In 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal," Maryland adopted a constitution which provided that "all persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty," and required that any person appointed or elected to a public office would have to take an "oath of support and fidelity to the state ... and a declaration of belief in the Christian religion."The new nation established, the Constitution adopted and the Bill of Rights enacted, Solomon Etting, head of a pioneer Jewish family of Baltimore, "and others" petitioned the Maryland Assembly in 1797 "to be placed on the same footing as other good citizens." The petition was termed "reasonable," but was not acted upon, a fate which annually befell subsequent petitions. In 1804, the struggle lapsed, not to be taken up again for fourteen years. In 1818, a champion arose in the person of Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates who-together with Ebenezer S. Thomas, Colonel William G. D. Worthington, Judge Henry M. Brackenridge, and others-waged an eight-year, often acrimonious battle. In Speeches on the Jew Bill by H. M. Brackenridge, Philadelphia, 1829, the author adds a footnote to his speech of 1818:
Fortunately, the Library does have a copy of the Kennedy speech in pamphlet form, Civil and Religious Privileges (Baltimore), 1823. We cite one passage:
An enfranchising bill was passed in 1825 and confirmed a year later. In that year, 1826, three decades after framing the original petition, Solomon Etting was elected to the City Council and eventually rose to be its president.In 1840, the head of a Franciscan monastery in Damascus disappeared. Thirteen Jews, including three rabbis, were accused of murdering the monk to use his blood for ritual purposes. Sixty-three Jewish children were taken hostage to force confessions, which were extracted under torture and later recanted by those tortured. Eventually, through the exertions of British and French Jewry, led by Sir Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Cremieux, the surviving accused-two had died under torture-were acquitted and released.
When news of this outrage reached American Jewry, it sprang into action. Meetings to protest the "Damascus Affair" were held in every Jewish community of size, and petitions were sent to the U.S. government urging the use of its good offices to effect the release of the accused undergoing torture. A full account of the meeting held at the Synagogue Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, was published in a pamphlet, Persecution of the Jews in the East, Philadelphia, 1840. Reverend Isaac Leeser, the main speaker, proclaimed that "the Israelite is ever alive to the welfare of his distant brother, and sorrows with his sorrows." Abraham Hart, at thirty already a prominent publisher and communal leader, offered a resolution: "That we invite our brethren of Damascus to leave the land of persecution and torture and seek asylum in this free and happy land." Three leading Christian ministers in the City of Brotherly Love were present to express sympathy and pledge support.
The pamphlet concludes with copies of correspondence from the Jewish communities of Philadelphia and New York to President Martin Van Buren and the answering letters from the Secretary of State. The Jewish communities respectfully requested the president to instruct the American minister to Turkey and the consular officials accredited to the Pasha of Egypt "to co-operate with the Ambassadors and consuls of other powers, to procure for our accused brethren at Damascus and elsewhere an impartial trial ... [and] to prohibit the use of torture." The State Department had already sent such instructions, and those of Secretary of State John Forsyth to David Porter, American Minister to Turkey, sent August 17, 1840, are significant:
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).