Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jews During the American Revolution

I don't know what sparked my interest in this topic, maybe something I read somewhere. My journey began with an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where I once was a reporter. Four years later, I am nearing completion of a historical novel about a Jewish family during the American Revolution

In 1776, as George Washington retreated across the Hudson River, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the spiritual leader of New York City's Shearith Israel synagogue, preached his last sermon before the temple closed. He urged his tearful congregants to relocate to Philadelphia to avoid capture by the British.

Some didn't. Most did, with many joining the rebel ranks. Eighty-year-old Daniel Gomez traveled to Philly with his grandson and namesake, offering to raise a militia. Told by a delegate to Congress that he was too old to fight, Mr. Gomez replied that he could stop a bullet just as well as a younger man. Both he and his grandson ably served the revolutionary cause.

Details are sketchy, but most historians agree that by the mid-1700s as many as 2,500 Jews had settled in America. Like Daniel Gomez, many were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who had crossed the treacherous ocean to escape persecution. Many of the Sephardim were marranos -- forced converts to Christianity. When they reached American soil they resumed their former faith, the men undergoing painful circumcisions and remarrying their wives in Jewish ceremonies. Newer arrivals were Ashkenazi Jews who had fled a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Holland, Germany and Poland.

Though Jews were not universally welcomed in the American promised land, they were able to openly practice their religion and erect synagogues in such Jewish enclaves as New York City, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah -- freedoms they never could have enjoyed in their homelands.

Barred from public office and many trades, most Jews earned their living in commerce. Some made their fortunes trading in coca, rum, wine, fur and textiles, while others lived more modestly as merchants. Like their Christian counterparts, Jewish businessmen objected to British fiscal policies that, among other things, required them to import only British goods.

On Oct. 25, 1765, a group of merchants gathered at the State House in Philadelphia to sign a nonimportation agreement, one of several. The first to affix his signature on that document was Mathias Bush, president of Philadelphia's only synagogue. In all, nine Jews were among the 375 who signed the agreement.

When war broke out, Jewish families were torn asunder, as some -- a distinct minority -- decided to remain loyal to the crown. Sixteen Jews were among a thousand loyalists who signed an address of loyalty to the British sovereign. But most joined the rebel cause.
Young males all but disappeared from Charleston to serve under Capt. William Lushington in what became known as the "Jew Company." Because army chaplains were required to belong to one of five designated Christian denominations, Jewish soldiers were deprived of the religious comforts available to Christians, forced to eat non-Kosher food and fight on the Sabbath.

Many served with distinction. When the British roused the Indians to fight the rebels in the Southern colonies, Francis Salvador, a Sephardic Jew, sounded the alarm and recruited more soldiers to join the rebellion. Several Jews rose into the high ranks of the military. Col. Solomon Bush became an adjutant general of the Pennsylvania militia.

But Jews were of the greatest service in financing the Revolution. The Polish-born Haym Salomon was a successful currency trader who had built a small fortune after arriving in New York City, just four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. A known rebel, he was captured by the British and placed in a maximum-security prison. Fluent in at least five languages, Mr. Salomon secured his release by translating communications for the British from their allies, the German mercenaries known as Hessians. (According to some accounts, his "translations" were not entirely accurate or to the benefit of his British captors.)

In 1781, Congress appointed Robert Morris as superintendent of finance to help raise money for the destitute forces. Mr. Salomon, his right-hand man -- whom Mr. Morris affectionately referred to as "the little Jew broker" -- successfully negotiated the sale of continental bills of exchange for the more solid Dutch and French currencies.

Many Jewish merchants supplied war materials. Bernard and Michael Gratz manufactured uniforms. Joseph Simon of Lancaster, Pa., supplied rifles. Some were paid late; many, not at all. Mr. Salomon left behind a destitute widow and four children when he died in 1785 at the age of 45.

Despite their contributions to the founding of the nation, Jews did not enjoy unqualified liberty even after Congress incorporated religious freedom into the First Amendment. On August 17, 1790, Gershom Mendes Seixas, at this point the warden of the Newport Hebrew Congregation -- and the only Jew present at George Washington's inauguration -- sent a letter of praise and thanks to the new president. Washington replied: "May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Still, it would be decades before Jews enjoyed full legal equality. Although the U.S. Constitution prohibited the federal government from requiring religious tests for public office, most of the original 13 states did not allow non-Protestants to hold public office. When Maryland amended its constitution in 1826, it permitted Jews to hold office only if they expressed belief "in a future state of rewards and punishments," an apparent reference to the Christian afterlife. Massachusetts, never warm to the Jews to begin with, did not eliminate its religious tests until 1833.

For generations, Haym Salomon's descendants petitioned Congress to recognize his role in winning America's independence, first for compensation, then for a commemorative medal, then for a statue. Each attempt was unsuccessful. In 1941, a group of Jews in Chicago raised enough private money to build a bronze and stone statue of George Washington flanked by Robert Morris and Haym Salomon. In 1975, a commemorative 10-cents postage stamp honored Mr. Salomon as the man "responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution."

Reprinted with permission.

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