In the 1890s, Eastern European Jewish immigrants poured into the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, Chicago’s Maxwell Street, Boston’s North End and other urban neighborhoods. Living and working together, cut off from the broader society, recent Jewish immigrants and their children who could vote were usually willing to support the Democratic Party, which was known for its greater sympathy to the working classes. The Republican Party sought ways, and recruited candidates, who might persuade these Jewish Democrats to abandon their ethno-political solidarity and become “real Americans” -- that is, to vote Republican.
In late October 1899, the Lower East Side was flooded with handbills, printed in Yiddish, signed by “Jewish Members of the Republican State Committee.” The flyers urged Jewish voters to cast their ballots for gubernatorial candidate Theodore Roosevelt, who the year before had led his Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill, in Santiago, Cuba. The Rough Riders’ victory, combined with other American triumphs at sea and on land during the Spanish-American War, led Spain to surrender her colonies in Cuba and the Philippines.
The Yiddish flyers addressed to Jewish voters bore the title, “WHO TAKES REVENGE FOR US?” It’s opening sentence made the answer clear: “Every respectable citizen, every good American and every true Jew, must and will vote for the Republican gubernatorial candidate - Theodore Roosevelt.” In the symbolic calculus of American ethno-religious politics, America’s victory over Spain avenged the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, was the Jews’ leading avenger. The flyer was signed in Yiddish by a group called the “Jewish Republicans.”
Roosevelt was an unlikely hero for Yiddish-speaking tenement dwellers. Descended from patrician, colonial Dutch Calvinist stock, Roosevelt was a wealthy, Harvard-educated outdoorsman and former police commissioner of New York City -- one with little sympathy for the tumultuous social order of the Lower East Side. Nonetheless, American politics has a way of bringing together interesting bedfellows. When Roosevelt campaigned for governor, the Republicans invoked the ghost of the Spanish Inquisition to mobilize Jewish support for his candidacy.
The “Jewish Republicans” reminded the Lower Eastsiders that, during the Inquisition, Jews had been the victims of murderous persecution. “Our ancestors,” the flyer noted, had been “good and useful citizens,” yet the Spaniards mistreated them.
They made rich Spain’s treasury; outfitted the ships which discovered America and gave Spain the power that made her a great nation. How did Spain reward them? Spain took away everything her Jews had, and she sent her Jews to the dungeons of the Inquisition and the fires of the auto da fe.
If this were not enough, the flyer reminded its Yiddish-speaking readers, Spain’s inquisitors pursued their Jewish victims to the New World -- to Brazil, Mexico and especially Cuba -- where, until the Spanish defeat in 1898, “there still rang in our ears the cries and screams of Spain’s brutality.” When Republican President William McKinley “gave the word that Spain should move out of the New World,” Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt “worked day and night until he worked out all the plans for our navy” and then, “at his own, expense organized a Regiment of Rough Riders and went to the battle field to meet the foe. . . Under Roosevelt’s command there were many Jewish Rough riders. Roosevelt was like a brother to them. He recommended them to the president for promotions, and sang their praises to the world.”
The flyer warned that, in this election, Roosevelt -- and the war itself- now stood in judgment before the people of New York. Jewish voters, they made clear, had but one choice:
Every vote for the COLONEL OF THE ROUGH RIDERS is approval of McKinley and the War. Every vote for Roosevelt’s opponent . . . is a vote for Spain. . . .Can any Jew afford to vote against Theodore Roosevelt and thereby express his disapproval of the war against Spain? Vote for Theodore Roosevelt. Vote to express your approval of Spain’s defeat.
Roosevelt failed to carry the Lower East Side and lost New York City as a whole by 60,000 votes, but won the election by carrying the rest of the state by 80,000 votes. A year later, he accepted the Republican nomination for vice president and succeeded to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. In 1904, when Roosevelt ran successfully for re-election, the Republicans once again appealed to New York’s Yiddish-speaking voters to support the hero of San Juan Hill
It is the genius of America’s two-party system that, to win elections, the Democrats and Republicans must both provide “big tents” to accommodate diverse ethnic and religious constituencies. As the Jewish Republican campaign for Roosevelt illustrated, despite their criticisms of Jewish and other immigrants’ failure to disappear into the so-called American “melting pot,” they were willing to play on Jewish communal memory and emotion for the sake of winning elections.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society