would have it as good as the Jews have it here. All Jews in the Diaspora form one indivisible brotherhood; they are morally, inherently, entitled to the rights and immunities enjoyed by all American Jewish citizens.38

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