Saturday, December 13, 2008

George Washington and Hanukkah

First off, my apologies for my lengthy absence from the blog. My son recently had surgery, so I have been occupied with taking care of him.

As we have discussed in previous postings, colonial society had a very different take on the celebration of Christmas. For various reasons, Christmas was not held in the same regard as it currently is in American society. Many early American religions even refused to celebrate the holiday, considering it more of a pagan celebration than a Christian one.

And while Christianity was certainly the predominant religion of Early colonial America, it was not the exclusive faith of the New World. We know that literally thousands of immigrants from Europe carried a vast assortment of religious practices with them to the American colonies, creating a veritable cornucopia of religious beliefs. One of the many groups that is often forgotten are the colonial Jews. Though far from a majority, the Jewish population was spread throughout colonial New England. What is most remarkable about the Jewish population was their devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution. Many of them embraced John Winthrop's preaching that America was to be "a city on a hill." For them, America's quest for independence was reminiscent of David's quest to establish Jerusalem.

A small number of Jewish soldiers fought in the revolution with the Continental Army. In fact, rumor has it that General George Washington first learned of Hanukkah while at Valley Forge. The rumor states that General Washington was intrigued by a private's odd looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington learned of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah. Allegedly the solder recounted to the General the history of Hanukkah, and how the holiday commemorated the victory of the Jews over a superior tyrannical force. As the legend goes, Washington then thanks the private by responding, "Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees' success, though it is long past...It pleases me to think that miracles still happen."

Washington is said to have been so impressed that he later paid this same private a visit after the war. The name of the solder, though virtually impossible to prove, has also become a topic of debate among historians. In fact, the whole Hanukkah tale itself has attracted both supporters and skeptics, each hoping to prove -- or disprove -- the validity of Washington's first encounter with Hanukkah. As for the evidence, the only actual mentioning of this tale comes from the diary of one Michael Hart -- no relation to me -- and his daughter, Louisa. Allegedly, both Hart and his daughter recorded in their diaries the story of their meeting with General Washington in 1778. It was at this meeting that General Washington supposedly told the Hart's of his recent learning of the Hanukkah story. Hart, who was a prominent Jewish merchant, recorded that the General visited his home in Easton, Pennsylvania during the middle part of the Hanukkah celebration. The book, Jews on the Frontier: An Account of Jewish Pioneers and Settlers in Early America, provides at least some evidence that the dinner party at the Hart home did in fact take place.

"It was at his [Michael Hart’s] house that Washington accepted an invitation to lunch while tarrying for a few hours in the town. The late Miss Louisa B. Hart, his daughter, thus proudly records the event in her diary: “Let it be remembered that Michael Hart was a Jew, practically, pious, a Jew reverencing and strictly observant of the Sabbath and Festivals; dietary laws were also adhered to, although he was compelled to be his own Shochet. Mark well that he, Washington, the then honored as first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, even during a short sojourn became for the hour the guest of the worthy Jew."
Fellow history blogger J.L. Bell of the Boston, 1775 blog also points out another source on the Valley Forge Hanukkah story. Bell, who mentions Stephen Krensky's book, Hanukkah at Valley Forge, points out that the author summarized his historical understanding of the Washington Hanukkah legend by writing the following:

This story of George Washington and Hanukkah is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith. It is known that in December 1778, Washington had lunch at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania (cited in Jacob Rader Marcus’s United States Jewry 1776-1985). It was in the middle of Hanukkah, and when Hart began to explain the holiday to the general, Washington replied that he knew it already. He then told the merchant and his family of meeting the Polish soldier at Valley Forge the year before. It was Hart's stepdaughter Louisa who reportedly committed the story to her diary.
And while these account do not conclusively prove the Valley Forge Hanukkah story to be a fact, they are at least characteristic of Washington's general acceptance and tolerance for all religions. In a letter to a Tench Tilghman, Washington states that he has no problem with the religion -- or lack of religion -- of a group of tradesmen that he hoped to employ. Washington writes:

Dear Sir: I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Trademen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Athiests[my emphasis].
And in a letter to the Swedenborgians, Washington again reveals his tolerance for a diverse form of religious beliefs:

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States[my emphasis].
Yes, America's first Commander-in-Chief cared very little about the orthodoxy/"heresy" of his fellow citizens.

To all our Jewish readers, subcribers, etc., have a happy Hanukkah come the 21st!!!


J. L. Bell said...

Actually, I dismantled the Valley Forge Hannukah legend thoroughly at Boston 1775, starting with this post and proceeding through several more. While invoking my name, you’ve quoted Stephen Krensky’s words from his picture book on the topic, not my words.

The posting above suggests that there are diaries from 1778 documenting Washington’s visit to the Harts. There aren’t. Their town that wasn’t on the general’s itinerary. Louisa Hart wasn’t even born at the time. Her one mention of a Washington visit apparently came decades after the fact, and she didn’t state what year she was referring to.

I found many versions of the legend of Valley Forge Hanukkah, all dating from the mid-20th century. The version connected to the Harts is only one. None have primary sources behind them; some are downright impossible. The story seems to have spread as a rabbinical parable, reflecting 20th-century concerns, and should not be taken as history.

Brad Hart said...

Mr. Bell:

Thanks for the clarification. This is a topic that I just started reading about, so I appreaciate the clarification.

Dan Atkinson said...

Mr. Bell is dead wrong.

There is proof of Mrs. Hart's diary. And Washington did learn of Hanukkah at Valley Forge. This is just more secular mud slinging.

Brad Hart said...


Please do us all a favor and spare us the nonsense. Mr. Bell has a proven record that I trust a great deal. Besides, his arguments on this issue are fullproof.

To be honest, I was unsure about the validity/falsehood of this story, which is partially the reason I chose to post it here. I knew that someone with a better knowledge would speak up, and I was not disappointed.

See Dan, it is good to learn from others.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Like all our guests [or contributors, as he was once one], Mr. Atkinson is invited to present his evidence, or "evidence," as the case may be.

Washington's Hannukah makes no difference to me, one way or the other. Jews, like Roman Catholics, were pretty much accepted. At least in principle, hehe, although John Jay, like Locke, had his reservations about the papists.

J. L. Bell said...

Dan Atkinson’s faith in Louisa Hart’s diary is misplaced, I’m afraid. She wasn’t even alive in 1778, much less noting a visit by George Washington to her family home that year. This is a case where wishful thinking has trumped evidence.

Brad Hart said...

Oh Mr. Bell you don't even know the half of it. Mr. Atkinson has relied on wishful thinking on a large number of arguments here at this blog.

brew*crew said...

Okay, this was really weird... I was just googling info. about the George Washington @Valley Forge/Hanukkah topic, and clicked on this post, which was linked at another, to find this *awesome* picture of Hanukkiahs! lol Funny thing is, it's my picture, so it was sort of surreal... what are the odds?!

I looked for a way to contact you (besides leaving a comment), but couldn't find your email provided anywhere.

Anyways, I don't mind your using my photo, so long as you give me credit- its copyright requires attribution.

Thank you, and interesting post!

Unknown said...

Mr. Hart,

I have a very deep-rooted pride of my very mixed and extremely interesting family lineage. The Jewish heritage was one I never knew much about, but over the past year I have decided to compile all the documentation and information i have regarding the various branches of my ancestry.

My great great great great great grandmother was the Luisa Hart to which you are referring. I cannot comment on the validity of any Hanukkah spent at Valley Forge or whether George Washington ever visited the family for Hanukkah. Michael was her grandfather, and I can confirm that Michael and George Washington were most defiantly friends. It has always been known to our family, and I grew up being served from a silver punch ladle that bore the inscription, "from George Washington to Michael Hart, July 4 1782" since my aunts passing it sits in a family vault in New Orleans.