'A Great Compliment Paid the Jews'
A recent work about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution rescues from oblivion an amazing and moving story about the Jews of post-Revolutionary New York and the solicitude their Gentile neighbors showed them. In the course of describing the ratification process in New York, Pauline Maier’s Ratification (Simon & Schuster, 589 pages) makes fleeting reference to the fact that a huge parade through New York City in 1788 by supporters of the Constitution was put off for a day “to avoid July 22, a Jewish holiday.” This postponement, and its significance, have been lost to history until now.
The rediscovery of this incident is only one of many good reasons for reading Maier’s masterly and groundbreaking account of the state conventions where the proposed federal Constitution was debated and ultimately approved. Maier relies (as no historian before her has or was able to) on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. This massive work, 23 hefty volumes and counting since the project began in 1976, is a collation of the vast and dispersed contemporary record—minutes, newspaper stories, pamphlets, memoirs, and letters—of the Constitution’s ratification. Maier uses it to show us how, in state after state, public officials and citizens debated with skill and clarity the complex issues facing the country, and how the fairness and thoroughness of the ratification process led to the Constitution’s winning support even from those who were originally its determined opponents. Along the way, she unearths all manner of interesting nuggets about the personalities and events she describes—none more so than the moment in late July 1788 when the supporters of ratification in New York accommodated the religious needs of their Jewish fellow citizens, even at some risk to the success of their cause.
A little table-setting is needed to put the story in perspective. New York’s was one of the last conventions to be held, and its approval of the Constitution was far from assured. New York had long been dubious about the Constitutional project: Two of its three delegates to the Philadelphia Convention had left in protest, objecting to its failure to respect the limited terms on which it had been called. Only the third, Alexander Hamilton, was present to join in the vote by which the Constitution was approved and sent to the states for consideration. The delegates chosen for New York’s convention the next summer contained a clear majority of opponents of ratification (one source puts the breakdown at 46–19 against), and the opponents were led by New York’s powerful governor, George Clinton. While the Federalist proponents were hardly unrepresented—they included Hamilton and John Jay, two of the authors of The Federalist Papers—they certainly faced an uphill battle.
When the convention began, on June 17, 1788, only eight states had ratified, one shy of the nine that the draft Constitution required. One week into the convention, the delegates in Poughkeepsie received word that New Hampshire had ratified, and so the Constitution, by its terms, succeeded the previous Confederation and became the new nation’s governing document. On the same date, Virginia also voted to ratify. Nonetheless, Clinton and the opponents of ratification continued to insist on changes to the document, and still “in mid-July, the two sides remained unalterably apart,” as Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow puts it. The convention did not finally vote to ratify—and then by the narrowest margin in any state—until the end of July, more than a month after the United States had come into existence.
Although by mid-June New York’s approval was no longer required to bring the Constitution into effect, the state’s failure to join the now established United States could well have been a death blow to the new nation. It would have stood as a geographic obstacle to movement between the southern states and New England and, more important, would have deprived the United States of its leading commercial state. New York as a stand-alone entity might have found itself forced to seek an alliance with Britain, and therefore again come under British domination. Moreover, since the supporters of ratification were strongest in New York City and opposition to ratification concentrated outside it, there was the prospect that the city might try to secede from the state and ratify on its own. Hamilton referred to just such a possibility in a speech to the convention on July 17.
The Federalists employed a variety of means (including republication in book form of the celebrated Federalist articles) to bring pressure on the hostile convention to ratify. Among them was the decision to stage what was called a Grand Federal Procession in New York City, to demonstrate the support that ratification enjoyed among all classes of citizens. Similar events had been held in Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston after their states had ratified, and a major procession was held in Philadelphia on July 4, after the actions of New Hampshire and Virginia had brought the American republic into existence.
Planning for the New York Procession had been ongoing throughout June and was originally scheduled to coincide, like Philadelphia’s, with the Fourth of July celebration. But the event kept getting put off, principally, as the chairman of the event later wrote, in the “hope that this state…would likewise accede to the Union.” A postponement was also necessitated because the elaborate parade preparations took longer to complete than had been anticipated. In particular, the construction of a scaled-down frigate, the “Federal Ship Hamilton,” which was to form part of the procession and honor New York’s Federalist leader, would not be ready until July 18.
The procession was finally scheduled for July 22. But, as Maier discovered from two letters contained in the Documentary History, it was put off for an additional day because it turned out that July 22 in 1788 coincided with a Jewish holiday: 17 Tammuz, the day on which the Fast of Tammuz is held.
This minor fast day (lasting only from dawn to dusk rather than a full 25 hours, as in the Yom Kippur fast) commemorates the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans. Seventeen Tammuz in the Jewish calendar was the day in 70 C.E. when Titus’s legions breached the walls of Jerusalem. The rabbis also determined that a number of other disasters in Jewish history occurred on that date, including Moses’s destruction of the first set of tablets on Mount Sinai, following the sin of the Golden Calf. In addition, 17 Tammuz commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E., although that event is said to have occurred on 9 Tammuz.
For Ashkenazi Jews, 17 Tammuz marks the beginning of the period known as the Three Weeks, which culminates in the full fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av), commemorating the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians. During this 21-day period, Ashkenazim observe various restrictions, including not taking part in joyous activities. For Sephardim, 17 Tammuz is a fast day, but the restrictions leading up to Tisha B’Av do not take effect until the first day of Av 12 days later. As we will see, this difference in religious practice is of significance to the New York story.
Volume XXI of the Documentary History includes an announcement that appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser on July 17, reporting that “The PROCESSION is postponed till WEDNESDAY, the 23d instant.” The announcement gives no reason for the postponement from the previously announced Tuesday, the 22nd. The explanation comes in a letter dated July 16 to Nicholas Low, a wealthy New York City merchant, from one of his agents, Peter Collin. Collin reported: “It is said that the procession is postponed till the 23rd Inst. in order to give the Jews an opportunity to Join in the Festivals, the 22nd being one of their holidays.” The same reason is referred to in another letter from one Adrian Bancker, a Staten Island grandee, on the 20th of July. Bancker wrote to his brother: “I Observe the Grand procession is put of[f] to the 23d I think it is a great Compliment paid the Jews.”1
“A great Compliment paid the Jews” indeed it was. For it cannot have been a simple or risk-free course to postpone the procession further, after all the earlier false starts, even by a single day. On July 15 or 16 when, at the latest, the decision to take the extra delay must have been reached, the convention was deadlocked, and there was no indication that the opponents had any intention of yielding. To be sure, Hamilton and the Federalists believed that the longer the convention continued, the better their chances of prevailing. But this was only a hope—and they had no assurance that, if Clinton and the forces he led came to the same conclusion, they might not simply vote to adjourn the convention without acting.
The procession itself, moreover, required extensive preparations. It was to be a huge event, in which representatives of 60-odd trades and professions, roughly 5,000 people (a quarter of the city’s population), were to participate, marching under banners proclaiming support for the new Constitution. The organizers hoped to outdo the Philadelphia Procession of several weeks earlier, out of civic pride and in hopes of winning for New York City designation as the new country’s capital.
The participants were not only numerous but also organized to march in a highly structured fashion. As volume XXI of the Documentary History sets forth in detail, the “Order of Procession” as the event unfolded began with “Horsemen with Trumpets,” “1 piece of Artillery,” and then a total of 10 “Divisions” organized by trades, with a total of 76 distinct groups of marchers. The “Second Division” included “Coopers, Butchers, Tanners and Curriers and Leather Dressers,” and the “Seventh Division” included the Hamilton, together with “Pilot Boat and Barges, the Marine Society, and representatives of the Printers, Book-Binders and Stationers.” The tradesmen’s groups had constructed elaborate floats for the event and prepared banners celebrating their trades and the adoption of the Constitution. Major Pierre L’Enfant, later the planner of Washington, D.C., had designed an elaborate structure consisting of three pavilions able to seat 6,000 guests at the post-parade meal.
To hold all this in abeyance even for 24 hours–while the convention remained deadlocked–must have represented a major hardship to, and gamble by, the New York Federalists. In the report of the event that the procession chairman published shortly after it was held, he noted that following the earlier postponements, taken in the hope that the Poughkeepsie convention would ratify, “the Committee of Arrangements found it impossible any longer to oppose the patriotic ardor of their fellow citizens.” Gotham, Edwin G. Burrows’s and Mike Wallace’s indispensable history of New York City, describes the procession as “an event of almost transcendent significance in New York’s post-Revolutionary history.” Nonetheless, on the evidence that the Documentary History has collected and Maier brings to light, the “patriotic ardor” was made to wait, and the “transcendent” event put off a day, to accommodate New York’s Jewish citizens.
There weren’t many. A knowledgeable contemporary estimate of the Jewish population of New York in 1773 said that the whole community “consist[ed] of between twenty and thirty families.” New York had only a single synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, at which both Sephardim and the increasingly numerous Ashkenazim (who had become the majority of New York’s Jews by 1720, according to historian Jonathan Sarna) both worshiped. And even though the community enjoyed a degree of freedom and acceptance unrivaled in the world at that time, as late as 1737, the New York Assembly had voted to deprive Jews of the franchise—an action shortly thereafter repealed—and anti-Semitic violence occurred occasionally, perhaps inspired by resentment at the very success of the tiny Jewish community.
The decision to postpone the procession on their account makes clear that, whatever the controversies delaying New York’s ratification of the Constitution, a modern spirit of tolerance and fellow feeling had taken hold even before New York finally acceded. Indeed, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that the day’s postponement is itself powerful testimony to the success of the Revolution even before the United States government took form. After all, at this date, Jews in England were still subject to all manner of legal restrictions and disabilities.
It is also true that Jews had a claim upon their fellow citizens’ good will. Howard Sachar’s standard history of American Jewry records that approximately 100 Jews performed military service in the Revolution, most in state and local militias. A few died, Sachar records, and some were wounded or captured. Some rose to high rank. In addition, Jews were instrumental in enabling the Revolution to evade the British blockade of American shipping. And Jews were prominent among the civilian contractors who provided the Revolutionary armies with “clothing, gunpowder, lead, and other needed equipment.”
The portion of the Jewish community of New York that supported the Revolution—a solid majority, by all accounts—had also suffered greatly in the face of Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and the ensuing British occupation of New York. Sarna recounts in his book American Judaism how Gershom Mendes Seixas, the religious leader of Shearith Israel, led patriotic members out of the city in August 1776, taking with him Torah scrolls and other religious items. They remained in exile for seven years, first for four years in Stratford and Norwalk, Connecticut, then in Philadelphia, returning to the city only after the war’s end. The postponement of the procession to accommodate 17 Tammuz thus may well have reflected Federalist gratitude for patriotic services rendered and hardships endured by American Jews.
Conceivably there was also an element of rivalry with Philadelphia. Thus, at the Philadelphia Procession three weeks earlier, history records that “the clergy of the different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, walk[ed] arm in arm,” “united in charity and brotherly love.” And among those in attendance was a teenaged Naphtali Phillips, who later relocated to New York, married a niece of Gershom Seixas, and served as president of Shearith Israel. In a remembrance published in his old age, Phillips recalled that, at the end of the Philadelphia Procession, “there was a number of long tables loaded with all kinds of provisions with a separate table for the Jews who could not partake of the meats from the other tables, but they had a full supply of soused [pickled] salmon bread and crackers, almonds, raisins, etc.”
There is much that we still don’t know about the postponement. Maier mentions it only in a passing phrase, and the Documentary History speaks to it only in the two letters I have quoted. Thus we have no direct evidence of how the postponement came to be decided upon, what role New York’s Jewish citizens played in procuring it—they must have been the ones to bring the significance of the date to the attention of the procession’s organizers—and whether the decision to postpone was in any degree a matter of controversy. Perhaps there exist letters or other records that have escaped the zealous researches of the editors of the Documentary History that will shed further light on this.
However, it is a safe speculation that the moving force behind the request for the postponement must have been Seixas. The religious leader of New York’s only synagogue was also a prominent figure in the life of New York City, and he had many friends and associates among the city’s Protestant elite. In 1787, he was named to the board of trustees of Columbia College (the next Jew to receive that honor was Benjamin Cardozo in 1928), whose chairman, James Duane, was the mayor of New York. By virtue of his exile during the British occupation, Seixas became known as “the Patriot rabbi of New York” (although he was not, technically, a rabbi and was called “hazzan” by his congregants). He is clearly the person most likely to have been in a position to obtain the postponement on behalf of his small community.
His experience during the exile, moreover, included an event that would have made him particularly sensitive to the significance of 17 Tammuz. Part of his exile was in Norwalk, Connecticut, and it is therefore entirely possible that he was present when that city was invaded by the British and their Hessian mercenaries and burned to the ground in July 1779. In American Judaism, Sarna notes that Norwalk’s destruction occurred during the three weeks following 17 Tammuz. Reflecting on this, one New York exile, whose letter describing the savage British/German attack Sarna quotes, wrote that he and his fellow Jews “truly realized the Anniversary Season [i.e., of the destruction of the Temple] with all its gloom that our predecessors experienced.”
One shouldn’t overstate the significance of the postponement. The degree of liberty and acceptance enjoyed by New York’s Jews was unique among the states of the new nation. Well after the Constitution and the First Amendment came into effect, eight of the original states continued to deny Jews equal political rights. It was 1833 before Massachusetts eliminated the religious test for office, and it was a Reconstruction legislature that, in 1868, finally changed North Carolina’s constitution to eliminate it. Nonetheless, the postponement of the procession should temper our acceptance of Sachar’s dour conclusion that, “in the early days of the new republic, Jews remained at best an object of curiosity, more commonly of faint distrust or distaste.”
It should be added that the one-day postponement met the needs of the Jews of New York for an interesting reason. While the Jewish population at that date was already more Ashkenazi than Sephardi, the two sub-communities, between whom there was considerable friction, had come up with an arrangement whereby the lay leadership of Shearith Israel would be Ashkenazi, but the Sephardi ritual and practice would be followed. (In Sarna’s phrase, the Sephardim “exercis[ed] religious and cultural hegemony.”) Thus, the religious needs of New York’s Ashkenazi population were satisfied by the one-day delay, since one day was all the Sephardi practice required by way of observance. And, tolerant of their Jewish neighbors as the procession organizers showed themselves, it is hard to believe that they would have agreed to postpone the event for a full three weeks, as would have been necessary had the Ashkenazim of the day considered themselves obliged to follow Ashkenazi ritual.
As events turned out, on the 23rd, the delegates at Poughkeepsie reached a compromise on the issue that had prevented ratification—whether to condition New York’s ratification on the subsequent addition of amendments to the Constitution, a pseudo-ratification that would almost surely have been unacceptable to the new United States Government. So the Procession wasn’t, after all, needed to bring New York into the ratification column. Formal approval by the convention, by a knife-edge three-vote margin, followed on July 26.
A brief coda, concerning food: Gotham’s account of the New York Procession describes how, after the procession, the participants resorted to L’Enfant’s pavilions for “a feast of roast ham, bullock and mutton.” The Documentary History contains an excerpt from the New York Journal for July 24 confirming that, after the parade, “two bullocks and a mutton had been roasted whole, for their regale, together with hams, &c. &c.” Neither the Documentary History nor any other source mentions whether the Jews—whose 17 Tammuz fast day had been so memorably respected—also received the further “great Compliment” of being served food that did not violate kashruth. But one is entitled to hope that the city’s rivalry with Philadelphia—which had set a separate kosher table for its Jewish citizens—induced the New York organizers to make similar provision for their city’s Jews. For could New York City, even then, have let itself be outdone in the matter of catering? Surely the question answers itself.
1 Shortly after this article went to press, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, by Michael I. Meyerson, was published by Yale University Press. Meyerson briefly discusses the postponement of the New York Procession, citing to the same two letters in the Documentary History as are quoted above.