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From Sea to Shining Sea: Rights at Home and Abroad

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:

This speech was published in a pamphlet form by the Jews of Baltimore, and widely circulated. The bill had been lost, but public attention was awakened to the subject, both in Maryland and other states, and the matter was afterwards brought before the legislature, at each succeeding session. It gained strength, and after a struggle of six or seven years, prevailed. In Baltimore, it became a sine qua non of the election of the delegate, to avow himself in favor of it. The speeches of Mr. Worthington, and of Mr. Tyson .. are published in this volume. I regret I have not the speech of Mr. Kennedy... the first mover, and indefatigable supporter of the bill.

The pro-Jew Bill speeches of H.M. Brackenridge, W.G.D. Worthington and John Tyson are included in this volume of Brackenridge speeches. The note by the author on his address states that it was at the time, in 1818, “published by the Jews of Baltimore, and widely circulated.” This is the most direct statement we have of the involvement of the Maryland Jewish community in the promotion of the Jew Bill, which began in 1818 and was successfully concluded after eight years of persistent advocacy in 1826.

H.M. Brackenridge, Speeches on the Jew Bill, Philadelphia 1829. General Collections

Fortunately, the Library does have a copy of the Kennedy speech in pamphlet form, Civil and Religious Privileges (Baltimore), 1823. We cite one passage:

What does our test law say to the Hebrews: It tells them that they shall perform all the duties, and bear all the burthens of citizens without enjoying common privileges ... We tell them your son may be all that is wise and good, he may take the first honors at school ... let him be as wise and patriotic as Washington, he never can represent the people in the legislature, or command them in the militia.... This bill ought to pass even if it was only to do justice to the long oppressed Hebrew; but it is not for their benefit alone; it is establishing a general principle ... sanctioned by reason, by religion and by common sense ... approved by the patriots of the revolution, sanctioned by wisdom and virtue and tested by experience ... Let us pass this bill ... even on a dying pillow it will comfort us to think that we have done at least one good act in our lives ... establishing religious freedom in Maryland ...

      Lay old superstition low
Let the oppressed people go,
     To the Bill none say no,
     Aye! unanimously.

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.

A reprint in pamphlet form of an account of a meeting held a the Mikveh Israel Congregation, Philadelphia, on August 27, 1840, to protest the persecution - imprisonment, torture and execution - visited upon the Jewish community of Damascus, Syria, to which the Pennsylvania Inquirer and the Daily Courier had devoted two-thirds of their news pages. The cause of the atrocities was the medieval blood libel accusation, which, after erupting over the centuries in England and Europe, now revived in the Near East. The intervention of the U.S. government marked one of its earliest involvements in the cause of human rights outside its borders.

Persecution of the Jews in the East. Philadelphia, 1840. General Collection

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:

the President has directed me to instruct you to do everything in your power with ... the Sultan ... to prevent and mitigate these horrors.... The President is of the opinion that from no one can such generous endeavors proceed with so much propriety and effect, as from the Representative of a friendly power, whose institutions, political and civil, place on the same footing, the worshippers of God, of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jew and the Christian.

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