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“To Bigotry No Sanction”: The Role of American Jews in the Revolution

Joseph L Andrews, Jr Midstream May June 2002

For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Thus, George Washington, our newly elected first president, states his strong support of religious liberty in his 1790 letter, addressed to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Washington was replying to a letter of congratulations written by members of the Newport synagogue. Seven years after the end of the Revolution, President Washington’s statement thereby promises religious freedom in American for all citizens.

To Jewish Americans, most of whom had been patriots, fighting for and supporting independence, these promises were particularly glorious. For one of their most important reasons in leaving Europe to come to America had been to escape centuries of religious bigotry and persecution, intolerance, denials of human rights, confinement to ghettos, pogroms, murders, Inquisitions, auto-DA-Fe (burnings), forced conversions, and expulsions.

Jews constituted but a small percentage of Americans at the time of the Revolution, about 2,500 out of 2.5 million Americans, or about one tenth of one percent of the population. However, their contributions to the patriotic cause, both as soldiers and patriotic supporters, were truly remarkable. It has been a seldom-told tale.

The first group of Jews to settle in North America were 23 refugees from Recife, Brazil. In 1654, they arrived at the docks of Dutch New Amsterdam on board a French privateer, the Saint Charles (sometimes dubbed the “Jewish Mayflower”). They were escaping persecution that resulted when Portugal reconquered Dutch Brazil in 1654. Most were descendants of Shephardic Jews, who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. These first Jews who landed in Dutch New Amsterdam had little freedom. Initially, they were forbidden by law to own land or houses, worship in public, hold public office, vote, travel, stand guard, serve in the militia, or to enter trades and professions.

Patriots and Loyalists
In the years that preceded the Revolution the majority of American Jews were Whigs, supporting independence from England. Jonas Phillips, protesting persistent religious restrictions in the Pennsylvania Constitution after the Revolution, in 1787 reminded delegates to the Federal Constitution Convention that most Jews had been “faithful Whigs” and patriots. However, as was true with the colonial population in general, there were also some, but few, Jewish Loyalists (or Tories), who maintained their allegiance to the Crown. Several families, like my own family, the Franks of New York and Philadelphia, were, unfortunately, split – between patriots and Tories.

Newport, Rhode Island
In Newport, the congregation of the recently built (1763) Jeshuat Israel Synagogue (later also called the Touro Synagogue) was in 1776 split between Whigs and Tories. Aaron Lopez, a successful patriotic merchant, fled with 70 members of his family and the related Rivera, Lopez, and Mendes families, first to Providence, then to Leicester, Massachusetts. His object was to find refuge “secured from the sudden alarms and the cruel ravages of an enraged enemy.” Tragically, Lopez was drowned in 1782 on his way back to Newport. At the time of his death, his once prosperous estate was insolvent. Moses Michael Hays, another successful Rhode Island merchant and patriot, fled Newport and settled in Boston.

Several Jews remained in Newport during the British occupation, affirming their loyalty to the Crown. Rev. Isaac Touro, Newport’s religious leader, remained in Newport until 1780. Isaac Hart affirmed his loyalty to George III and paid with his life. He was killed while defending a Tory fortification in the Battle of Long Island. By the end of the war, the once prosperous Newport Jewish community was dispersed and decimated. Two decades later, the only remaining Jew in Newport was Moses Seixas, who had written the famous welcoming letter to George Washington in 1790.

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