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In the New World: At the Birth of the Nation

Raphael Mahler begins his monumental History of the Jews in Modern Times with the birth of the United States of America, which, he argues, marked for the Jews a revolutionary change from bestowed tolerance to equal rights. A map celebrating the birth of this nation, The United States of America laid down From the best -Authorities Agreeable to the Peace of 1783, might then be considered a document of Jewish history. Published in London by John Wallis on April 3, 1783, five months before the final signing of the Treaty by the American delegation headed by Benjamin Franklin, it is particularly noteworthy for its cartouche. At the top is a heralding angel, sounding a trumpet, laurel wreath in one hand, a flag of thirteen bars and thirteen stars in the other. On one side is George Washington ushering in Lady Columbia with a freedom cap on her staff. On the other is Benjamin Franklin, quill in hand, writing. Above him stand owl-helmeted Wisdom and blindfolded Justice, sword and scales in hand, against a background of Northern pine and Southern pineapple. This map, heralding the peace and freedom which came to America, was published in London.

In 1795, there appeared in London a curious little volume in Hebrew, Ma-amar Binah L'Itim (An Essay on the Understanding of the Times), by one who called himself Elyakim ben Avraham. It was a rather rambling work on Messianic speculation, and particularly on when the Messiah will appear. Basing his prediction on an interpretation by Raphael Levi of Hanover (whom our author does not credit), Elyakim concludes that 1783 is the year, but that was already a dozen years past, so he informs the reader that the drama of Messianic redemption had begun in 1783 and would have its culmination in 1840. To document his conclusions, he points to an event of Messianic import which occurred in the year 1783:

Know then, that the year 1783 was indeed the End of Days. in that year peace and freedom was declared for the inhabitants of America. From there that light of freedom spread and reached France. it continues to light up the world, urging the world to rid itself of its abominations.

Elyakim ben Avraham was, in fact, the pen name of Jacob Hart, a Londonborn Jew, a jeweler by trade, who became the finest Jewish scholar of his generation in England. His five published works, all written in excellent literary Hebrew, show him to be a man of broad culture, acquainted with the classical philosophers Socrates and Plato and such contemporary scientists as Newton and Descartes. A proud Englishman, he writes, "Descartes did not reach to Newton's ankles"; as a perceptive Jew, he saw the birth of a new nation under freedom as an event of cosmic significance.

London-born Jacob Hart took the pen name Elyakim ben Avraham to publish five small Hebrew volumes. Among them was Ma'amar Binah L'Itim, an essay on messianic speculation, in which he argues that the year 1783 was the prophesied "End of Days." He documents his assertion on the final page of his essay, the page before us:

Know then, that the year 1783 was indeed the End of Days. In that year peace and freedom was declared for the inhabitants of America [the reference is to the Treaty of Paris]. From there that light of freedom spread and reached France. It continues to light up the world.

Elyakim ben Avraham (Jacob Hart), Ma'amar Binah L'Itim, London, 1795. Hebraic Section.

In June 1783, there appeared an anonymous article, "Letter of a German Jew to the President of the Congress of the United States of America" in Deutsches Museum, a Leipzig periodical. it reads, in part:

Many of us have learned with much satisfaction, from the peace made by the mighty American states with England, that wide tracts of land have been ceded to them which are as yet almost uninhabited. More than a century may elapse before the inhabitants of the thirteen united provinces will so increase as to populate ... the land which is possessed.... Your religion cannot prohibit you from leaving these deserts to us for cultivation; besides you have for a long time been tolerating Jews among you ... You have the legislative power in your hands, and we ask no more than to be permitted to become subjects of these thirteen states, and would gladly contribute two-fold taxes if we can obtain permission to establish colonies at our own cost to engage in agriculture, commerce and the arts ... Supposing that two thousand families would settle in the desert of America and convert it into a fertile land, will the old inhabitants of the provinces suffer thereby? Let the conditions be stated to us, gracious President, under which you will admit us.

The bulk of the "Letter" is given to describing the intolerable social, political, and economic conditions under which German Jews lived.

The title page of this small pamphlet states that Moses Mendelsohn [sic] published this Letter of a German Jew to the American President. Neither is correct: no letter was sent, Mendelssohn did not write one, and it is unlikely that it was written by a Jew. What is significant is that the freedom enjoyed by the Jews of America was invoked in this plea for Jewish emancipation in Germany, which was first published in a German periodical in 1783.

Schreiben eines Deutschen Juden an den amerikanischen Prasidenten O,** Frankfurt und Leipzig, 1787. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Four years later, the "Letter" was republished as a small pamphlet, Schreiben eines Deutschen Juden an den nordamerkanischen Prasidenten O** (A Letter of a German Jew to the American President 0..), Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1787. The title page states that it was published by Moses Mendelsohn (sic) and contains a purported letter from him to an Isaac Tr—n.:

You have probably read Mr. D—'s excellent work on the civic improvement of the Jews; if not, then read this brief essay in form of a letter by a German Jew to the President of the Congress of the United States of America, in which he sums up all one may find in his abovementioned work.

There is general agreement that both article and pamphlet were written and issued in support of German Jewry's campaign for political emancipation. The Library's copy of the pamphlet points to the perception of America as a prospective haven and home for the oppressed Jews of Europe and the understanding by European Jews that the freedoms extended to Jews in this New World of the new nation can be used in the struggle for freedom and equality by Jews of the Old. As indeed it was!

Through its Declaration of Independence, America proclaimed equality and promised full freedom, but promise and reality were not identical. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the "Father of Jewish Enlightenment, " in a footnote appended after he had completed his magisterial plea for freedom of religion and conscience and the separation of church and state, Jerusalem (Berlin, 1783), notes sadly, "Alas, we hear also that the Congress in America is singing the old tune, and speaking of an established religion." Could he have been alarmed by the publication of the Aitken Bible a year earlier, which stated:

That the United States in Congress assembled approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in the country ... they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.

The "edition of the Bible" recommended by Congress was Protestant and contained the New Testament, which the Jewish Bible does not, and did not include the Apocrypha, which the Catholic Bible does.

The first printing of an English Bible on American soil (editions in "the Indian language" and in German had preceded it) and the only edition of the Bible ever to be recommended by the Congress of the United States. it has been called "The Bible of the Revolution" because of its publication at the birth of the American nation. Furthermore, because publication of the Bible in English was forbidden by the mother country in her colonies, its very publication before the signing of the Treaty of Paris was a revolutionary act, a declaration of independence by its publisher Robert Aitken.

The Holy Bible ... Newly Translated out of the Original Tongues. . ., Philadelphia, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Library of Congress copy contains the preliminary two pages recording the authorization proceedings of this edition. The first was a petition by the publisher, Robert Aitken, January 21, 1781. The petition was then referred to the chaplains of "the United States in Congress assembled," who stated that "being ourselves witnesses to the demand for this invaluable book, we rejoice in the present prospect of supply." Two days later, on September 10, 1782, the Congress approved. These actions took place a dozen years before the Bill of Rights. The publication of a Bible in America was yet another expression of the new nation's independence from the mother country, which heretofore had maintained a monopoly on Bible publications in English.

Far more ominous to the Jews of the new nation was the publication of Cursory Remarks on Men and Measures in Georgia, n. p., 1784, an anonymous pamphlet by one who signed himself "A Citizen." It contains a forceful legal argument that in 1784 the Jews in the state of Georgia shared the same legal status as the Jews of England in 1732, when Georgia was granted its charter. By extension, the author implied that such legal status would apply to Jews in other states as well. His basic assertion was that, in the various states, Jews had no inherent rights, only such rights as the legislatures of the various states had granted them. Reasoned argument soon descends into unbridled bigotry, reviving the vilest anti-Semitic canard, the blood libel accusation. The pamphlet was a reminder that bigotry dies hard, even in the nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal ... and endowed with inalienable rights."

The anonymous pamphleteer declares:

After having said so much against the Jews, it may probably be suspected that I am not only an enemy, but that I wish to stir up intolerance against that dispersed and unhappy people. Let me tell the reader, I am as far removed from being a votary or friend to persecution as any man upon the earth. Had the Jews of this state but conducted themselves with common modesty and decorum ... But we see these people eternally obtruding themselves ... one day assuming the lead in an election, the next taking upon them to direct the police of the town, and the third daring to pass as jurors upon the life and death of a free man, what are we to expect but to have Christianity enacted into a capital heresy, the synagogue to become the established church, and the mildness of the New Testament compelled to give place to the rigour and severity of the old?

The irrational bias of such accusation must have been self-defeating, for we find no record of rejoinder; but to be reminded that leaving the Old World did not mean leaving its hatred behind alerted the Jews as to how much had yet to be done to match reality to promise.

Only four years later, on July 9, 1788, the Pennsylvania Packet reported on the July 4 celebration of the "establishment of the Constitution":

The clergy of almost every denomination united ... the clergy of the different Christian denominations, with the Rabbi of the Jews, walking arm in arm.

A decade later, in 1798, the Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, Hazzan-Minister of the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York, in a Discourse Delivered in the Synagogue in New York on the Ninth of May, 1798, Observed As a Day of Humiliation, etc., etc. Conformably to a Recommendation of the President of the United States of America, was pleased to state:

It hath pleased God to establish us in this country where we possess every advantage that other citizens of these states enjoy, which is as much as we could in reason expect in this captivity.

The reservation expressed in the last clause is in part due to Seixas's pious faith in messianic redemption, and in part to his candid perception that Jews might possess "every advantage," but were not yet accorded full acceptance. He no doubt agreed with what, twenty years later, Jefferson would say to Mordecai M. Noah: "But more remains to be done; for although we are free by law, we are not so in practice."

Much had already been done. The life and career of Gershom Mendes Seixas (1746-1816) is a point in case. Born in New York of a Sefardi father and an Ashkenazi mother, he was both a product of the American milieu and a participant in the young nation's developing society and culture. At age twenty-two, he was appointed hazzan of the New York congregation and in the course of time came to be called "the reverend" and "rabbi" by Jew and Gentile alike. Together with members of his congregation he left New York when it was occupied by the British during the War of Independence and served Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. After the Colonists' victory, Seixas returned to his New York congregation, which he continued to serve with increasing distinction to the end of his life. In 1784, Seixas was made a regent of Columbia College, and served in that capacity until 1815. in grateful tribute, the college struck a medal with his likeness, bearing the legend, "Gershom M. Seixas Congregationis Hebraeae Sacerdos Novi Eboraci" (Priest of the Hebrew Congregation of New York). As an American clergyman, he preached the Discourse at a special service, as did all other American clergymen in response to the call of the president.

Gershom Mendes Seixas, the "patriot rabbi" of the Shearith Israel Congregation, New York, left the city because of the British occupation during the Revolutionary War and did not return till after its liberation Through this Discourse delivered at the synagogue on a national Day of Humiliation, he integrates the synagogue into the new nation's religious landscape. On that day and through this service which was held in response to the "Recommendation of the President of the United States of America," Shearith Israel became an American house of worship as well as a Jewish one.

Rev. G. Seixas, A Discourse. New York, 1798. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

In the endeavor to establish an atmosphere conducive to the fullest acceptance of the Jews into the legal and social fabric of the new republic, much had been accomplished by 1798, and much more was to be accomplished in the decades that followed by the nation's first presidents, as documents in the Library's Manuscript Division demonstrate.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).