Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jews in the Revolution - Irving Levitas

INTRODUCTION - I first met Dr. Irving Levitas, the author of this article, on Saint Patrick's day, probably in the year 1976. A Jewish friend took me to visit the Yonkers Jewish Community Center where I could meet Dr. Levitas. Instantly, from the time he first reviewed the written summary of my research on Jesus and the Acceptable Year of the Lord, Irving and I became good friends. He became my mentor, and helped me find additional references with which I could support my thesis. I also had the pleasure of his addressing me as "my haver" (a Hebrew term for friend, colleague, or study partner). I just received a copy of The Chronicle Papers with some of his articles, and decided to share this one:

The Chronicles Papers - Views of American Life - 1984
A collection of newspaper articles originally carried by The Yonkers Jewish Chronicle (1976-1979) by Dr. Irving Levitas, 1910 - 1987.

The Jews in the Revolution - A few years ago, we celebrated the bicentennial of the American Revolution, and amidst the special events, publications, even Haggadot (one published by Temple Emmanu-El of Yonkers) attention was called to the role of the Jews not only in the early history of this country, but also in the Revolution itself. In a certain sense, the participation of the Jews in that Revolution of 1776-1783 was an indication of the new role of the Jews in the history of a democratic nation-to-be. For the Revolution was not only a colonial conflict, with colonies rebelling against the British, but it was also in part a civil war within the thirteen colonies itself, with "Whigs" (those fighting for American Independence) vs. "Tories" (those remaining loyal in great Britain). And there were Jews on both sides of the War. [see This Land of Liberty: A History of America's Jews by Helene Schwartz; George Washington's Jewish Soldiers by Joseph L. Andrews]

THUS IT CAN be immediately apparent that the Revolution was to have great consequences for future Jewish history, not only in the United States-to-be, but throughout the world of 1789. Where, hitherto, Jews had been more the "objects of" political and social changes, now they were participants in such changes. Through membership in such organizations as the Freemasons, Jews found themselves for the first time in centuries as colleagues with non-Jews in fighting for the same cause; such an affiliation (which occurred even before the Revolution) was to play a great part in the "Americanization" of the Jews.

The immediate effects of the Declaration of Independence were both destructive and constructive. They were destructive in that, as merchants and traders whose economic life depended upon European trade, the British blockade of shipping (and the British had the better navy at this time) was to destroy such trade and, with it, the economic stability of the general (and Jewish) merchants. It was to disrupt the communication with the "mother synagogue" in London, Bevis Marks, and thus throw the American Jewish communities on their own. This was to throw Ashkenazim and Sephardim into closer relations even retaining the Sephardic rituals with an Ashkanasic majority in most synagogues. Living as they did on the Atlantic seaboard, from Newport to Savannah, the Jews felt invariably that more than economic survival was at stake.

Thus, out of the 375 signers of the Non-Importation Agreement of 1765, ten were Jews (including the Gratz brothers, Mordecais and Levys). David Franks was also a signer of this move to oppose the Stamp Act, but illustrative of the later division, Franks was to oppose the revolution and became a Loyalist (Tory), faithful to Great Britain. Gersham Seixas, the minister of Shearit Israel of New York (he was not an ordained rabbi; American Jewry had to wait until the early 1800s for a rabbi), fled to Stratford, Conn., at the outbreak of the Revolution, and the occupation of New York by the British, and later, as we mentioned, went to Philadelphia, not to return to New York until the end of the war, for he was a Whig, a "revolutionary." There, in Philadelphia [at Congregation Mikveh Israel, he had joined with Hayim Solomon ["financier of the American Revolution"], Isaac Moses and Jonas Phillips in opposing the British. Sixteen patriarchs of Jewish families in New York signed an address of loyalty to Great Britain, including Moses and Abraham Gomez, but their grandson, Daniel Gomez was a Whig, and left for Philadelphia, where he served in the American forces.

In Newport, there was a list drawn up of those opposed to the Revolution, and there were four Jews on this list, including the hazzan of the synagogue, Isaac Touro. Even Ezra Stiles, whose interest in Jewish literature and language was profound as the Reverend of the Christian Church in Newport, was to write in his diary that Jews he knew were informing the British of American activities. One such Jew was Myer Pollock, another Isaac Hart; but here again, Michael Hays, one of four Jews who refused to sign oaths of loyalty to Great Britain in 1776, went to Boston to live with other revolutionaries. He was joined in Boston by his sister (Touro's widow) with her two sons, Abraham and Judah, the last named becoming an adherent of American independence after 1783, and moving to New Orleans, allied with Andrew Jackson's forces in fighting the British in 1815.

WE HAVE MENTIONED Daniel Gomez as a soldier in the American Revolutionary forces, but there were others too. There is Francis Salvador (whose synagogue name was Daniel Jeshuruh Rodrigues) who, despite a large plantation ownership, opted for the American forces, serving in the First and Second Provincial Congress of South Carolina (a Revolutionary group), and was to become the first Jew to be killed in the War in the South. Another Jew, Solomon Bush, was to rise to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the American army (his father was one who signed the Non-Importation Agreement in 1765), and Solomon was to become the first Jewish pensioner. And there was David Franks, who split with his Loyalist father and became a major in the American Army, serving as aide to General Arnold. When Arnold was tried for treason, he specifically declared that his Major David Franks, knew nothing of his plans. Franks was to later become a diplomat in the service of the new-born country, a great friend of Thomas Jefferson, and with Solomon Bush, was to be the second of the first two Jews to seek public benefits as a veteran. Then there was Benjamin Nones, of Charleston, who had come from France to the colony, and was to rise to the rank of major in the Pennsylvania militia, after moving to Philadelphia to escape British Control. And finally, among many more, there was Mordecai Sheftall of Georgia, scion of a great Jewish family of that colony, becoming a colonel in charge of the commissary of Georgia and South Carolina. He was taken prisoner with his father in 1776 and only after the war was permitted to return to the United States.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Loyalists, those who remained "loyal" to Great Britain, had either fled to Canada (where they augmented the Jewish community of Montreal (which had been founded in 1763). We have mentioned Isaac Touro, Moses Hart, Moses Seixas (whose nephew was Gershom, the adherent to the American side), Moses Levy, Barack Hays (who started as a Whig but became a Loyalist), Henry Moses, Alexander Zunz, and the efficient publicist for the loyalist cause, Isaac de Pinto, as well as James Lucena, and the brother of the American military hero, (Mordecai), Levi Sheftall; many of these were to renounce their American sympathies to remain loyal Britons by going to Canada or returning to England. But some Loyalists accepted the American victory, and became citizens of the new republic, to serve in political, diplomatic and commercial offices in the now independent United States, officially declared so in 1783 but de facto so only after 1789.


Lindsey Shuman said...

You know, I was thinking the other day how much I would like to do or read a post on the Jewish faith. Sometimes we get too caught up in Christianity. Thanks for providing a fresh look. Another well done posting by Ray Soller!!! =)

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is great info and I hope it gets picked up by other history blogs who want to know about Jewish influence on the American Founding.

bad Jim said...

More loyalists than I would have expected, and a lot more Spanish (presumably Sephardic) names. At the time, Britain had a longer history of Jewish toleration than most other European states, which might have encouraged such loyalty.

There was some concern among American Jews about their status in the new republic, IIRC; one congregation requested a proclamation of toleration from President Washington, who replied that Jews had exactly the same status as Christians in this new thing, a free country.

(Our example may have impelled the Dutch to upgrade their version of tolerance.)

Might the early blending of Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions have had something to do with the current heterodoxy of American Judaism (Reform, Conservative, &c) or is that more parsimoniously explained by the general American preference for a religious smorgasbord?

Ray Soller said...

bj, thanks for your comment. As for your question, I'm just a well-meaning "goy."

Thanks to Irving's tutelage I have a number of his other articles that deserve being posted. They range through topics like the Amsterdam lens grinder to Mordecai Manuel Noah once advocated a Jewish colony at Grand Island near Buffalo, New York.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I could purchase copies of Dr. Levitas's "The Chronicle Papers"