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History, Herstory, Ourstory: Equals Among Equals, Jews in Federalist New York, 1790
November 13, 2013
by Leo Hershkowitz Writing about the Jewish experience during the Colonial and Early National periods in New York is especially difficult. The absence of material, letters, diaries, printed or written comments about day-to-day activities, or issues leaves a huge void in understanding this past. Jewish New Yorkers seem not to have left evidence or expressed their opinion on such momentous events as the War of Independence, the adoption and ratification of the Constitution, or the emerging Democratic or Federalist political parties. Contemporaries also left little record of what they thought of their fellow Jewish citizens. On the morning of Wednesday, July 23, 1788, in support of New York’s pending ratification of the new Federal Constitution, “every class of citizens turned out” forming a large and colorful procession, surely the first of New York’s “ticker-tape” parades, which started in The Fields (now City Hall Park) and marched down from Broadway to Grand Street. At the procession, “all rejoiced in the happy country where Liberty, Virtue, and Religion, go hand in hand harmoniously,” with “the clergy of almost every denomination united in charity and brotherly love,” according to Comte de Moustier, French charge d’affaires. Sitting with other diplomats, he noted that among the guests were “Anglicans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Jews all indiscriminately seated.” All were treated to a “mediocre dinner.” Of the many divisions marching in the procession, there was one, a group of furriers, many carrying skins of various sorts, then an Indian “properly attired,” and bringing up the rear was Lyon Jonas “dressed in a superb scarlet blanket and an elegant cap, ornamented with a beautiful plumage, smoking an Indian pipe and holding a tomahawk.” Jonas, originally from London, a Loyalist during the War of Independence, was now an ardent patriot also promoting his trade. Interestingly, a number of dates had been suggested as to the holding of the July 23nd procession while the contentious ratification convention was being held in Poughkeepsie, with July 22, 1788 initially the announced time. At least one witness heard it said, however, that the date became July 23rd “in order to give the Jews an opportunity to join in the festivals, the 22nd being one of their holidays” (this from Adrian Banker, in correspondence to Everet Banker, July 24, 1788). Another writer, Peter Collin, in correspondence to Nicolas Low, July 16, 1788, thought that the postponement of the procession was “a great compliment paid the Jews.” This remarkable decision could be an indication of the acceptance and position of the small Jewish community as respected members of this new nation. Alexander Hamilton held a life-long admiration of the accomplishments of Jews, which were, he said, “entirely out of the ordinary course of human events,” adding, “discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion.” Were such positive views more widely held, and involved in the postponement? It would seem plausible that influential individuals like Benjamin S. Judah, Solomon Simpson, or Isaac Moses met with the chairman of the procession, Colonel Richard Platt, a friend to George Washington, and expressed their concern that July 22nd was a religious holiday, Tzom Tammuz, a fast day, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., and so preventing their participation in the joyous event. Perhaps for the chairman and others a delay meant that the awaited news about actual ratification could arrive by the next day — but this did not occur until July 26th. Perhaps, again, it was, indeed, a “compliment” to the Jews of the City and a way to include them and all New Yorkers in the festive occasion. Given the deep political division between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and the testing of the emerging nation, any support of the new national government was welcomed. Washington’s letter to the Newport Jewish community in April, 1790 giving “bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance” — a phrase taken from the Congregation’s letter to Washington — like that of the 1788 postponement was, perhaps, also a way of gaining support for the new government during a contentious time. It should be noted that Jews in New York had long been accepted as equal members of the community. Children of the Franks family married into New York aristocracy. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, noted in 1748 that Jews “enjoy all the privileges common to the inhabitants of this town and providence.” A good deal of this acceptance stems from aspects of Dutch settlement, including the aspect of toleration. Other evidence as to why the sudden change of date for the parade is, as of now, unavailable. Festivities notwithstanding, for some there was concern. A few days after the July 23rd parade, anti-Federalists broke into the house of Thomas Greenleaf, the Federalist printer who had “insulted the City at large,” and destroyed the types for his press. The new Constitution did not necessarily mean peace and security for New Yorkers,and surely Jews, like many others, saw such an incident as threatening to social order. Democracy has its own dangers and limitations. Issues such as relations with England and France, slavery, and the direction and leadership of American society were adding fuel to bitter and sometimes dangerously contentious times. Some Jews, like many other New Yorkers, held conservative political positions. Uriah Hendricks, Barrak Hays, Moses, Jr. and Abraham Gomez supported the Crown in 1776, signed Declarations of Loyalty, and remained in New York under British control. Perhaps for them local “Sons of Liberty” mobs or the gangs of “Mohawks” who threw British tea into New York harbor in 1774 were more to be feared than an act of Parliament. There seems no evidence of Jewish membership in any radical organization, and there is no Jewish Isaac Sears, or John Lamb, let alone Tom Paine. However, others like Solomon Simpson, Naphtali Judah, and Gershom M. Seixas were sympathetic to the revolutionary cause and left the City during British occupation. Despite political unrest, all were seemingly committed to a bright future. By the end of 1790, a new synagogue was erected by Congregation Shearith Israel on Mill Street. The Federal Parade and the Washington inauguration were a kind of culmination of Jewish citizenship, from those tentative days of arrival in 1654 through the years of gradual acceptance as equals among equals. In New York there were no restrictions as to citizenship: Jews could practice their religion, vote, hold office (though few chose to do so), engage in trade, buy and sell property. Dry goods merchants Philip and Jacob Mark sold linen that was used by President Washington at his Cherry Street home. It is not that there wasn’t any prejudice, barriers still existed. Thomas Jefferson, head of the Democratic party, wrote that Jewish ideas of Jesus and “his attributes were degrading and injurious and their Ethics — often irreconcilable with — reason morality [and are] repulsive and anti-social.” Did these negative views, especially when compared with those of Hamilton, cause some Jews to vote Federalist? John Adams noted that “The Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation,” while a contemporary of his called the Jews (as well as “New England Men”) “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites,” while Federalist printer James Rivington referred to them as the “tribe of shylock.” Compared to most of Europe, where in order to breathe Jews had to pay a tax, and vicious, often deadly anti-Semitism was always at hand, New York was an oasis of freedom and liberty, and Jews there had special reasons to celebrate and participate in the beginning of a new nation. 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).