Bonnie K. Goodman
Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Journalist and Historian

Jews supported the launch of the American Revolutionary War hoping for equality

The majority of Jews in the American colonies supported the launch of the Revolutionary War. (Image: Collage by Bonnie K. Goodman, Photos all Wikipedia & Wikimedia Commons)

On April 19, 1775, the Patriots won the first Battles of Lexington and Concord

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history, April 19, 1775, we marked the 246th anniversary of the launch of the American Revolution with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. In those battles, where the “shot heard round the world,” American rebels surprised the British regulars taking up arms and winning against the mighty Redcoats. If 1776 had the spirit of independence for Americans, Americans had the spirit for war in 1775. When the thirteen colonies decided to rebel against Britain, fighting for their rights and liberties, most of the 2,500 colonial Jews joined in the fight hoping their liberties would be extended and they would be granted political equality.

By the time of the American Revolution, there were 2,000 to 2,500 Jews living in the colonies; they only represented one-tenth of a percent of the American population, which was about two million.[1] According to Hasia Diner, “Each of the five Jewish communities that existed on the eve of the American Revolution — New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah — has its own history. In each process of initial settlement, the consecration of a cemetery, formation of a congregation, and the building of a synagogue took place. In each Jews, both accepted their status in the larger society and sought to expand the rights they enjoyed.” [2]

There was less anti-Semitism in the American colonies than any nation or kingdom; this allowed Jews more economic, political, and social freedoms than in the rest of the world. Faber observes, “Antisemitism did not throw up barriers that it did in contemporary Europe, where legal restrictions impeded Jewish mercantile and financial enterprise in many jurisdictions. On the contrary: rather than financial restrictions, Jews in the American colonies enjoyed the same access to economic opportunity as their non-Jewish counterparts… Antisemitism, while it certainly existed in the colonies in the form of traditional stereotypes and a few rare but minor, outburst, did not take the violent forms it frequently did in Europe, nor did it encompass the kinds of economic restrictions and legal disabilities that prevailed in many European jurisdictions.”[3]

In July 1776, with American independence, the Second Continental Congress declared, “all men are created equal.” In 1789, the ratified Constitution promised a separation between Church and state. The United States “Constitution provided full legal equality for men and prevented the national government from showing favor or discrimination based on one’s religion.” [4] As Diner notes, “The process began of severing the bonds between religion and citizenship, birthplace and access to full participation in civic life.”[5] An independent America did not regulate religion or houses of worship, and the Bill of Rights granted individual rights that were never seen in the government-controlled countries of Europe. Diner recounts, “The momentous events of the revolutionary era transformed America into a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identities. In its emphasis on freedom of expression, however imperfectly realized, the United States became a society based on consent rather than descent. For the first time, the dissent also trumped descent.”[6]

With these liberties, the small American Jewish population had the opportunity to participate in a full American life like their Christian neighbors. For Jewish Whigs participating, supporting, and fighting in the war for American Independence was an opportunity to be part of the birth of a nation and gain an equal footing with their counterparts. Francis Salvador’s political and military firsts were all for the American cause, and they represented that promise of equality colonial Jews dreamed of obtaining. Still, America considered itself a Protestant Christian nation, and religious minorities remained tolerated, especially in the individual states. American Jewry would use their sacrifices during the war as a bargaining chip to obtain political equality at the federal and state level, which took longer and more convincing to obtain.

When it came to the Revolution, the majority of American Jews sided with the Patriot Whigs. In the years leading up to the Revolution, most American Jews rebelled and protested Britain’s increasing taxes and restrictions on the colonies. Historian Eli Faber notes, “Jews in American began to behave in a strikingly different manner: they began to comport themselves as if they actually had a role to play in public life.” [7] All over the six-port cities where most colonial Jews lived, they were getting more involved. For “several decades” since 1729, the New York colony allowed Jews to participate in public office by removing taking the oath on the Protestant Bible. American Jews were already allowed to participate in municipal politics. In Philadelphia, several Jewish joined their Christian counterparts in protesting the Stamp Act by signing the city’s nonimportation agreement to boycott all trade with Britain.[8] In Savannah, two of the city’s Jews participated in the city’s “committee for revolutionary activities,” one even served as a chairman of the committee.

Most Jews were businessmen, and they objected to the restrictive British policies; the majority of the Jewish Patriots supported independence through financial means, while a minority fought in the militias and army. Some Jews, however, were reluctant to break and rebel against Britain. A few of the wealthy Jewish families in New York, Newport, Philadelphia and were Loyalists. Among the Loyalists include the Franks family, who supplied British forces, Rodrigo Pacheco, Philip Moses, and Abraham Wag in New York, and Isaac Hart of Newport. Whigs forced Loyalist Jews into exile; David Franks left for England, while Isaac Hart fought with the British on Long Island and was killed for his loyalties. Others, including the Gomez, Lopez, and Hays families, were divided between Loyalists or Whigs.[9] When the small number of Jewish families stayed in cities and towns occupied by Britain, they made a statement showing they sided with Britain.[10]

Whig Jews also were forced to leave their homes in British-occupied cities “New York, Newport, Savannah, and Charleston.” American Jewish Patriots also made a statement leaving British occupied cities, proving their loyalty to the American cause. Most of these Patriot Jews joined the already one hundred Jewish families in Philadelphia, swelling the colony and city’s Jewish population, and they remained throughout the war. The community built its first synagogue in 1782 because of the growing population. America’s small Jewish population was mostly affected by the war playing out where they lived. Historian Samuel Rezneck explains, “The Jews were affected by their mere presence as well as by the necessity or opportunity of participation.”[11]

Almost a hundred Jewish Revolutionary soldiers served in the Continental Army and “local and state militias.” Curator and historian Leon Huhner points out, “The Jews of the South during the American Revolution proved conclusively, not only that Jews were staunch Patriots but also that they were willing to shed their blood as well as risk their fortunes in their country’s cause.”[12] Jews did not have much military experience; in most European countries, the governments did not allow Jews to serve as soldiers. As Rezneck indicates, “Jews were not historically or culturally accustomed to military service in the Western world.”[13] Many of the Jews who participated in the war did so because they were locally affected. Considering their numbers, however, American Jews made important contributions to the military aspect of the war. Rezneck describes, “Their role varied from place to place since they were involved in many zones of the war from north to south. Their participation, moreover, ranged from the lowest level of foot soldier to relative higher officer rank and from supply service to actual combat.”[14]

According to historians, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Jewish participants because of the Hebraic and Biblical sound of names in general; intermarriage and conversion. In outlying areas, there may have been some Jews involved that were not counted.[15] Rezneck explains, “Moreover, there is no single standard or common denominator of patriotic service in a Revolution. As the records of membership applications for both the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution a century later indicate, participation ranged widely from actual military service to some other civic and patriotic duty.”[16] Military service ranged from “brief enrollment in a local militia” to volunteering to serve in the Continental Army for a longer time.[17] Their age also varied from the young to the old. Among the oldest involved in fighting in the war was Daniel Gomez, eighty when he volunteered for service and raised a company.[18]

Jewish contributions to the war were “operational” and not related to policy-making, with one rare exception, Francis Salvador. The Jewish population in America was small, and a hundred men represented a good proportion of the Jewish male population. The Jewish men of Charleston joined Captain William Lushington’s company, which as Sachar recounts “became known as the ‘Jew Company.’” Despite their small numbers, Jews held high ranks within the military. As Sachar notes, “Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah was deputy commissary general of issue for Georgia. Colonel Solomon Bush became adjutant general of the Pennsylvania militia. Lieutenant Colonel David S. Franks — a cousin of the Loyalist David Franks — served as adjutant to General Benedict Arnold. Dr. Philip Moses Russell, George Washington’s surgeon, endured the hardships of Valley Forge.”[19]

Patriot Jews also served as “blockade-runners, civilian contractors, and financiers.”[20] Most Jews, who contributed financially, saw their fortunes ruined by aiding the Revolutionary cause. Isaac Moses’ shipments successfully arrived from Amsterdam to the Caribbean island of Saint Eustatius and then to America. Still, Aaron Lopez saw most of the merchant ships seized by the British. Jewish civilian contractors supplied the Continental Army with “clothing, gunpowder, lead, and other needed equipment.” Michael Gratz supplied the army with uniforms, and Joseph Simon provided rifles. Six percent of American Jews outfitted American military ships, with Lopez outfitting the most.[21]

Haym Salomon was the most significant Jewish financier of the Revolutionary cause. Salomon moved from New York to Philadelphia and set about exchanging Continentals bills for French and Dutch currencies. For his services, he only took a meager one percent of the fees. The Continental Congress officially named him “Broker to the Office of Finance of the United States,” and France named him “Treasurer of the French Army in America.”[22] Salomon also provided interest-free loans to “James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, Edmond Randolph, and Generals von Steuben, St. Clair, and Mifflin of the Continental Army. The diaries of Robert Morris, superintendent of finances, contain several appreciative references to the ‘little Jew broker.’” When Salomon died in 1745 at forty-five years old, he was $638,000 in debt to “public and private creditors,” with the government never returning the money they owed him.[23]

Despite Jewish contributions to the Revolutionary War, Jews were not involved with the Declaration of Independence itself. As Diner points out, “No Jews signed the Declaration of Independence. None sat through the deliberations in Philadelphia in 1787 that produced the Constitution, and none helped to persuade the voters in the newly independent states to ratify it.”[24] Diner acknowledged American Jews did play supporting roles. Southern Jew Moses Sheftall “chaired the nonimportation committee in Georgia.”[25] One Jew came close to participating in the decision-making process of independence, Francis Salvador, the only Jew to be elected to the South Carolina Provincial Congress and any legislative body in Colonial America.

On January 11, 1775, Francis Salvador, the first Jew elected to a colonial public office, began his tenure on the revolutionary South Carolina Provincial Congress. Salvador was a recent immigrant to America, having arrived in Charleston, South Carolina from London in 1773, a year later, he was elected to the South Carolina assembly, becoming the first Jew elected to a political body in modern history, and then in 1775, he was reelected to Second Provincial Congress. Salvador became a Whig and supported the colonial revolt and then the fight for independence from Great Britain. Salvador made history again on August 1, 1776, becoming the first Jewish casualty of the American Revolutionary War when a Cherokee native siding with the British killed and scalped him in battle.

According to Rezneck, Salvador “is one of the best-known recorded examples of a Jew, who served the Revolution to the ultimate degree losing his life in it.”[26] While historian Abram Vossen Goodman in his essay “South Carolina from Shaftesbury to Salvador” highlights, that Francis Salvador “was the first Jew in American history, and probably the first Jew in the modern world, to serve in an elective office… His career was not so much a tribute to the man himself as it was a symbol of the atmosphere of goodwill which prevailed in South Carolina.”[27]

Salvador’s story in America mirrored the experience other Jews faced in the new world. By the time of the American Revolution, colonial Jews could live with almost the same rights and freedoms as their Christian counterparts; they experienced freedom unheard of in the old world. They had freedom regarding trade, where they lived, and could even attend university, or hold political office, as Salvador did. They fought for the freedoms along with their revolutionary brothers. As historian Howard Sachar indicates in his book, A History of the Jews in America, “By 1776, the two thousand Jews of colonial America unquestionably were the freest Jews on earth.”[28] While historian Diner compares, “Just as Americans were liberating themselves from British rule and creating new governmental forms, so too were Jews…. In this period of nation-building, American Jews came to enjoy a status unlike any their people had ever known.”[29]

SOURCES

[1] Jonathan D. Sarna, “THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION ON AMERICAN JEWS,” Modern Judaism — A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience, Volume 1, Issue 2, September 1981, Pages 149–160, https://doi.org/10.1093/mj/1.2.149.

[2] Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 26.

[3] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 23.

[4] Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994), x.

[5] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 42.

[6] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 42.

[7] Eli Faber, “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Marc L. Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 27.

[8] Ibid.,Faber “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 37.

[9] Sachar, A History of the Jews in America

[10] Faber “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, 37.

[11] Samuel Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution. Westport: Conn: Greenwood Press, 1975, 21.

[12] Hühner, Leon. “FRANCIS SALVADOR, A Prominent Patriot of the Revolutionary War.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 9, 1901, pp. 107–122. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43058849, 107.

[13] Hühner, “FRANCIS SALVADOR, A Prominent Patriot of the Revolutionary War,” 107.

[14] Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, 22.

[15] Ibid., Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, 22.

[16] Eli, Faber “America’s Earliest Jewish Settlers, 1654–1820,” Marc L. Raphael, The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 27.

[17] Ibid., Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, 22.

[18] Ibid., Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, 23.

[19] Sachar, A History of the Jews in America.

[20] Ibid., Sachar, A History of the Jews in America.

[21] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: a History, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 51.

[22] Sachar, A History of the Jews in America.

[23] Ibid., Sachar, A History of the Jews in America.

[24] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 44.

[25] Ibid., Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, 45.

[26] Rezneck, Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution, 23.

[27] Abram Vossen Goodman, “South Carolina from Shaftesbury to Salvador,” Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary D. Palsson, Jews in the South, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1973), 41.

[28] Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 23.

[29] Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 40, 43.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin "The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South" into a full-length biography.
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