Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jonas Phillips to the President and Members of the Convention

by Ray Soller

We have already, albeit briefly, met Jonas Phillips in an earlier post, Jews in the Revolution - Irving Levitas. At the time of the federal Constitutional Convention (May 25, 1787 - September 17, 1787) Phillips lived in Philadelphia. While living there, he was a founding member of the Mikveh Israel Congregation. He was also a Freemason. By profession he was a merchant who had supported a break with Great Britain.

Earlier, when the British invaded New York City he left the city and moved to Philadelphia rather than live under British rule. Shortly after his relocation he enlisted and served under Colonel Bradford with the Philadelphia militia.

On March 12th, 1776, the Pennsylvania legislature approved the following oath for those who enlisted in the military:
"I, A.B. voluntarily enlisted a soldier, until the first day of January, 1778, unless sooner discharged, in the troops ordered to be raised by the assembly of Pennsylvania, and subjecting myself to such rules and articles, as are or shall be made, or directed, by the said assembly, for regulating and governing the said troops, do solemnly __________ that, in this service, I will truly and faithfully obey the present and any assembly of this colony, and, in their recess, any committee of safety by them appointed for the time being, and, in pursuance of their direction and command, such officers as shall be placed in authority over me; that I will to the utmost of my power, defend the rights and liberties of this province, and of America in general, and will oppose and resist any force or enemies that shall act, or be employed, against them." So help me.

As we can see, Jonas Phillips' enlistment oath was compatible with his Jewish belief. (Similarly, this compatibility held true when in 1769 Phillips had become a Freemason, since membership only required a belief in a Supreme Being and as a Jew his obligatory oaths had been sworn on the Tanakh.)

During the colonial era, Pennsylvania had been known as a province of broad religious toleration. An "infidel" community, a Jewish community, and a number of different Christian denominations, all free from religious persecution, had taken root in Pennsylvania. This, however, did not mean that all citizens were treated with the same degree of civic equality. Indications of this blatant disparity flared up during the invidious debates regarding rights of conscience that dominated the July 15 to September 28, 1776 proceedings of Pennsylvania's Constitutional Convention. (See Prelude to Article VI: The Ordeal of Religious Test Oaths in Pennsylvania by Stephen A. Smith, University of Arkansas.) The furor arose over the exact wording for the oath required for members of the legislature. A portion of the prescribed oath that was to be recited just prior to the seating of a legislator follows:
I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

Those, like Benjamin Franklin and Jonas Phillips, who opposed the oath protested. In Phillips' case, he wanted to make sure that the same injustice didn't carry over into the federal level. He wrote a letter to the President and Members of the Convention dated September 7, 1787:
With leave and submission I address myself To those in whome there is wisdom understanding and knowledge. they are the honourable personages appointed and Made overseers of a part of the terrestrial globe of the Earth, Namely the 13 united states of america in Convention Assembled, the Lord preserve them amen--

I the subscriber being one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia, a people scattered and despersed among all nations do behold with Concern that among the laws in the Constitution of Pennsylvania their is a Clause Sect. 10 to viz--I do believe in one God the Creature and governour of the universe the Rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked--and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and New testement to be given by a devine inspiration--to swear and believe that the new testement was given by devine inspiration is absolutly against the religious principle of a Jew. and is against his Conscience to take any such oath--By the above law a Jew is deprived of holding any publick office or place of Goverment which is a Contridectory to the bill of Right Sect 2. viz

That all men have a natural and unalienable Right To worship almighty God according to the dectates of their own Conscience and understanding, and that no man aught or of Right can be Compelled to attend any Relegious Worship or Erect or support any place of worship or Maintain any minister contrary to or against his own free will and Consent nor Can any man who acknowledges the being of a God be Justly deprived or abridged of any Civil Right as a Citizen on account of his Religious sentiments or peculiar mode of Religious Worship, and that no authority Can or aught to be vested in or assumed by any power what ever that shall in any Case interfere or in any manner Controul the Right of Conscience in the free Exercise of Religious Worship--

It is well known among all the Citizens of the 13 united States that the Jews have been true and faithful whigs, and during the late Contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the Cause, have bravely faught and bleed for liberty which they Can not Enjoy--Therefore if the honourable Convention shall in ther Wisdom think fit and alter the said oath and leave out the words to viz--and I do acknoweledge the scripture of the new testement to be given by devine inspiration then the Israeletes will think them self happy to live under a goverment where all Relegious societys are on an Eaquel footing--I solecet this favour for my self my Childreen and posterity and for the benefit of all the Isrealetes through the 13 united States of america

My prayers is unto the Lord. May the people of this States Rise up as a great and young lion, May they prevail against their Enemies, May the degrees of honour of his Excellencey the president of the Convention George Washington, be Extollet and Raise up. May Every one speak of his glorious Exploits. May God prolong his days among us in this land of Liberty--May he lead the armies against his Enemys as he has done hereuntofore--May God Extend peace unto the united States--May they get up to the highest Prosperetys--May God Extend peace to them and their seed after them so long as the Sun and moon Endureth--and may the almighty God of our father Abraham Isaac and Jacob endue this Noble Assembly with wisdom Judgement and unamity in their Councells, and may they have the Satisfaction to see that their present toil and labour for the wellfair of the united States may be approved of, Through all the world and perticular by the united States of america is the ardent prayer of Sires

It may seem strange, but when Pennsylvania debated the merits of the new federal Constitution the religious test clause was not a problem. The divisive political climate of 1776 had changed abruptly, and later in 1790, after its ratification of the United States Constitution, Pennsylvania like many of her sister states chose to revise its state Constitution. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania relaxed its religious test requirements to a level where the new test oath mandated only a belief in God and a future state of rewards and punishments. That, at least for people like Jonas Phillips, meant they were no longer "objects of' political and social changes, now they were participants in such changes" (Irving Levitas).

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