Dreaming of Equality: Francis Salvador, the American Jewish Revolutionary Patriot

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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The Jewish Position in Colonial America

On this day in history January 11, 1775, Francis Salvador, the first Jew elected to a colonial public office begins his tenure on the revolutionary South Carolina Provincial Congress. Salvador was a recent immigrant to America having arrived in Charleston, South Carolina from London in 1773, a year later, he was elected to the South Carolina assembly becoming the first Jew elected to a political body in modern history, and then in 1775, he was reelected to Second Provincial Congress. Salvador became a Whig and supported the colonial revolt and then the fight for independence from Great Britain. Salvador made history again in on August 1, 1776, becoming the first Jewish casualty of the American Revolutionary War when a Cherokee native siding with the British killed and scalped him in battle.

Historian Samuel Rezneck indicates in his book Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, Salvador “is one of the best-known recorded examples of a Jew, who served the Revolution to the ultimate degree losing his life in it.” [1] While historian Abram Vossen Goodman in his essay “South Carolina from Shaftesbury to Salvador” highlights, that Francis Salvador “was the first Jew in American history, and probably the first Jew in the modern world, to serve in an elective office… His career was not so much a tribute to the man himself as it was a symbol of the atmosphere of goodwill which prevailed in South Carolina.” [2]

Salvador’s story in America mirrored the experience other Jews faced in the new world. By the time of the American Revolution colonial Jews could live with almost the same rights and freedoms as their Christian counterparts, they experienced freedom unheard of in the old world. They had freedom regarding trade, where they lived, and could even attend university, or hold political office, as Salvador did. They fought for the freedoms along with their revolutionary brothers. As historian Howard Sachar indicates in his book, A History of the Jews in America, “By 1776, the two thousand Jews of colonial America unquestionably were the freest Jews on earth.”[3] While historian Hasia Diner in her survey The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 compares, “Just as Americans were liberating themselves from British rule and creating new governmental forms, so too were Jews…. In this period of nation-building, American Jews came to enjoy a status unlike any their people had ever known.” [4]

There was less anti-Semitism in the American colonies than any nation or kingdom; this allowed Jews more economic, political, and social freedoms than in the rest of the world. Historian Eli Faber observes, “Antisemitism did not throw up barriers that it did in contemporary Europe, where legal restrictions impeded Jewish mercantile and financial enterprise in many jurisdictions. On the contrary: rather than financial restrictions Jews in the American colonies enjoyed the same access to economic opportunity as their non-Jewish counterparts… Antisemitism, while it certainly existed in the colonies in the form of traditional stereotypes and a few rare, but minor, outburst, did not take the violent forms it frequently did in Europe, nor did it encompass the kinds of economic restrictions and legal disabilities that prevailed in many European jurisdictions.” [5]

Still, from the moment the first group of Jewish immigrants arrived in September 1654 in New Amsterdam (Manhattan, New York) to create the first Jewish settlement in the American colonies the colonial governments restricted their rights. They did so for anti-Semitic reasons based on age-old stereotypes of Jews as greedy Shylocks whose Jewish religion would ruin the Christian hegemony. Jews fought back to gain their rights and the goal of religious and political freedom. The New Netherland Governor-General Peter Stuyvesant was the first foe the twenty-three Jewish immigrants encountered upon arrival in North America and he was set on refusing the Jews’ rights although the colony chartered by the Dutch West India Company had granted them. When the company allowed Jews the freedoms and rights they had in the Netherlands, Stuyvesant took them away and added restrictions but colonial Jews were persistent and won the rights back and additional ones they did not have in Europe.

The British ruled colonies were no differently some granted Jews more rights or freedoms while others were restrictive or even prevented Jews from settling in them, which was the extreme. Throughout the colonial period, Jews did experience anti-Semitism in the British American colonies. Historian Fritz Hirschfeld believes Jews were treated as second-class citizens. Hirschfeld notes, “And although the extreme bigotry and verbal abuse of Peter Stuyvesant and his kind had long since been ameliorated, the Jews were still widely regarded with suspicion and hostility, more often than not treated as second- class citizens subject to various forms of harassment and discrimination.” [6]

The situation of Jews in the American colonies depended on the laws of the specific colony they lived and some were more tolerant than others. Additionally, as time went by, although the colonies might not have granted the rights to Jews they became more tolerant and Jews had more freedoms than they ever experienced in Europe. Colonial Jews “could reside anywhere: they could own land, engage in retail trade, and become artisans and craftsmen. Because the general environment was one in which toleration prevailed, Jews and Christians in the American colonies established business partnerships, formed personal friendships, summered together, and even on occasion married one another.” Already in colonial America, the legislatures granted equal “commercial privileges” to Jews. [7]

Most of the colonies still had impediments in granting Jews any political rights. Despite this, colonial Jews had more rights than Jews in Europe. Historian Paul F. Boller indicates, “Nevertheless, by the time of the Revolution, as Oscar Handlin points out, they had gradually won civil, political, and religious rights that far exceeded anything their fellow –religionists in Europe enjoyed, even in Holland.” [8] The colonies promoted a free economy and that philosophy encouraged the immigration of all religions that helped grow the colonies’ business and trade. As Diner acknowledges, “Despite some prejudice and religious intolerance, American Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries had more freedom and fewer problems than any other Jews in the world. The special circumstances of life in colonial America and the early United States favored the acceptance of Jews and their religious traditions. Before and after the Revolution, America was a raw, growing place that welcomed people who were willing to contribute to the economy… The colonies’ concerns about economic development also outweighed strong ties of ethnicity and the stigmas of national origins.” [9]

When colonies limited the rights of Jews, usually they were not the target of these limited rights but Catholics. The Protestant Reformation and the division of Christianity from Catholicism into Protestantism resulted in prejudice between the two Christian denominations. Both sought to limit the rights of the Christian minorities in their countries and territories. Dinner notes, “These Protestant-dominated colonies expended much more energy restricting Catholics than they did Jews. The colonial experience itself owed much more of its cultural dynamic to the aftershocks of the Reformation than to any dispute between Christianity and Judaism.” [10] Even with the restrictions Catholics were less affected by the laws because they were the Christian majority in most European countries and the Pope ruled over Christianity.[11]

Jews, however, were added to the minority status but were not the target of the legal restrictions on religious minorities, which was a new development for Jews. In Europe they had always been the main focus of prejudice and restrictions on rights and liberties. The mindset for Jews was different even if they were not the target for the limitations on their rights. Jews were always the target of prejudice, hate, and violence in Europe. Either they experienced violence or were expelled for being Jews, not being the Christianity majority, and worshipping Jesus Christ which they were also accused of killing. As historian Leonard Dinnerstein explains in his book Antisemitism in America, “Jews, on the other hand, were always despised minorities in Europe who suffered legal disabilities in one country after another even when allowed to dwell there and even when individual Jews achieved outstanding social or economic recognition. Thus Jews, no matter how successful, were always wary that some crisis or other in a given nation would lead to contraction of rights, severe restrictions, or even expulsion. This was the Jewish experience in Europe since the end of the eleventh century.” [12]

Even without official restrictions, the colonies required anyone in any political and elected position or to serve on a jury to take their oath on the King James Version of the Bible. [13] Neither Jews nor Catholics would swear on that version of the bible; Jews would not swear on the New Testament, while Catholics would not swear on a Protestant version. According to Diner, “The stipulation excluded Catholics, perceived by colonial Americans as the embodiment of evil and served first and foremost to ward off Catholic influence in public life.” [14]

Religious prejudice and tolerance in the colonies were different than in Europe. The colonies were a new settlement in a new world and to survive their economy and trade had to flourish. Tolerance stemmed from the need for the economy to succeed. Any tolerance towards Jews and other religious minorities was not about freedoms or liberties but the economy. As Diner explains, “Neither the colonies nor the Christians who lived in them believed in universal principles of religious liberty and freedom of expression. Rather, they believed in economic activity and commercial robustness. Religious intolerance basically interfered with the task of extracting raw materials from the land, processing them, and making them available for imperial markets.” [15] Jews were merchants and traders and they contributed greatly to the colonial economy.

In North America, the division of society was based less on religion, as had been the case in Europe but on skin color. In the American colonies race mattered more than religion, the difference that mattered was whether one was black or white; black meant enslavement, and white meant freedom. As Diner explains, “Most white people, regardless of religion, enjoyed a kind of equality by default.” [16] The first slaves arrived in the colonies in 1619 and by 1660 the slave system was established in the colonies. Early on every colony except Rhode Island participated in slavery but later on it was just practiced in the southern colonies where it flourished. Port cities participated in the slave trade bringing in slaves from Africa. Slave labor fueled the colonial economy in the American colonies, everyone in the colonies benefitted from farmers to merchants in the cities.

Colonial Jews and other religious minorities benefitted from the new societal hierarchy in the American colonies. Diner recounts, “Their Jewishness had ipso facto put them outside the mainstream of society and rendered them different and defective. But in America, that position came to be occupied by Africans.” [17] The first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, even before the arrival of the first Jews in 1654. Although slavery was not the system that it would become, by the time Jews began arriving, colonial society already set the distinction between black and white. Slavery spread throughout the American colonies with Rhode Island acting as an exemption.

There were two reasons Americans were motivated to impose the slavery system; slave labor was a driving force behind economic development, as well as the method of determining class status. Whiteness equaled freedom while slave ownership and the number of slaves owned indicated wealth and social status; it allowed the poorest of whites to remain always above blacks on the social ladder. Although Rhode Island did not allow slavery, Newport was the port for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Jewish merchants in the city participated in the trade, “Aaron Lopez, Isaac Eliezer, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, and Samuel Moses, notables in the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, shipped rum and hardware, spices, spermaceti candles, lumber, fur, and African slaves.” [18] Diner explains:

“Slavery brought great riches to some. It enabled relatively poor white farmers to acquire land and wealth and to enjoy a comfortable social status. Its existence profoundly shaped American ideas about freedom. And obviously, the system of slavery was predicated on skin color, with whiteness the badge of privilege. Therefore, Jews in the colonies had yet another asset that served them well: they were white. They no longer bore the burden of being the stigmatized group whom others reviled and oppressed. As women and men considered among the privileged by virtue of their whiteness, they enjoyed relative tolerance and could increasingly demand, by virtue of the service they rendered to the colonies, and length of time in residence, the right to live freely. By the time the Jewish communities took root in America and increasing numbers of European Jews opted to live in America, to be “white” meant to be free, and not being white meant enduring enslavement.” [19]

Despite this defacto equality, the rights and privileges or restrictions Jews had depended on the specific colony, nothing could be taken for granted. Even with restrictions in rights especially regarding politics and civic life, colonial Jews hoped that they would gain those rights in the future. Since they were not the only religious group living with these restrictions made it easier. Diner explains:

“With regard to the earning of rights and privileges, inconsistency rather than universal entitlement prevailed among the various colonies. Jews always had to remain aware of local realities and to devise strategies to live with whatever rights their jurisdiction offered them. They could never rest content with what rights they had; nor did they, however, believe that those rights could never increase. The restrictions on Jewish male civic participation in colonial America existed in the context of a European culture in which Jews assumed that their religion set them apart from and put them at a clear disadvantage to the Christians among whom they lived. In America, however, Jews did not occupy that subordinate position alone. Others also experienced exclusion from privilege and political disabilities, and Jews sometimes made common cause with them.” [20]

The situation improved dramatically for Jews in the colonies when Britain’s Parliament passed the Naturalization Act of 1740. The act allowed immigrants to the colonies to become naturalized citizens after residing there for seven years. Additionally, Jews gained a victory when Parliament no longer required oaths “using words of Christian profession.” According to Britain Jews would be allowed to participate in civic life, however, most of the colonies still prevented Jews and religious minorities from this right. The change in attitudes towards Jews stemmed from the growing reliance race as defining rights in the colonies, as slavery became more vital to the colonial economy. [21]

Despite the auspicious start to Jews’ lives in the colonies by the time of the American Revolution, there were 2,000 to 2,500 Jews living in the colonies. According to Diner, “Each of the five Jewish communities that existed on the eve of the American Revolution — New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah — has its own history. In each the process of initial settlement, consecration of a cemetery, formation of a congregation, and the building of a synagogue took place. In each Jews both accepted their status in the larger society and sought to expand the rights they enjoyed.” [22]

When the thirteen colonies decided to rebel against Britain fighting for their rights and liberties, most colonial Jews joined in the fight hoping their liberties would be extended and they would be granted political equality. In July 1776, with American independence, the Second Continental Congress declared, “all men are created equal,” and in 1789, the ratified Constitution promised a separation between Church and state. The United States “Constitution provided full legal equality for men and prevented the national government from showing favor or discrimination based on one’s religion.” [23] As Diner notes, “The process began of severing the bonds between religion and citizenship, between birthplace and access to full participation in civic life.”[24] An independent America did not regulate religion or houses of worship and gave the individual rights with the Bill of Rights that were never seen in the government controlled countries of Europe.

Diner recounts, “The momentous events of the revolutionary era transformed America into a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identities. In its emphasis on freedom of expression, however imperfectly realized, the United States became a society based on consent rather than descent. For the first time dissent also trumped descent.” [25] With these liberties, the small American Jewish population had the opportunity to join in participating in a full American life like their Christian neighbors. For Jewish Whigs participating, supporting, and fighting in the war for American Independence it was an opportunity to be part of the birth of a nation and gain an equal footing with their counterparts. Francis Salvador’s political and military firsts all for the American cause represented that promise of equality colonial Jews dreamed of obtaining. Still, America considered itself a Protestant Christian nation and religious minorities remained tolerated especially in the individual states. American Jewry would use their sacrifices during the war as a bargaining chip to obtain political equality at the federal and state level, which took longer and more convincing to obtain.

[1] Samuel Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, (Westport: Conn: Greenwood Press, 1975), 23.

[2] Abram Vossen Goodman, “South Carolina from Shaftesbury to Salvador,” Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary D. Palsson, Jews in the South, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1973), 41.

[3] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 23.

[4] Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 40, 43.

[5] Eli, Faber “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Marc L. Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 27.

[6] Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and the Jews, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2005), 13.

[7] Faber “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 27.

[8] BOLLER, PAUL F. “George Washington and the Jews.” Southwest Review, vol. 47, no. 2, 1962, pp. 120–127. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43467381, 121.

[9] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 22, 24.

[10] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 24.

[11] Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994), x.

[12] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, x.

[13] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 24.

[14] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 24.

[15] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 24.

[16] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 24.

[17] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 26.

[18] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 26.

[19] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 25–26.

[20] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 23.

[21] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 25.

[22] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 26.

[23] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, x.

[24] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 42.

[25] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 42.

About the Author

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

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Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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