Teaching

The Particular and the Universal Jewish Experiences in Early America

David E. Narrett, May 2013

I've been consistently pleased to see historians embrace the teaching of American/US history in a global context. (See the fine article by Annette C. Palmer and Lawrence A. Peskin, "What in the World Is 'America and the World'?" Perspectives, November 2011.)

In reviewing 10 major textbooks currently published, for example, I find that five make no mention of the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492. Without discussing the expulsion, historians can hardly capture the Christianizing impulse present in Spanish overseas expansion. In light of the expulsion decree and its corollary of limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood), Spanish monarchs prohibited the entry of Jews, Moors, and gypsies to the Indies. Conversos-some of whom were crypto-Jews-did indeed come to royal domains, but such persons could in no way live openly as Jews.

The Inquisition, which was transatlantic in scope, harshly persecuted "judaizers" in 17th-century New Spain. The convicted were subjected to a wide range of punishments, and unrepentant and steadfast Jews were sometimes condemned to burning at the stake. The idea of Jews as symbols of evil persisted in Hispanic societies on both sides of the Atlantic for centuries.Jewish historical experiences are an important nexus between American and global history in the early modern era. For example, the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions weakened Iberian nations while adding to rival states' wealth and power. Sephardi Jewish merchants contributed significantly to 17th-century Dutch commercial might by taking part in multiple endeavors, including the growth of the Caribbean plantation system. Jewish prospects were closely bound to the Netherlands during that country's independence struggle against Spain. From 1645 to 1654, Portugal's ouster of the Dutch in Brazil spurred Jewish settlers' flight to Amsterdam, Hamburg, the Caribbean, and New Netherland. Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish merchants successfully lobbied the Dutch West India Company to protect New Amsterdam's Jews when the latter faced Governor Peter Stuyvesant's anti-Semitic wrath. In the Netherlands, and to some extent in England, mercantilist and commercial influences opened social space for Jews. Charles II offered de facto residency rights to England's Jews in 1664, thereby reversing centuries-old exclusion practices. Jews ventured from England to British colonial ports. Jewish culture thereby spread to new colonial environs that were often less restrictive than Britain itself.

There are numerous works documenting the intersection of Jewish and Atlantic history. Paolo Bernardini and Norman Fiering have edited an eye-opening collection of essays: The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 1450-1800 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001). The Jewish experience in North America is explored in Jonathan D. Sarna's superb overview, American Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and in the five-volume The Jewish People in America, ed. Henry L. Feingold (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). The first two volumes are particularly pertinent to early Americanists: Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820 and Hasia R. Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880.

Several transnational topics and themes emerge from this literature:

  1. Trade, migration, and the development of ethno-religious and economic bonds across national boundaries. Jewish colonials in British North American seaports had wide-ranging ties to fellow Jews in the Caribbean and Europe. They also had commonplace social and economic interchange with Christians. During the mid-1700s, Jews in the British mainland colonies largely overcame internal divisions between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Small communities had to transcend customary rivalries to survive.
  2. The challenge of preserving ethnic and religious traditions in a pluralistic and relatively open social framework. Intermarriages between Jews and Christians, though not the general rule in pre-revolutionary British America, were still common enough to pose difficulties for Jewish colonists desiring to pass their faith to succeeding generations.
  3. The American Revolution encouraged a gradual movement toward civic equality. As Thomas Curry has shown, eleven states initially limited officeholding to Protestants or Christians. Philadelphia's Jews mounted a spirited campaign for equality in 1784, and eventually saw their hope realized through the Pennsylvania constitution of 1790. Not all was progress, however. Anti-Semitic attitudes were certainly present in Anglo-American Protestantism, though far less pervasive or virulent than in many European settings. Uriah Phillips Levy, US naval officer, dealt with anti-Jewish invective during his career, but freely purchased Jefferson's Monticello in 1836 and helped to preserve that iconic American site.
  4. The substantial growth in the American Jewish community from 1830 to 1860 through immigration from German regions, Poland, Byelorussia, and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe. By 1850, there were 50,000 Jews in the United States-as compared to about 3,000 in 1820. By the Civil War, that population had grown to at least 125,000. Southern Jews fought as staunchly for the Confederacy and slavery as many northern Jews did for the Union. Jews occupied a growing space in antebellum society, and in American social consciousness. Moreover, American Jews diverged over the proper way to express their faith. The Reform movement, which gathered momentum in Germany from the early 19th century onward, had a profound influence on Jewish religiosity in the United States. This refashioning and reinterpretation of tradition altered the dimensions of Judaism, one of the world's foundational faiths.
  5. The intersection of American Jewish history with US relations with the Middle East. In 1813, James Madison appointed Mordecai Manuel Noah, scion of a New York Sephardi family, as US consul to Tunis.

The appointment underscored the notion that Jews might be natural bridges between the Christian "West" and the Moslem "East." Noah later imagined a Jewish colony being planted on Grand Island in the Niagara River-a utopian vision directed toward restoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This last idea gained considerable support among American Protestants in the mid-to-late 19th century. American Jews organized to protest their people's persecution in Damascus in 1840 just as they subsequently lobbied the US government to protect Russian Jews from pogroms.

The evolution of Jewish life in the colonial world and early American Republic is indicative of historic patterns reaching far beyond North America and the United States. Authors of American/US history textbooks are urged to pay heed.

David E. Narrett is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Additional Reading Suggestions

Curry, Thomas J. The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Goldman, Shalom L. God's Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Israel, Jonathan I. Conflicts of Empires: Spain, the Low Countries, and the Struggle for World Supremacy, 1585-1713. London: Hambledon Press, 1997.

Kagan, Richard L., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500-1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Kamen, Henry. The Disinherited: Exile and the Making of Spanish Culture, 1492-1975. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Katz, David S. The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Liebman, Seymour B. The Jews in New Spain: Faith, Flame, and the Inquisition. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1970.

Urofsky, Melvin I. The Levy Family and Monticello, 1834-1923: Saving Thomas Jefferson's House. [Charlottesville, VA]: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2001.