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History, Herstory, Ourstory: Choosing Sides in New York, 1776

November 23, 2013
by Leo Hershkowitz declaration of dependence_35106 crtunedWhig or Tory, radical or conservative, which side do you choose? This was a basic question facing the residents of New York City during the time of crisis, 1763-1776, when ties with Great Britain were being tested and, eventually, unwound. The city’s small Jewish population, perhaps 400 of some 30,000 total, faced the same dilemma, but perhaps with a touch of greater concern. Unsettled times raised the specter of riot, destruction, the letting loose of unthinking passion — and anti-Semitism. What did Jews think or say about events such as the Stamp Act of 1763, the Sugar Act of 1764, the bloodshed of the Boston Massacre, 1773, or the similar though little remembered unrest in New York City in 1774? How did the Jewish community react to the calling up of the first and second Continental Congresses of 1775-76. How did Jewish New Yorkers react to the coming of independence? Curiously, there is no positive way of knowing. For a community for which words are so basic to its history, there seems nothing by way of a simple letter, newspaper article, quoted speech or anything written or said by any contemporary Jewish witnesses. There seems to be no paper trail. Were Jews concerned about retribution if they publicly chose sides? Were such records lost or destroyed over time? Or was it a silent generation? There were no members of the community providing leadership, no Jewish equivalents of Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Isaac Sears — the merchant and sailor who in 1775 seized the British arsenal at the New York Custom House. Franks-PhilaIn fact, New York was not a center of rebellion like Boston or Philadelphia. Founded by the Dutch, it thrived on tolerance, civic order, and trade. Cultural difference meant little by way of social barrier. A good example of this would be the marriage in 1742 of Oliver DeLancey, a member of one of New York’s more influential aristocratic families, and Phila Franks (possibly portrayed at right), the daughter of Philadelphia’s illustrious Jewish couple, Jacob and Abigail Franks. The intermarriage was an upsetting embarrassment to Abigail, the mother, who never spoke to her daughter again, but it raised little comment in New York City. In July, 1776, the Declaration of Independence forced many New Yorkers, still undecided, to declare themselves. In October and again in November, 1776, more than five hundred New Yorkers met to sign Declarations of Dependence (pictured at the top of this article). In petition to the British commissioners for “restoring peace in His Majesty’s colonies,” these New Yorkers opposed the “unprovoked Rebellion” even at the “risque of our Lives and Fortunes.” Among the many signatures were those of Holland-born Uriah Hendricks, Abraham Gomez, Henry Solomon, Barrack Hays, and Abraham Abramse. The first three are noted in history as leading members of the Jewish community, while the other two are unknown. Hendricks and the others were willing to “risque” their lives in opposition to the rebellion; how many other Jews felt similarly? In January, 1766, Oliver DeLancey had written to his sister in London about the possibility of a civil war in the colonies if the Stamp Act was enforced. He had taken measures, he said, to protect his property “against the Ravages of the Populace.” Such fears surely also were expressed ten years later as Jews like Hendricks and Hays signed the fall petitions. Leo Hershkowitz is professor emeritus of history at Queens College. He is the author of Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Anchor Press) and the co-editor of Wills of Early New York Jews, 1704-1799 (American Jewish Historical Society).
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