How the Jews Saved the American Revolution
By Jerry Klinger
"They (the Jews of St. Eustatius, Caribbean Antilles) cannot too soon be taken care of - they are notorious in the cause of America and France."
Admiral Sir George Rodney commander of the British Fleet, February, 1781.
The Colonial American Jewish experience 1654 - 1770 was characterized by sharp departures from historic European anti-Semitic patterns of isolation, social, economic, physical, legislative and religious discrimination. The American Colonial world was growing, changing and evolving so rapidly it did not have time to focus on historical Jewish scapegoat-ism. The demands of the frontier and the expanding new American economic power needed the best of all of its people.
Jews in Colonial America struggled and won rights that were inconceivable and nonexistent in Europe. Jews struggled for and won the rights to equal economic opportunity, to own land, to go to higher secular education, to serve in the armed militias, to vote and in some colonies to become members of the legislative bodies. In some colonies the struggle was easy, in others it was very hard.
The American experience was not an automatic entitlement to toleration and sufferance, rather the pre-revolutionary experience was one that permitted the old discriminations to be challenged and eventually to be put aside. Hatred of the Jew and imported anti-Semitism did exist but it could not flourish in the melting pot of common need and survival.
Patrick Henry, the revolutionary war governor of Virginia, rose in assembly and made his famous "Give me Liberty or Give me Death," speech. He did so with the belief in liberty for all except for Jews, Blacks and Indians.
Jews traced their earliest participation in Virginia's life from the 16th century with Sir Walter Raleigh through Jamestown and the revolution. The first permanent synagogue community Kehilah ha Kadosh Beth Shalome, was founded in 1789 in Richmond, Va.. Beth Shalome built its first permanent building in 1820 in Richmond. The president of the congregation at the time of dedication was Jacob Mordecai, born in 1762 in Philadelphia. His mother Elizabeth (Esther) Whitlock had been a Christian convert to Judaism.
Who could do the best became more important than who was who's parentage in Colonial America. It was not until many years later that who were your parents and where did they come from became more important than what can you do to better yourself, your community and your country.
In 1753, the British Parliament, to legitimize and encourage economic development both in the colonies and in the mother country passed a Jewish Naturalization Bill. The purpose simply enough was to grant limited rights, such as land ownership, to foreign born Jews who wished to become British subjects. The bill had the opposite effect in England stirring intense violent anti-Semitic feeling and prejudices. The bill was repealed by Parliament in 1760. In Colonial America the legislation was generally ignored or circumspectly treated.
For almost a hundred years, if one colony refused to grant citizenship to a Jew the expedient thing was to go to another colony that would grant it or more simply ignore the issues of Naturalization entirely as most immigrants did. For the most part the tiny Jewish community was not affected by the machinations of the mother country's bigotry. Jews were generally free to develop economically, participate in colonial life and practice their faith.
Political equality was not a universal right but an evolving right in colonial America. Yet it left a lasting impression on Jews before the Revolution that the old world, if given the opportunity, would try to transfer it's bigotry to the new world. The repeal of the Naturalization act placed an awareness in the minds of much of colonial Jewry that America was different from Europe. It was the commonality of the challenge of America that was to shape American views and identity.
The colonies were different from each other, the North from the South, or the West. The British struggled to impose a central government on a frontier world that was rapidly developing far away from London. For the Jew, the Colonial experience was different in that there was no fully established hom
No one would disagree that Jewish Americans have made immeasurable contributions to the life and welfare of the United States of America. Yet while their contribution and participation in education and the media is well known, many people are unfamiliar with the varied experiences and roles of Jews during the American Civil War. This was a formative period for American Jewry, and it evidences the highs and the lows that have been a part of Jewish life.
The presence of Jews in the northern United States is a fact with universally recognized, but they also been an active part of the American South. Jews first came to the southern states in the late 17th century, and some of the earliest Jewish communities in America were founded in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. It is no surprise, then, that Jews played a significant part in the American Civil War on both sides of the conflict.
Although Jews had served in the armed forces of the United States prior to the Civil War, it was not until the War Between the States that Jews were admitted as chaplains for the military. In the North, Jacob Frankel, leader of the Rodeph Shalom Congregation in Philadelphia, became the first Jewish chaplain in 1862, joining ranks that were previously open only to Christians. He was not the only Jew to hold an important position during the period, yet we have to look South to find the most notable Jew of the American Civil War.
The most famous American Jew from the Civil War period is Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin was born in the West Indies in 1811, raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and later became a United States Senator from Louisiana. When the Confederate States of America seceded in 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis chose Benjamin for the position of Attorney General, but Benjamin would move on to serve as Secretary of War and then later, Secretary of State.
Interestingly, Benjamin seems to have taken the blame willingly on several occasions for the missteps of the Confederacy even though he did not deserve it. He also proposed that the Southern states free any slave who volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, an idea that Southern citizens rejected soundly. Benjamin fled to England at the end of the Civil War, for many people unfairly blamed him for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and he is today buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Given the racism associated with the American South, it is ironic that the most notorious example of anti-Semitism occurred under the watch of a Northern general. In December of 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He appears to have been frustrated in trying to control Northern access to Southern cotton and was reacting to the involvement of some Jews in that industry. In any case, Abraham Lincoln went on to order Grant to rescind the order only a month later, and despite the incident, Grant later enjoyed the support of many Jews in his run for the presidency of the United States.
Many historians would credit Jewish participation in the American Civil War with helping American Jews develop a self-conscious identity as American citizens. Undoubtedly, this is true. A greater knowledge of the Jewish community?s role in the Civil War would go a long way to helping American society better understand how Jewish Americans are an integral part of the fabric of American life.
For more information on Jews in the Civil War:
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