Jewish Rights in the American Colonies

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

Bernard Zakheim’s Jewish Patriots of the American Revolution

At the time, the American Revolution broke out there were only 2,000 to 2,500 Jews in the American colonies, most concentrated in the six-port cities, New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah with less than a hundred fighting in the war. While the majority of the Jewish population lived in the port cities, Jewish traders and shopkeepers lived in the outlying frontier regions “selling goods to fur trappers, buying from the Indians, and speculating in lands.” [1]

Jews’ first impression of the American colonies was hostile. In September 1654, twenty-three Jewish refugees arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island seeking asylum. Meeting the Jewish refugees on the dock was “Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of the colony,” and “Johannes Megapolensis, an official of the Dutch Reformed Church,” who did not want any Jews settling in the colony. Stuyvesant severely restricted the Jews’ rights to live, worship, own, and trade in the colony while he was in power. As Dinnerstein observes, “The attitudes observed in the residents of New Amsterdam paralleled those of most other colonists.” [2] In the early years, most of the colonies limited non-Protestants, Jews, and Catholics’ ability on public worship and charged them “special taxes.” However, as Dinnerstein notes “most of these burdens were later lifted or rarely enforced.” [3] Despite legal limits on Jewish rights in their roles as merchants and traders they interacted with the Christian majority, and their interactions and relationships “must be specifically defined by time and place.” [4]

Each colony differed in the rights and restrictions imposed on religious minorities. Diner indicates, “Each colony had its own history of Jewish settlement and of granting rights to the Jews. But nowhere did the right of residence and of religious tolerance equate with full privileges of political participation for Jewish men.” [5] In the colonial period, Jews in Britain did not even have the rights of full citizens and their rights were limited. While some of the colonies in the most extreme did not even grant Jews and religious minorities the right to reside in their boundaries. As Diner notes, “In some of the New England colonies, Jews did not even have the right of residence, let alone the right to build synagogues and establish communities. They probably also understood that what rights they had could be rescinded.” [6]

In the North, the British colony of New York was the most inviting to Jews because of its history of tolerance dating back from colonial days. In 1664, Britain’s Duke of York conquered the New Netherlands and their colony New Amsterdam became New York. Afterward, in 1667, Jews began arriving in the new British controlled colony. The British lifted the restrictions, Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor-General of New Netherlands and his council imposed on the Jews. Britain loosened the restrictions to increase trade in the colony. The British Treaty of Breda from 1667 guaranteed all colonists “full rights of worship, trade, individual property, and inheritance to all inhabitants of the former New Netherlands. [7]

Under Britain the Jewish population grew from a hundred in 1695 to 730 in 1730, however, afterward, Charleston with greater freedom and rights attracted more Jews and with fewer Jews going to New York. On the eve of the Revolution, in 1773 the New York community stagnated to just fewer than 250 Jews. [8] Mostly Sephardim migrated to New York among them Jews from “England, Holland, the Caribbean islands” with a small number of Ashkenazim from German countries.

At the start, there were a few restrictions on Jews they were allowed to hold office but could not build a synagogue and had paid taxes to the Anglican Church. However, in a couple of decades, the Protestant majority overlooked the restrictions; Jews did not have entire equality but freedom. In New York, the Protestants feared Catholics more than the small Jewish population. In 1706, New York Jews established their own congregation Shearith Israel, although it was in a rented building, they soon constructed a synagogue building in 1728 on Mill Street. Shearith Israel became the oldest congregation in America.

In 1727, the General Assembly of New York removed the stipulation of “on the true faith of a Christian” from the requirements for citizenship. Dinnerstein notes, “By the end of the seventeenth century, Jews in New York City were able to purchase land, engage in retail trade, stand guard, and worship in public.” [9] New York was the main Jewish center until 1720. Jews in New York held political office and at the eve of the American Revolution had most of the rights that the Protestant majority had. [10]

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Jews also lived in tolerant colonies. Jews started settling in the two colonies starting in 1656. Pennsylvania was Quaker and New Jersey was Anglican, both allowed Jews to live in relative freedom. Quaker William Penn founded his Pennsylvania colony as a “haven of religious freedom.” In 1706, Jews began settling in Philadelphia. By the mid-eighteenth century, there were very few restrictions only on political and voting rights for Jews. In Pennsylvania Jews could not vote or hold office. [11]

Roger Williams also founded Rhode Island to be tolerant but circumstances and laws would change that at the turn of the eighteenth century. Jews began settling in Rhode Island in the 1640s and by 1678 they bought a plot of land for a cemetery, a sign that they intended to settle permanently. In the 1690s, the population grew by 100 when the Jews of Curaçao escaped a pandemic and decided to settle in the port city. [12] In the early years of the eighteenth century, Rhode Island’s General Assembly changed their laws and excluded Jews and Catholics from citizenship. Historian Stanley F. Chyet notes in his essay, “The Political Rights of the Jews in the United States: 1776–1840,” “Rhode Island’s liberal law of 1665 was altered sometime between 1705 and 1719 to exclude Jews and Catholics from the rights of citizenship.” [13] After the law was altered, Jews occasionally moved in to Newport, and there is a historical record of Jews living there. In 1712, there a map indicates a “Jews Street” opposite the cemetery.

Newport was a wealthy port city in colonial time’s trade and commerce flourished and it was one of the cities where Jews flocked when settling in the colonies. Despite the change in political rights to Jews in the colony, in the 1740s, Jews began settling in Newport in earnest, particularly starting in 1746. Atlantic commerce and trade in the port city attracted Jewish merchants to settle. Newport was a center of trade between “England, the Carribean and Africa.” As historians Jonathan Sarna and Ellen Smith note in , “The Jewish community of Newport only really took off in the 1740s. It was then that the community entered its pre-Revolutionary ‘golden-age.’” [14] By the 1750s the community was large enough to form a synagogue; nine merchants from New York made the move to Newport. In 1756, the community organized a congregation, in 1759; they started building a synagogue which was completed in 1763, and then the congregation hired Isaac Touro to serve as its Hazzan and spiritual leader.

Jews did not fare as well in New England where except for Rhode Island Jews were considered second-class citizens and prohibited from living in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. After Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the royal governors became more tolerant of Jews since they were not Catholics and Jews began dwelling in Massachusetts and Connecticut. As Sachar points out, “They were none-Catholics after-all.” The worst colony for Jews was Maryland, where there were restrictions for all non-Protestants and Jews where they were not granted any political rights. Still, by the mid-eighteenth century Jews had defacto rights of domicile, trade, worship and increasingly, franchise.” [15]

In colonial times, there were was a scant amount of Jews living in the Southern colonies, in total there were approximately 300 Jews in the South at the time of the American Revolution. These Jews integrated into the colonies they lived in despite the fact that most did not have equal political rights with their Christian counterparts. Most worked as merchants, traders, storekeepers, artisans, sawmill operators, butchers, and a small minority of plantation owners. In colonial times the majority of the Jews resided in three Southern cities; Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, and a much lesser extent in Richmond, Virginia, Charleston had, however, the largest Jewish community and it was the center of Jewish life in the South.

In the seventeenth century, Hirschfeld observes in his book , “South of New York in effect, there was no place that appealed to Jews until Charleston rose and opened her doors to them.” [16] South Carolina was the most tolerant colony towards Jews according to historian Henry Feingold. Jews in South Carolina were allowed to vote and “hold political office.” [17] The Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Ashley, Chancellor of the Exchequer invited liberal philosopher John Locke to write the colonial charter and Locke believed in religious tolerance and included those beliefs in the “Fundamental Constitution of Carolina.” Soon the colony was attracting religious minorities including Jews and Huguenots. [18] When the first Jews arrived in 1680, they already had legal rights to “purchase property and worship.” Jews had the ability to vote to be elected to assemblies and “to trade, to worship, to execute legal documents, to sit on juries.” [19] Jews settled in South Carolina early on, between 1697 and 1740 there were fifteen Jewish men living in the colony.[20] In 1697, South Carolina’s Jews fought for their rights, four Charles Town Jews joined with the colonies’ Huguenots and they petitioned “for the right of full citizenship.” [21]

By the time of the American Revolution, according Sachar, Charleston had “two hundred Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews” and was “the second largest Jewish community in North America.” [22] Jews were attracted to South Carolina because the colony granted Jews all the rights they sought. Dinnerstein recounts, “Charleston had perhaps the most vibrant mercantile economy in America by 1776, and treated Jews almost as equals.” [23] Jews participated in most of the trades their Christian counterparts did, they engaged in a mix of trades, Jews were “small tradesman,” plantation owners particularly indigo and rice and they engaged in trade as importers and exporters, including the slave trade.

At the time of independence was declared, there “forty to fifty Jewish families” living in Charleston, enough that a “formal congregation” Beth Elohim was established in 1749, and a cemetery by 1764. [24] South Carolina, especially its port city Charleston attracted the most Jewish settlers and from the 1790s until 1820 the city had a larger Jewish population than New York.[25] During the Revolution most American Jews were Whigs supporting the independence, and according to Arthur Hertzberg all Jewish males in South Carolina fought for independence.

Salvador’s story in America began in 1732, with his grandfather also Francis (Daniel) Salvador, who was “the first Jewish director of the East India Company” The elder Salvador and fellow Beavis Marks Synagogue leaders Alvaro Lopes Suasso and Antonio da Costa moved a community of 42 Jews to Savannah, Georgia. [26] At the same time, a large number of Jews were escaping from Portugal, most were crypto-Jews, who during the inquisition had been forced to convert but secretly continued practicing Judaism. From 1700 and 1735, around 1,500 Jews escaped Portugal, and came to England. The rich Sephardic community worried that the newcomers would “drain” their financial resources and it would affect their standing. In England, Beavis Marks synagogue usually “assumed responsibility for the Jewish poor” but this time the synagogue leadership decided to send them to Georgia as a solution. [27]

Jews were equally tolerated in the colony of Georgia established in 1733. James Oglethorpe founded Georgia in 1733; Georgia was planned as a plantation and was originally for “indebted prisoners.” The Georgia charter read, “There shall be liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God to all persons…except Papists.” [28] The first settlers began arriving in February 1733. The colony looked to limit one religious minority, Catholics, and also outlawed slavery and in doing so, their charter was welcoming to Jews earning it a reputation as a Jew colony.

The Christian majority, however, resented Sephardic Jews imposing on them indebted Ashkenazi Jews. [29] The Jews sent by Beavis Marks were destitute and upon hearing of the arrival, the Georgia trustees wanted to add Jews to the Catholics they did not want settling in the colony. Governor Oglethorpe “intervened” and welcomed the Jews and “he settled the newcomers on the fringes of his own tract of land, rented them a house for their religious services, and allocated a plot for their cemetery.” [30]

On July 11, 1733, the 42 Jews arrived in Savannah, 34 were Sephardic the remaining were Ashkenazi from German lands and two families. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews settled in Georgia working as both “farmers and tradesman.” Jews and Christians alike were put off by Georgia law prohibiting large tracts of lands for plantations and slavery; only when it became legal did the colony see its population increase. Officially Georgia only granted Protestants the vote and hold office, however, “by the mid-century” Jews were voting and in 1756 “two Jews were elected port officials of Savannah.” [31]

In Georgia, the Jewish community established a congregation in Savannah in 1735 but a disagreement between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim led to a split between the two branches. In 1740, when Britain and Spain went to war, the Sephardim feared their safety and left, and only three Ashkenazi families stayed. Only in the 1760s, did more Jews settle in the city. By the 1770s there were only six families and although they wanted to form a congregation there was not enough Jews. Only in the 1790s did the population grow enough for a congregation, while the synagogue was only built in 1820. The Sephardim that left Georgia settled in the colony of South Carolina in Charles Town, Charleston. [32] To help these families escaping Georgia the Salvador and DaCosta families purchased 200,000 acres of land in western South Carolina in a new frontier district Ninety–Six. [33]

By the time of the Revolution, however, Jews still did have political rights in the majority of the colonies; they could not vote or hold political office. Diner recounts, “In most of the colonies and later some of the states, Jews could not vote, hold elected office, or serve on juries. These restrictions did not single out Jews. They applied to anyone who did not belong to the established, or official, Christian church — the Anglican church in some places, the Congregational in others.” [34] This exemption encompassed Jews, Catholics, and other Christian denominations.

However, for colonial Jews, true acceptance involved political equality, which was the ultimate achievement. As Diner explains, “The Jews who lived through the tumultuous decades of revolution and nation-building did so mindful of their piecemeal acceptance and relative equality and ever mindful of the restrictions that had early on been placed on them. Just as Americans were liberating themselves from British rule and creating new governmental forms, so too were Jews beginning the process of building new communities as they participated in building a new America.” [35] Francis Salvador’s rise in the political echelons in the days preceding American independence represented the dream becoming a reality, the possibility equality could be achieved, although the colonies and future states had yet to formally extend this ultimate right to American Jews.

[1] Diner, , 27.

[2] Dinnerstein, , 5.

[3] Ibid., Dinnerstein, , 5.

[4] Ibid., Dinnerstein, , 5.

[5] Diner, , 23.

[6] Ibid., Diner, , 39.

[7] Sachar, , 18.

[8] Diner, , 27.

[9] Dinnerstein, , 6.

[10] Sachar, , 18.

[11] Dinnerstein, , 6.

[12] Diner, , 27.

[13] Stanley F. Chyet, “,” American. Jewish Archives Journal 10, no. 1 (1958), 17. http://www.americanjewisharchives.org/publications/journal/PDF/1958_10_01_00_chyet.pdf

[14] George M Goodwin and Ellen Smith. . Waltham, Mass: Brandeis Univ. Press, 2004, 2.

[15] Sachar, , 18.

[16] Fritz Hirschfeld, , (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2005), 91.

[17] Henry L. Feingold, , (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1981), 29.

[18] Feingold, , 29.

[19] Sachar, , 19.

[20] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, , 27.

[21] Diner, , 23.

[22] Sachar, , 22.

[23] Dinnerstein, , 6.

[24] Arthur Hertzberg, , (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 91.

[25] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, 27.

[26] David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History // 1733: Savannah, Georgia Gets Its First Jews, Not That It Wants Them,” Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium--1.5408033

[27] Sachar, , 19.

[28] Feingold, , 29.

[29] Feingold, , 29.

[30] “Francis Salvador.” . https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/francis-salvador, Sachar, .

[31] Sachar, .

[32] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, 27.

[33] Pencak, , 124; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Salvador

[34] Diner, , 22.

[35] Ibid., Diner, , 40.

About the Author

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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.