OTD in History… August 18, 1790: President George Washington Promises American Jews Civil Equality

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

On this day in history August 18, 1790, during President George Washington’s tour stop in Newport, Rhode Island, he responds to an address from Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s leadership and he promises American Jews religious freedom and civil equality. Washington’s guarantee of equality to American Jews came a year after Congress passed James Madison’s Bill of Rights, which had not yet been ratified by the necessary number of states. On August 17, 1790, the leadership of the congregation read Washington an address asking the president to Washington to remember “the stock of Abraham,” who had been “Deprived . . . of the invaluable rights of free citizens.” In the address, Washington promised, “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” The letter is frequently quoted as Washington’s guarantee that American Jews will have equality under the federal government, the first government in the world to make such a guarantee to their Jewish population and make it a law.

After his inauguration, Washington received congratulatory messages from communities and religious groups across the new nation. Both the Protestant denominations, Catholic and Jewish communities wrote to Washington to “remind him that they too should be considered part of the polity and asked him to keep in mind the religious diversity of the nation he would soon guide.” [1] Washington used his responses to assure these communities that he “deplored religious intolerance and bigotry and to proclaim his own devotion and that of his administration to the principles of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.” [2]

Washington tried to convince all the religious groups about the benefits of the separation of religion and state. To the Protestant Christian denominations, he asked them to respect other religious groups including Catholics and Jews “with justice and liberty.” To the religious minorities, he promised them that religious freedom and equality would be honored and respected. Washington received twenty-two addresses of congratulations; three of them came from the six Jewish congregations. Washington’s responses were the first time he addressed the Jewish population and the country’s promise of freedom and equality towards them. Washington’s letters especially the one to Newport has been considered “of great historic interest as well as importance.” [3] Historian Morris Schappes notes, “For a century and a half these declarations have been used to confound the enemy in the ceaseless struggle against those who would subvert American ideals through the propagation of anti-Semitism and other doctrines of bigotry.” [4]

Before his presidency, Washington had little contact with Jews, most of them during the war in his capacity of Commanding General of the Continental Army. Washington’s first major contact with colonial Jews was with David Franks during the French-Indian War. Franks obtained supplies for Washington’s army in Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, Washington helped Major David Salisbury Frank clear his name after being in traitor General Benedict Arnold’s staff. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia Washington “dined” with Mark Prager. Fritz Hirschfeld’s book is the only book to try and examine Washington’s relationship with Jews before his letter promising religious freedom to the Jews of Newport. Hirschfeld argues, “Participation of the Jews in the War of Independence… shows how their individual courage and enterprise supported Washington’s own goals and objectives. Although the linkage is not always direct, there is sufficient weight of circumstantial evidence to prove that a real relationship did exist between George Washington and the Jews.” [5]

In 1790, President George Washington toured the new nation, as he toured communities handed Washington letters, to which he responded. On August 17, 1790, Washington made his stop in Newport, Rhode Island. Congregation Jeshuat Israel’s leadership came out to greet the president as he rode by and they handed him a letter, historian Hasia Diner notes, “The letter sent to Washington by the Jews of Newport has been the most quoted and most enduring document in American Jewish history.” [6] While Eli Faber called it “the most important exchange of letters in American Jewish history between a president and the Jewish population.” [7]

Newport had a boom in the mid-eighteenth century, trade and the economy grew attracting more people to the colony and city. As Smith and Sarna explain, “Growing economic ties with the West Indies, privateering, and the importation of slaves and contraband (especially sugar and molasses) brought new wealth to the community and resulted in a dramatic population increase-more than 40 percent in eighteen years.” The majority of the Jewish population was Sephardim and converses that had escaped the inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and came to openly practice Judaism in America. Aaron Lopez, a conversos, whose family escaped the inquisition in Portugal, settled in the 1750s in Newport, he could openly practice Judaism, formally converting, and became the city’s most influential Jewish merchant.

In 1761, when merchants Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer petitioned for Rhode Island general court to grant them naturalization under the British Naturalization Act of 1740, the colonial legislature refused their request. The act required seven years of consecutive residence in a British colony to be eligible, both had satisfied the requirements; they were being refused citizenship based on their religion, as Jews. Smith and Sarna recount, the courts “claimed that the law applied only to underpopulated regions and that local law limited citizenship to believing Christians dubious claims in both cases.” [8]

Aaron Lopez went into Massachusetts, petitioned that colony, and the Superior Court of Judicature granted Lopez his request. Elizer petitioned n New York were they granted him citizenship. Diner explains, “But nowhere did the right of residence and of religious tolerance equate with full privileges of political participation for Jewish men…. With regard to the earning of rights and privileges, inconsistency rather than universal entitlement prevailed among the various colonies.” [9] Smith and Sarna point out, “In so doing, both men revealed their determination to fight, as Jews, for their rights.” [10]

The 1770s Newport had a Jewish population peak. At the time of the Revolution, historian Oscar Reiss claims there were 200 families and 1,100 Jews in Newport, while Faber thinks the number was closer to 22 families. [11] Smith and Sarna note, The Jewish population of Newport “numbered about two hundred men, women, and children, comprising roughly 2 percent of Newport’s total population and about 10 percent of its substantial merchants.”

As the war commenced, the Provincial Congress’ Committee of Safety required all citizens take an oath to weed out any Loyalists. Moses Michael Hays refused to because “he was never a danger to his country, and he subject to many irregularities; and neither the Continental Congress nor any of the legislatures of any colony took any notice of the Jews in the war.” [12] Rhode Island did not grant Jews political rights even the Patriots fighting for independence did not feel it was important. The Patriots were suspicious of Hays’s loyalty because his sister Reyna was married to Rev. Isaac Touro, a known British Loyalist.

In 1776, the British invaded and occupied Newport and most of the Patriots left further south, including most of the Jewish population and the city’s merchants. The Jewish community left for other Jewish centers, including “New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. During the war shipping stopped, the community allowed alternative for the synagogue including a British hospital and as a town hall. The Hazzan and leader of the congregation Rev. Isaac Touro was a Loyalist and stayed with the congregation once the British took over Newport. Touro kept services going in the synagogue despite the entire city’s Jewish Whigs left for the South where the Patriots controlled cities. Touro also allowed the British to use the building as a hospital.

In 1780, the French Expeditionary Forces under General Rochambeau (Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau) gained control of Newport. From 1781 to 1784 the synagogue was used as a town hall, for the Rhode Island General Assembly, and the Supreme Court of Rhode Island also held their session in the building. [13] The city revived after the war, but the Newport Jewish community did not revive in the same way. After the war, the leading families of Newport remained; the Seixas, Levy, Lopez, and Rivera families. These families also held the title to the synagogue building.

Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Jeshuat Israel, the Hebrew Congregation of Newport wrote the letter and presented it to Washington. Diner indicates, “While they made no specific requests of him or of the nation whose helm he stood ready to take, their letter implied a hope that the new government would protect them as it did all its citizens. Their letter expressed uncertainty about their future status in the nation they had helped to create.” [14]

[15]

When Washington replied to the leaders of the “New Port” congregation, he echoed their words and made a promise to the Jews. This new “good government” will offer, he wrote, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” The “children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land” will do well so long as they “demean themselves as good citizens.”

[16]

Rhode Island would take until 1842 to replace its colonial charter with a state constitution.

The congregations from the six communities Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah were supposed to jointly address President Washington. In 1789, the leader of Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia, Manuel Josephson suggested the community sent a united congratulatory message to the new president. Josephson was a German immigrant and he served as a sutler for Britain during the French and Indian War. In 1762 until the outbreak of the American Revolution, Josephson served as the President of Shearith Israel. Afterward, Josephson fled to Philadelphia with the majority of Jewish Patriots. Josephson rose to be a communal leader in Philadelphia and in 1785 he became the president of Mikveh Israel.

The congregations could not agree on the address to the president and Newport was reluctant to join the larger Jewish congregations in the letter. Newport was reluctant to address the president before other groups in the state, “As we are so small in number, it would be treating the Legislature and other bodies in this state, with a great degree in indelicacy, for us to address the President… previous to any of them.” [17]

The congregations all ended up sending similar letters to the president. The Jewish community in Savannah was the first, followed by Newport. Hirshfeld recounts, “Instead, of a single, strong, unifying message to the president at the beginning of his term in office, the six American congregations each went its own way.” [18] The Savannah Jewish community decided not to wait and on May 6, 1790, they sent their letter to President Washington. Levi Sheftall, the president of the Hebrew Congregation Mikve Israel wrote the letter to Washington.

[19]

President Washington responded in a letter considered by historians as “gracious and flowing diction.” [20]

Shearith Israel did not give up in the quest to address the president as a group. On June 20, 1790, the New York Congregation, including president Solomon Simson and the trustees represented by Isaac Moses sent a letter to the remaining four congregations asking them to collaborate on a letter.

[21]

Shearith Israel remained upset with the Savannah congregation, writing, “We do not by any means, conceive ourselves well treated by the Georgians, who have officiously come forward without any previous notice . . . as nothing of that nature could have been required of them, unless done on a general plan.” [22] This time the Newport congregation agreed to participate but remained skeptical at upstaging the Christians in the state. On July 2, 1790, Moses Seixas replied for Newport stating, “Notwithstanding our reluctance of becoming the primary addressers from this state.” [23] Newport, however, did not want to write their own letter for consideration deferring to Shearith Israel to make the decisions. The Newport Congregation wrote, “Your sentiments will be properly express’d & , relative to the Enfranchisement which is secured to us Jews by the Federal Constitution.” [24]

Beth Elohim in Charleston agreed to a joint address but submitted a draft for Shearith Israel to consider. The congregation praised Washington and compared the president to “Moses, Joshua, Othniel, Gideon, Samuel, David, Maccabeus and holy men of the old, who were raised up by God, for the deliverance of our nation, His people from their oppression.” [25] Despite, having the approval of two other congregations, Shearith Israel did not write the address within the month.

In August 1790, President Washington planned to tour Rhode Island and although Jeshuat Israel was reluctant to appear presumptuous they decided to write a letter to present to the president on his trip. The Newport Congregation would no longer be the ones in the state to address Washington, the Presidents of the State Legislature and the King David Lodge of Masons were delivering addresses to President Washington. Of all the addresses the reluctant Newport Congregation would have the one best remembered in history for its content and message and Washington’s response to it.

Moses Seixas personally read the letter to the president and the President also responded to the congregation. Washington’s words became the personal promise and contract between the new American nation and its small Jewish population that they are guaranteed religious freedom and equality as all any other “good citizen” of the country. “No longer were Jews living with toleration, they were equal citizens guaranteed religious freedom.

The Newport Jewish community was very small when Washington came to Rhode Island in 1790. Faber recounts, “Newport as a whole declined as a result of the conflict and ultimately sank into obscurity as a commercial center. By 1800, therefore, Newport disappeared as a center of Jewish settlement in early America.” [26] The synagogue stopped services in 1792 and closed because there were not enough Jews in Newport left to conduct services. Reiss indicates, “The Jewish population decreased as the economy decreased. By 1789, there were ten Jewish families with 75 members. By 1820, there were only two Jewish families, and the last Jew left for New York in 1822.” [27] Lopez had donated the synagogue’s Torah, and after the congregation closed down the building the scrolls were sent to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and kept in their Ark. The synagogue reopened 50 years later when the Jewish community grew through immigration.

Shearith Israel, New York’s Jewish congregation missed out on taking the lead to address the president and would only write a congratulatory letter in December. They found their opportunity when the government decided to move the capital from New York to Philadelphia and when Washington arrived they sent him a joint-congratulatory address. Hirschfeld recounts, “The four remaining congregations — Charleston, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York — after lengthy bickering, finally got their act together and presented their joint address to the president, including an apology for the delay.” [28] The four congregations finally sent the letter to President Washington on December 13, 1790, four months after Newport sent their letter. Matthew Josephson, the President of Mikveh Israel presented the address to the president, reading it personally to Washington.

According to Hirschfeld, “compared to the Savannah and Newport addresses, this one was tepid — nor did it have any real or meaningful Jewish theme.” [30]

Washington responded:

[31]

Still, despite being less memorable in both American and American Jewish history Washington’s response to the four congregations remained committed to religious freedom for American Jews. Washington’s opening line confirmed his resolve about freedom and equality; “The liberality of sentiment toward each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this Country, stands unparalleled in the history of Nations.”

Washington’s promise to American Jewry convinced most of the states to lift the political restrictions on Jews and religious minorities. Some states, however, held out deep into the nineteenth century, however, most states gave in by 1830 and granted Jews political rights and equality. Still, for the majority of American Jews, there was a promise of equality. At the time of the Newport and Washington correspondence, eleven states did not grant all Jews political rights. Soon afterward, “The last laws that allowed Jews and others to be kept out of political life because of their religion were eliminated.” [32] Later in 1790, South Carolina and Pennsylvania granted Jews political equality. In 1792, Delaware extended these rights, and then Georgia in 1798.

As it turned to the nineteenth century, seven states still tied political participation to Christianity. The Jewish communities of these states continued to lobby for their equality. After the Revolution, the Jewish community in Baltimore grew. Maryland had been one of the least tolerant colonies and that mindset remained as a state. Merchant Reuben Etting lobbied the state legislature repeatedly with petitions that allow Jews to participate in political life. Diner recounts, “In 1826, after a very heated debate, the Maryland state legislature passed the “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to hold political office.” Two states waited until after the Civil War and Reconstruction to give Jews full political rights, “New Hampshire removed its last legal restrictions on Jews in 1877, North Carolina in 1885.” [33]

Overtures like those given to Francis Salvador allowing him an opportunity to shape the new nation gave American Jews a promise that soon would obtain the political equality that was elusive for most of the Jewish population worldwide. Salvador’s firsts for American Jewry, the first elected to serve in Revolutionary Congress and the first Jew to die in battle during the Revolutionary War opened up the door for equality to American Jewry in the new nation. Salvador and other Jews’ contributions to the fight for independence, whether financial, military, political or their lives in battle would lead to the reward of equality. America would become the beacon of hope for Jews living in oppressive countries where anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Semitism were virulent, violent, and a way of life. Throughout the nineteenth, Jews would swell America’s shores from Europe and beyond, because it was the only country in the world to allow Jews to be part of their promise that all men were created equal.

[1] Hasia R. Diner, , (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 57.

[2] PAUL F. BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” Southwest Review, vol. 47, no. 2, 1962, pp. 120–127. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43467381, 123.

[3] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[4] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

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

[6] Diner, , 7.

[7] Eli Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Marc L. Raphael, , (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 39.

[8] George M Goodwin and Ellen Smith, , (Waltham, Mass: Brandeis Univ. Press, 2004), 3.

[9] Diner, , 23.

[10] Goodwin and Smith, , 3.

[11] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, , 26.

[12] Oscar Reiss, , (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2004), 53.

[13] Hirschfeld, , 146.

[14] Diner, , 7.

[15] https://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/tsf-intro-menu/slom-scholarship/85-seixas-letter

[16] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790–30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135

[17] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[18] Hirschfeld, , 139.

[19] https://circle.org/jsource/george-washingtons-letters-to-the-synagogues/

[20] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 123.

[21] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[22] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124; “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[23] BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[24] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[25] Ibid., BOLLER, “George Washington and the Jews,” 124.

[26] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” 28.

[27] Reiss, , 54.

[28] Hirschfeld, , 139.

[29] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 7, 1 December 1790–21 March 1791, ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[30] Hirschfeld, , 139.

[31] “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Richmond, 13 December 1790,” National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036. [Original source: , Presidential Series, vol. 7, , ed. Jack D. Warren, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 61–64.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0036

[32] Hasia R. Diner, , (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 33.

[33] Diner, , 41.

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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.

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