The Seligman-Hilton Affair and ongoing social antisemitism
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, June 13, 1877, Jewish banker Joseph Seligman was denied from staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York because he was “an Israelite.” Seligman fought the ban but in the American hotels would keep banning Jews into the 20th century…
The Seligman-Hilton affair was the one event and era in American Jewish history I always wanted to research and write about further. Although, Stephen Birmingham captured the moment in his famed 1967 book, “Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York.” However, historian Marshall Sklare noted in the Commentary review that the problem with Birmingham’s book was that he blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, imagining conversations between the figures in his book. As Sklare recounts, “At times, he even forgets that he is writing a book of non-fiction.” The moment was pivotal in American Jewish history and started what historian Leonard Dinnerstein called social antisemitism.
On June 13, 1877, at the start of the Gilded Age, Judge Henry Hilton barred Seligman from staying in Saratoga Springs hotel, the Grand Union Hotel, the same Hilton of the later Hilton hotel family, whose connections in American popular culture still run deep. Here was Joseph Seligman, an influential and wealthy German-Jewish banker, the founder of J. & W. Seligman & Co. investment bank, the “most influential Jewish financier,” as Birmingham called him. Seligman was barred from a swanky, highly socially desirable, and largest hotel in the world in upper New York State simply because he is Jewish, or as they said then, an “Israelite.” (130). Seligman was far from an immigrant; he had “Americanized and gentilized.” (135)
Seligman immigrated to the United States from Germany, settling in Pennsylvania. Starting working in a store, he peddled goods like many German-Jewish immigrants did upon arrival. He gained enough money to send for his brothers, William and James, whom they peddled to upon arriving in America, where they first encountered antisemitism in the country. Earning enough money, the brothers created stores in Alabama, but as it did with many Jews, they could not support slavery and moved up north again, this time to New York, where they created J. Seligman and Brothers stores.
The onset of the Civil War led to Seligman’s rise in political circles as he aided the Union with disposing of bonds and selling them uniforms. As Birmingham indicated, “By the war’s end, though he may not have actually “won the war,” Joseph Seligman was very dear to Washington’s heart.” (89). After the war, Seligman was involved in all the country’s major industries, investing in the railroads, steel and wire, and the Standard Oil Company.
Hilton knew that Seligman had connections and roots within American political and social circles when he refused him entry to the hotel. Seligman was friends with two beloved presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, who had just left office earlier in the year. Grant had offered Seligman the Treasury secretary post, which he turned down. (159) Seligman used his influence to ensure the incident was publicized in all major national newspapers. On June 19, 1877, the New York Times reported:
A SENSATION AT SARATOGA.
NEW RULES FOR THE GRAND UNION.
NO JEWS TO BE ADMITTED — MR. SELIGMAN,
THE BANKER, AND HIS FAMILY SENT AWAY —
HIS LETTER TO MR. HILTON —
GATHERING OF MR. SELIGMAN’S FRIENDS
AN INDIGNATION MEETING TO BE HELD
As Dinnerstein recounts in his 1990 book “Antisemitism in America,” “Newspaper editorials differed as to whether Hilton was right or not in barring Jews, but the distasteful episode indicated that no matter how well-to-do or refined Jews might be, they were socially undesirable and some later chroniclers erroneously marked this incident as the beginning of antisemitism in America.” (40)
Historians note that modern Antisemitism in America reached a fever pitch during the Civil War years, and the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia, was the modern peak of violent antisemitism in the nation. Dinnerstein extensively studied Frank in his 1968 book, “The Leo Frank Case” calling it “one of the most infamous outbursts of anti-Semitic feeling in the United States.” (xv)
While the Seligman affair might not have marked the start of antisemitism in the country, afterward-social antisemitism was a weapon against Jews deep into the 20th century and post-Second World War years. Americans used it to bar Jews from clubs, hotels, jobs, and professions. In the post-First World War years, universities used the quota system to prevent young American Jews and then the children of East European immigrants from upward mobility at the source, limiting their numbers in elite universities and professional faculties of medicine and law into the 1950s.
In response to this social antisemitism, American Jews created their clubs, hotels, and resorts, creating the famed Jewish Catskills resorts in upper New York State. Saratoga Springs still did not allow Jews to stay in their hotel through the early 1950s. My mother recalled her maternal uncle and family coming from Philadelphia to visit her family and staying in Montreal each year in August. So he could go down to Saratoga during their horse racing season because he could not stay in their hotels and staying in Montreal seemed more straightforward.
Although by the 1960s, this social antisemitism might have, for the most part ended, we can question whether the rise of anti-Zionism on university campuses is but another manifestation of the quota system of the inter-war years. The university administrations stand by as pro-Palestinian professors and students support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. They isolate Jewish students from the freedom to support Israel on campus, making their involvement in student government difficult and even try to limit funding for Jewish organizations and clubs on campus. Although it did not stop social antisemitism, we all need to be as brave and outspoken as Joseph Seligman was when he was barred from a hotel for being Jewish.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She 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 fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.