Revolutionary Jews

The significance of the birth of the US, 231 years ago this week, should never be lost on the Jews.

salomon 88 (photo credit: )
salomon 88
(photo credit: )
For the first time in history, a nation was conceived based on the stated belief - enshrined in a stirring Declaration of Independence promulgated on July 4, 1776 - that "all men are created equal." The inference, later to be codified in the country's Constitution and Bill of Rights, is that "all men regardless of creed" deserve equal treatment and protection under the law. For Jews - persecuted in virtually every land of their dispersion since their exile from ancient Israel, and now living in small numbers in colonial North America - this was a welcome revolutionary development indeed. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between a country's declaring its independence from foreign rule and securing that independence for posterity. Once again, few peoples would understand this distinction better than Israel, which declared its independence in 1948 but immediately had to endure many bloody months of war in order to preserve it. Similarly, almost two centuries earlier, America's colonists were forced to take up arms against the mighty army of the British Empire in defense of their new freedoms. Their struggle, the Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1781 (with skirmishes extending into 1783), was also the adopted cause of Jews in the colonies - and in particular, of prominent Jewish personalities living in the capital city, Philadelphia. Jews in the New World had been thronging to Pennsylvania since that colony's inception. While Rhode Island had become the first colony with de-facto religious freedom, Pennsylvania was the first to be founded de jure on the principle of complete religious freedom (for all those who believed in God), as formulated by William Penn, the British statesman responsible for the establishment of the territory where his fellow Quakers would be free of the persecution they faced in England. Penn's Frame of Government - the democratic system devised for the lands west of New Jersey - was a beacon that attracted not only Quakers from throughout Europe, but also Huguenots (French Protestants), Mennonites, Amish, Lutherans from Catholic German states, and, not surprisingly, Jews. It was his Frame of Government, in fact, that was to serve as the basis of the Constitution of the United States of America. Among the early Jews who settled in Philadelphia was Nathan Levy (1704-53), who joined with co-religionist David Franks (1720-93) to form the first Jewish-owned business in the city. Among other ventures, the firm of Levy & Franks engaged in international shipping - and it was their merchant ship, the Myrtilla, that carried the Liberty Bell from England, where it had been cast in London's Whitechapel Bell Foundry, to America's shores in 1752. (Recently, the question has arisen whether the bell arrived on the Myrtilla in September or on the Hibernia in August; in either event, the Myrtilla, which regularly plied the transatlantic route, was apparently originally scheduled to deliver the bell.) The Liberty Bell itself, of course, derives its name from the Torah; its inscription, quoting Leviticus, famously reads (in bold): "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and [P]roclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof …" The bell, ordered in 1751 by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly for use in the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, bears the reference to the Bible's jubilee year because it was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of William Penn's Charter of Privileges of 1701. It was rung to announce the opening of the First Continental Congress in 1774, as well as after the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. As prominent businessmen and patriots, Levy and Franks moved among the most rarified strata of colonial American society. In 1738, tragedy struck the Levy household when Nathan's young son died. As no provision had yet been made for a Jewish cemetery, Levy applied for a plot of ground to be used as a place of burial. But there was a problem: The concept of "state" or "public" land did not yet exist; all land was privately owned. True to his father's tradition, William Penn's son Thomas personally apportioned a plot of his own family's land for the purpose of the "Jews' burying-ground." Known as the Mikveh Israel Cemetery, from the name of the city's first congregation, it can still be visited today - not adjacent to the synagogue (which is still in daily use), but across the street from Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, moreover, was no less enlightened than the Penns. In 1788, KK Mikveh Israel needed to institute a building campaign and issued a citywide call - to members of all faiths - for donations "under the necessity of earnestly soliciting from their worthy fellow-citizens of every religious denomination, their benevolent aid and help, flattering themselves that their worshipping Almighty God in a way and manner different from other religious societies will never deter the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia from generously subscribing towards the preservation of a religious house of worship." The synagogue pledged that "[T]he subscription paper will be enrolled in the archives of their congregation, that their posterity may know and gratefully remember the liberal supporters of their religious society." Franklin promptly pledged a personal contribution of five pounds (worth approximately $800 today) in support of a synagogue for "the people of the Hebrew society in the city of Philadelphia." In addition, he proudly signed the subscription paper, undoubtedly prompting other citizens to donate as well. (The well-preserved subscription paper, dated April 30, 1788, can still be viewed in Philadelphia's National Museum of American Jewish History.) It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Jews were dedicated to the cause of American independence. In 1765, the famous Non-Importation Resolutions were drawn up, with the names of Jewish citizens appended to them; in accordance with those resolutions, adopted October 25, 1765, merchants and other citizens of Philadelphia agreed "not to have any goods shipped from Great Britain until after the repeal of the Stamp Act." The Jewish signers included Benjamin Levy, David Franks, Samson Levy, Hyman Levy, Jr., Mathias Bush, Moses Mordecai, Michael Gratz and Barnard Gratz. (Michael's daughter Rebecca, a true "woman of valor" in the biblical tradition, is said to be the model for Sir Walter Scott's Jewish heroine in his novel Ivanhoe.) There were also Jews who fought for freedom in the literal sense: Francis Salvador, nicknamed the "Jewish Paul Revere" was the first Jew to die in the American Revolution, on August 1, 1776. He was killed in South Carolina where he was leading a force of 330 frontiersmen against the Cherokee Indians, who had been incited by the British. Although he was only 29 at his death, Salvador had already made a name for himself as a soldier and statesman, and helped draft the South Carolina state constitution. During the most critical phases of the American Revolution, probably the most important Jewish patriot was Haym Solomon, a financier who worked with Robert Morris to raise money for the Continental Congress and George Washington's army. The talents and collaboration of these two brilliant men undoubtedly saved the infant nation from financial disintegration. No less an authority than the Congressional Record reports: "When Morris was appointed [the United States' first] Superintendent of Finance, he turned to Solomon for help in raising the money needed to carry on the war and later to save the emerging nation from financial collapse. Solomon advanced direct loans to the government and also gave generously of his own resources to pay the salaries of government officials and army officers. With frequent entries of 'I sent for Haym Solomon,' Morris's diary for the years 1781-84 records some 75 transactions between the two men." Solomon, the immigrant son of a Polish rabbi and a pillar of Congregation Mikveh Israel, was a successful merchant and banker who accumulated a huge fortune, much of which he put at the disposal of the American government during the Revolution. He was the paymaster-general of the French military forces fighting for the United States, often advancing their salaries out of his own pocket. In addition, he negotiated all of the war aid from France and Holland, even traveling to France to raise an additional £3.5 million from the Sassoon and Rothschild banking houses and families. Ironically, both Morris and Solomon, whose massive loans were never repaid by Congress despite their close personal friendships with president Washington, died penniless. (Defaulting was apparently a common practice of America's early politicians: Another Jewish creditor of the Continental Congress, Aaron Levy, was never fully repaid, either.) Solomon's obituary in his hometown Independent Gazetteer newspaper read: "Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Solomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city." His unassuming grave is now flanked by plaques in the Mikveh Israel cemetery.