George Washington commander in chief of the American forces in the Revolutionary War and first president of the United States. So far as can be ascertained, Washington’s Jewish associations were exclusively official, and despite claims in earlier Jewish sources, no Jew ever served him as aide-de-camp.
Three members of the Franks family had dealings with him. In 1758, when Washington took command of Braddock’s defeated forces in western Pennsylvania, he applied to David Franks (1720–1794) of Philadelphia for supplies. Franks served as agent for a British syndicate quartermastering British colonial forces and was banished behind the British lines for his loyalist sympathies in 1778.
The Jew whom Washington came to know best was David Solebury Franks (c. 1742–1793), who joined the patriot forces in Montreal in 1776. By June 1778, he was aide-de-camp to General Benedict Arnold, commandant at Philadelphia. Two years later Franks was on Arnold’s staff when the latter turned traitor, but he was later exonerated from all charges. Franks continued functioning as a military and diplomatic courier, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In November 1789, as secretary of a commission to the Creek Indians, he dined with the commissioners at Washington’s table. The yellow fever epidemic that killed Franks brought Washington in touch with Isaac W. Franks (1759–1822). In the fall of 1793, Washington sought a suburban presidential mansion outside disease-ridden Philadelphia; he rented Franks’ Germantown house.
Solomon Bush (1753–1795) served under Washington as a captain of a Pennsylvania battalion in the Battle of Long Island. He rose to lieutenant-colonel, the highest rank achieved by a Jew on active duty. Philip Moses Russell (1747–1830) served as surgeon’s mate with Virginia regiments from 1775 to 1778, becoming ill as the result of his ministrations at Valley Forge. In applying for a pension his widow stated that he had received a letter of commendation from General Washington.
The Prager family, merchants from Holland, settled in Philadelphia, ignoring their Jewish origins. In July 1784 Washington furnished one of them with letters of introduction and, three years later, while attending the Constitutional Convention, Washington dined at the Prager home.
Washington was inaugurated as president of the United States on April 30, 1789. Within one week, Levi Sheftall, as president of the newly reorganized Savannah Hebrew congregation, penned a congratulatory letter which Washington acknowledged. Savannah’s hasty action embarrassed Shearith Israel Congregation, located in the then capital city of the U.S., New York. Its leadership delayed until June 1790 before inviting the congregations in Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Richmond to join in preparing a message to the president. Newport declined because Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution. However, when Washington made a visit to Newport on August 17, 1790, Moses Seixas, as president of that congregation, and as grand master of the masonic lodge, presented two letters to Washington. For the congregation, he wrote extolling a government, “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance….” In his response, Washington repeated these phrases. When Shearith Israel continued to procrastinate, Manuel Josephson, president of the Philadelphia congregation, took the occasion of the government’s move to Philadelphia to present the congratulations of the four remaining Hebrew congregations on December 13, 1790.
J.C. Fitzpatrick (ed.), Writings of George Washington, 39 vols. (1931–442), index; idem, Diaries of George Washington, 4 vols. (1925), index: F.B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army (1914, repr. 1967), index; J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 vols. (1952–55), index; idem, American Jewry: Documents Eighteenth Century (1959), index; E. Wolf II and M. Whiteman, History of the Jews of Philadelphia (1957), index; M.U. Schappes, Documentary History of the Jews in the U.S. 1654 – 1875 (19522), index
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.