OTD in History… September 7, 1787, Jonas Philips asks George Washington to give Jews equality in the United States Constitution

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

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, September 7, 1787, Jewish Philadelphia merchant Jonas Philips wrote to President of the Constitutional Convention George Washington asking that the Constitution grant American Jews religious freedom and equality. Despite the American promise of civil rights and liberties, American Jews did not receive them by most of the original states of the new United States of America. All of the states except for New York did not grant Jews equality for political participation in their state constitutions. New York again became the first to grant Jews full equality. In 1777, New York removed all obstacles and religious prerequisites for office holding.

In the early years of the new nation, state governments started to remove Christianity and Protestantism as a prerequisite from their constitutions. Jewish loyalty during the Revolutionary War played a major part in their political inclusion. Jonathan Sarna indicates in his article, “The Impact of The American Revolution on American Jews,” “Jews realized that they could only win equality in popular eyes by demonstrating that being Jewish in no way conflicted with being American. They had to prove that non-Christians could still be loyal and devoted citizens. As we have seen, they had taken major steps in this direction simply by fighting in America’s great war. This justified their being granted legal equality in the first place.” [1]

The Constitutional framers’ belief in the Enlightenment’s philosophy on religious freedoms led to “the development of complete church-state separation in America-the post-Revolutionary development that was of greatest significance to Jews.” [2] Historian Eli Faber explains, “The American Revolution, therefore, was a decisive turning point when examined in the context of Jewish exclusion from the political realm. It proved to be a milestone in the shift from the status of an outsider to that of a participant in the civic order. Moreover, it provided ammunition for the struggle that yet lay ahead for equality of citizenship.”[3]

Although the colonies fought for their civil rights and liberties against Britain, most of the colonies did not extend that invite for political equality to their Jewish population in the constitutions. As Faber explains, “For despite the heady talk before and during the revolution about natural rights and the equality of all men, as well as the definition of the struggle with England as one to secure civil rights and liberties, twelve of the thirteen state constitutions adopted during the course of the conflict prescribed religious tests for voting and serving in office that continued to bar Jews.” [4] In 1777, New York became the only state to allow Jews to vote and hold office. The remaining nine states that created new constitutions made Christianity a requirement for “political participation.” Connecticut and Rhode Island did not create constitutions early on, instead, using their colonial charters that did not grant Jews political rights.

In 1783, Pennsylvania’s Jews protested the state adding to their constitution a requirement that those holding offices have to swear on both the Old and New Testament Bibles. They argued that participation in the Revolutionary War should have guaranteed them political rights.

…By the tenth section of the frame of government of this commonwealth, it is ordered that each member of the general assembly of representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe a declaration, which ends in these words, “I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration,” to which is added an assurance, that “no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state.”

Your memorialists beg leave to observe, that this clause seems to limit the civil rights of your citizens to one very special article of the creed; whereas by the second paragraph of the declaration of the rights of the inhabitants, it is asserted without any other limitation than the professing the existence of God, in plain words, “that no man who acknowledges the being of a God can be justly deprived or abridged of any civil rights as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments.” But certainly, this religious test deprives the Jews of the most eminent rights of freemen, solemnly ascertained to all men who are not professed atheists.

May it please your honors: Although the Jews in Pennsylvania are but few in number, yet liberty of the people in one country, and the declaration of the government thereof, that these liberties are the rights of the people, may prove a powerful attractive to men, who live under restraints in another country. Holland and England have made valuable acquisitions of men, who for their religious sentiments, were distressed in their own countries. [5]

Pennsylvania did not respond to the Jewish petition for “equal citizenship.”

In 1785, Virginia, the home of the Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson granted all citizens equality. Jefferson wrote the “Act for Religious Freedom (1785),” which separated civil rights and religion, “all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”[6] The Virginia Legislature “proclaimed religious freedom, disestablished the Episcopalian Church, and abolished all religious tests for participation in public life.” At that point, Virginia joined New York to provide Jews equal rights. Few Jews lived in Virginia at that time, “the acquisition of political equality hardly occurred because of Jewish initiative; the ideology and principles that emanated from the Revolution, after all did count too.” [7]

As the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia Jewish leaders tried to convince the Founding Fathers and Constitutional framers to grant American Jews equality in the new nation’s constitution. They argued about natural rights but also brought up the Jewish sacrifices and loyalties during the American Revolution. On September 7, 1787, Jonas Philips wrote to President of the Convention George Washington. Phillips fought in the Revolutionary War; he was an American success story. In 1756, he came from Germany to Charleston as an indentured servant and rose up to become a successful New York merchant and one of the founders of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikve Israel. Philips married Rebecca Marchado and they had 21 children, two of their offsprng became prominent in American history. Their “daughter Rachel married Michael Levy of Virginia” their son Uriah Phillips Levy served as a “commodore in the navy,” while their other son “Jonas Philips Levy, commanded the U.S.S. America in the Mexican War and became captain of the port of Vera Cruz.” [8]

When he wrote the letter, Jonas was unaware the Constitutional Convention already adopted religious freedom, James Madison wrote, “No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the United States.”

Jonas rationalized equality for Jews to Washington in the letter:

“It is well Known among all the Citizens of the 13 united states that the Jews have been true and faithfull whigs; and during the late contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the states with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the cause, have bravely fought and bleed for Liberty which they can not Enjoy.

Therefore if the honourable Convention shall in their Wisdom think fit and alter the said oath and leave out the words to viz. — and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the new testement to be given by devine inspiration, then the Israelites will think themself happy to live under a government where all Religious societys are on an Eaquel footing. I solecet this favour for my Self my Children and posterity and for the benefit of all the Israelites through the 13 united states of America.” [9]

Although he wanted equality for American Jews, Phillips started his letter with both the Jewish and English calendar dates. Diner thinks the framers did not consider Phillips’s letter. Dinner explains, “No doubt the framers paid little attention to Phillips’s letter, which he boldly dated ‘24th Ellul 5547 or Spr 7th 1787.’ They spent little time on matters of religion. Yet what they produced indeed conformed to his vision and proved to be transformative.” The framers decided to separate religion and state and make the country a secular nation that allowed all citizens to serve equally at the federal level.

Historian Hasia Diner explains the Constitution, “had nothing to say about the Jews, or about religion at all. By avoiding discussion of the role religion played in the governance of the new nation, the authors made it a voluntary matter. The document never mentioned, either directly or indirectly, any divine being who served as the ultimate source of political authority. It made no invocations to God. Rather, it spoke in the name of ‘We, the people.’” [10] American Jews “Like the Catholics, they also heartily endorsed the work of the Constitutional Convention and rejoiced especially that religious tests for office-holding (which still existed in most of the thirteen states) were prohibited in the Federal Constitution.”[11]

[1] Sarna, Jonathan D. “THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION ON AMERICAN JEWS,” Modern Judaism — A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience, Volume 1, Issue 2, September 1981, Pages 149–160, https://doi.org/10.1093/mj/1.2.149, 153.

[2] Ibid., Sarna, “THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION ON AMERICAN JEWS,” 154.

[3] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 37–38.

[4] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 38.

[5] https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/petition-of-the-philadelphia-synagogue-to-the-council-of-censors-of-pennsylvania/

[6] Sarna, “THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION ON AMERICAN JEWS,” 153.

[7] Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 38.

[8] Oscar Reiss, The Jews in Colonial America. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2004, 156.

[9] “To George Washington from Jonas Phillips, 7 September 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0291. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5, 1 February 1787–31 December 1787, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997, pp. 317–319.]

https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0291

[10] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 55–56.

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

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.

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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