In comparison to their fate in Europe, Jews always had an easier time in America. But on this Fourth of July weekend, it’s worth asking how different life really was for America’s earliest Jews, and what role, if any, they played in forging its freedom.
There’s a host of excellent resources on the web that explore the role Jews played in colonial and Revolutionary America. The one I’ve found most useful is this interactive exhibit, "Jews in America: Our Story." It’s got a ton of scholarly input, fun to play with, and it’s linked to by the American Jewish Historical Society; so it’s legit. In any event, I’ll give my own take on the early America Jewish life here. Stay with me if you can.
First, what was life like for Jews before the Revolution?
In a word: better than life in Europe, but still unpredictable, a bit touch and go. Jews began arriving in the colonies in 1654, but only at the whim of its European settlers. That meant that, like many other early colonists, Jews expected a greater measure of religious freedom, but were also subject to the unpredictable upsurges of bigotry. Peter Stuyvesant, the first govenor of New Netherlands, for instance, immediately asked the Dutch West India Company to expel the Jews in 1654 (he also asked to expel Lutherans and Quakers, too). But the company’s board refused, in no small part because they needed the Jewish merchants to build a successful New World business.
Over the next hundred-plus years, the colonies would slowly take shape, becoming predominantly British. And Jews trickled in from Spain and Portugal and the Netherlands, and their many colonies in the Caribbean and Latin America: Brazil, St. Eustatius, Suriname. Jews came to the colonies for the greater financial opportunities and religious tolerance, but critically, those freedoms were defined less by liberal laws than by the lack of firm laws altogether.
The constantly evolving policies of the colonies meant that Jews were able to carve out a freer environment for themselves. And, notably, they would not have been able to do this had it not been for the other, much larger diverse religious communities within the colonies already. Lest we forget that the divisions within Christian Europe–between Protestant and Catholic, Calvin and Quaker–were much more violent than anything Jews experienced. So if the Jews in Philadelphia, say, enjoyed the benefits of religious freedom, they could in no small part thank the Quakers, who were chief proponents of it.
Still, Jews faced plenty of setbacks along the way. In 1721, for instance, South Carolina, at that point hosting the largest number of Jews in the colonies, restricts voting rights to white property-owning Christian males only. In 1761, Rhode Island denied Jews the right to become naturalized citizens–a right granted by the British Parliament in 1740, no less, making the local denial in Rhode Island all the more striking.
But we can see how differently laws were enacted and upheld by the many colonies when, in 1748, a Swedish professor visiting New York remarks on the Jews there: "They enjoy all the privileges common of this town and province."
Perhaps most important signal of religious freedom was Francis Salvador’s election to the Continental Congress in South Carolina, in 1774. That made Salvador, a Jewish immigrant from Britain, the first publicly elected Jewish official in American history. His election meant that the few laws permitting Jews to vote and run for public office in certain colonies were more than mere proclamations.
Too, Salvador’s election highlights the role Jews would play in the coming revolution. Much like the rest of the colonialists, Jewish colonists were about as divided on whether to revolt against British rule as anyone else. Across the board, about a third of American colonials were for the cause, a third against it, and a third staying neutral.
The Jewish role in the American Revolution should not be overstated either. After all, the demographic reality belies any argument for Jewish centrality. At the time war broke out with in 1775, Jews numbered barely 2,000, making them a speck of the region’s total population of 2.5 million.
Military, Jews played a direct, if small part. Solomon Bush, for instance, the son of a Philadelphia merchant, became the highest ranking Jew in the Continental Army. And on the whole, an estimated 100 Jews served in the military effort.
But it was mainly in their connection to business that Jews played their most significant role. Jews like Haym Solomon, who arrived from Polish lands in 1772, acted as a critical supplier to patriot troops and the paymaster general to French forces aiding the patriot’s efforts. With their ties to Jewish merchants on the free Dutch island of St. Eustatius, Jewish colonial merchants secured critical arms deals throughout the war effort too. There’s even a case to be made that, as the patriot cause was looking dim in 1781, the St. Eustatius connection was critical in keeping their chances alive.
The arms deals was so nettlesome to British efforts that they ordered the burning of the St. Eustatius armory and even an island synagogue, which may have, ironically, been a shot in Britain’s own foot. With the British focusing on the tiny island of St. Eustatius, George Washington was able to mount a fatal blow to British forces back on the mainland, turning the tide one last time in America’s favor.
Well after the war ended, with British recognized American independence in 1783, George Washington did not forget the Jews. After he became president, Washington responded in detail to a letter welcoming him to the Jewish synagogue in Newport. He is best remembered for his phrase about religious freedom in the newly United States: "For happily the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Though it’s worth mentioning that this phrase actually just repeats the words written to him by the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas.
More importantly, we shouldn’t forget that religious freedom for the Jews did not follow any simple, neat path, either before or after the Revolution. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and several other colonies still had laws prohibiting Jews from holding public office well into the 19th century.
And yet it is the spirit of Washington, and the idea of the Revolution, that matters most. We know that history defies any claims to the moral sanctity of the American Revolution; Washington owned slaves, and so did Jews. But if we are capable of acknowledging these facts, we should not be ashamed of the noble hopes, however unfulfilled, that the Revolution embodied and that might, one day, make right of them.
Washington did himself, closing his letter to Newport’s Jews with this: "May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”