Much has been said about how Roger Williams established Rhode Island as a bastion of religious freedom in the New World. Unfortunately, little is ever said about how colonial Rhode Island, in the decades prior to the Revolution, came to nullify these very same principles Williams had set in motion.
In spite of the fact that colonial Rhode Island invited members of all faiths to settle there and worship as they pleased, newcomers to the colony still had to apply for naturalization before they received the basic rights of a citizen in that colony. By 1762, Rhode Island considered itself as being properly populated. From that time on, what had been an open door immigration policy now became a very selective process. Consequently, for a person like Aaron Lopez, an acknowledged Jew, his application for naturalization became quite an ordeal.
In 1740, the same year of the British Naturalization Act, the Lopez family left Portugal for New York so they could openly participate in their Jewish religious culture. While living in Portugal they were known as conversos, that is, they had superficially converted to Christianity so they wouldn't be expelled from the country. When they arrived in America they abandoned their nominal Christian facade and returned to a Jewish way of life. After a decade, the family moved on to Newport, Rhode Island, which had a flourishing Jewish community.
It took another nine years, before Aaron Lopez, and a fellow Jew, Isaac Elizer, applied for naturalization (seven years residence was the minimum). The historical record leaves us with nothing more than that their first petition was rejected by the Rhode Island Superior Court. Lopez and Elizer discounted their rejection and followed up by appealing to the General Assembly, the lower house of the Rhode Island legislature. The lower house, in its turn, granted the appeal, but it only provided a partial remedy. The two applicants were told to return to the Superior Court, where they would be able to take an oath of allegiance, but the lower house further stated:
Inasmuch as the said Aaron Lopez hath declared himself by religion to be a Jew,this Assembly doth not admit himself nor any other of that religion to the full freedom of the Colony, So that the said Aaron Lopez nor any other of said religion is not liable to be chosen into any office of this colony nor allowed to give vote as a free man in choosing others.
The appeal still had another hurdle, since it was also passed on to the upper house for further action. The upper chamber took a different tack. They decided that the case should be returned to the Superior Court, because they declared they had no jurisdiction over the matter and therefore the legislature should not be involved.
Finally, once again on March 11, 1762, the case went before the Superior Court, but only after three other cases had been resolved. The first two cases ominously resulted in having the two accused defendants executed by hanging, while the third defendant was sentenced to a stint in the pillory. The ruling for Lopez and Elizer was then decided rather summarily. Ezra Stiles recorded, "The Jews were called to hear the equally mortifying sentence and judgment: which dismissed their Petition for Naturalization."
The ruling noted how Parliament had initially authorized naturalization in the colonies for the purpose of providing an avenue for population growth. The court reasoned that since population growth in Rhode Island had resulted in a condition of overcrowding, the naturalization act was no longer in effect. The explanation continued:
Further by the [original] charter granted to this colony, it appears that the free and quiet enjoyment of the Christian religion and a desire of propagating the same were the principal views with which this colony was settled, and by a law made and passed in the year 1663, no person who does not profess the Christian religion can be admitted free [that is, as a voter or office holder] to this colony.
Isaac Elizer dropped the matter, but Aaron Lopez found a way to continue his quest for citizenship. Within weeks after his rejection, inquiries on his behalf determined what was required for naturalization for the residents of neighboring Massachusetts. There he only needed to show proof that he had resided honorably in Rhode Island for seven years and establish a few months’ residency in Massachusetts.
In April of 1762, the Lopez family moved into a home just across the border located in Swansea, Massachusetts. Now, at last, on October 15, 1762, just seven months after his rejection by the Rhode Island Superior Court, Aaron Lopez appeared at a court session in Taunton, Massachusetts with a certificate in hand from the deputy governor of Rhode Island that he had "deported [himself] as a good and loyal subject of his Britannic Majesty." The Massachusetts court granted Lopez his naturalization, after which his family returned to Rhode Island. Oddly enough, now Rhode Island recognized Lopez as a citizen of their colony, and confirmed his standing as a British subject.
The turmoil of the Revolutionary War and the prospect of Newport's imminent occupation by British forces compelled Lopez to abandon his home in Newport and find refuge in Leicester, Massachusetts, where his family and other displaced patriots had resettled. Unfortunately, this brings us to the end of the Aaron Lopez story. Sadly, when the Revolution finally came to an end, Aaron Lopez died in a tragic carriage accident on May 28, 1762, while returning to Newport.
Very few Jews followed Aaron Lopez's initiative, since the Jews of Newport had always been able to conduct normal business activity, and assemble in their chosen house of worship. Furthermore, naturalization did not even grant them the right to vote or hold public office, but it did give them the right to own property and pass it on to their posterity.
In 1790 President George Washington visited the Jewish congregation in Newport during his tour of the New England States. As a result an exchange of letters occurred between Moses Seixas, Warden of the Touro Synagogue, and President George Washington. Part of the Seixas letter reads:
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People ~~ a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance ~~ but generously affording Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship ~~ [dot-dot-dot] we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.
On August 18, 1790, President Washington replied with a letter addressed to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. The letter enunciated the very same sentiments already expressed by Moses Seixas, mainly:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. 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.
If the Washington letter was meant to stir the consciences of the Rhode Island legislators it had no noticeable effect. It was only after another half-century and a melee of constitutional conventions in 1841 and 1842 that the General Assembly framed a new state constitution that belatedly took effect in May of 1843, and granted suffrage to non-Protestant applicants of European origin.