Commentary Magazine

A Gallery of Jewish Colonial Worthies:
Some Loyalists, Some Patriots

In sharply executed vignettes of a number of key figures, Charles Reznikoff brings before us the variety and color of Jewish life in Colonial and Revolutionary America, when the New World pattern of religious and other freedoms—whose celebration is a leading motif of this year’s Jewish Tercentenary—was worked out and finally established. In connection with the present essay, he writes: “I am greatly indebted to Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, director of the American Jewish Archives, and Adolph S. Ochs, professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, for his correction of an earlier version of these articles in manuscript. Whatever errors there are now are my contribution.” A second part of this gallery of early American Jewish worthies will follow next month.





There is no doubt that throughout Western Europe—by the middle of the 17th century—men were tired of the slaughter and waste of the religious wars. Besides, the lords who came to power in England with Charles II had lived among men of another faith and had learnt to be, more or less, tolerant. They had also become more mindful of this world and its wealth and less concerned about the world to come and men’s opinions of it.

At that time, Holland was an example of the practical value of religious toleration. Englishmen, such as Sir Josiah Child and later Sir William Temple, pointed to the prosperity of the Dutch as due, among other causes, to religious liberty. The English also saw its value in attracting colonists of sufficient character to endure the hardships of the frontier. However, a Roger Williams, in dividing the land he had bought from the Indians, was not merely practical when he said that the place was “for those who were destitute especially for conscience’s sake.” William Venn, in his laws for Pennsylvania, provided for the toleration of all who believed in God. Certainly, liberty of conscience was a major doctrine of the Society of Friends, called Quakers.

When the English captured New Amsterdam in 1664, liberty of conscience “in divine worship and church discipline” was guaranteed the inhabitants; and the proprietors of New Jersey promised it to all who swore allegiance. The Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas, as drawn up most likely by Shaftesbury (then Lord Ashley) and John Locke, argued that it would be unreasonable to keep out settlers who might not believe in the doctrines of the Church of England, and specifically included Jews among those to be admitted. Although the assembly of South Carolina never accepted the Constitutions in full, it granted liberty of conscience to all except Roman Catholics (1697 New Style). The charter of Georgia, likewise, guaranteed “liberty of conscience . . . in the worship of God to all persons. . . .” except “Papists.” “Liberty of conscience” did not mean more than that. It did not mean in the case of Jews, for example, the right to vote or hold office. It did mean at least the right to live as a Jew.

“While the Jew in proprietary Maryland was de jure without civil rights,” it has been said by the historian J. H. Hollander, “denied freedom of residence and liable to punishment of death for bare profession of faith; de facto he was permitted undisturbed domicile, and gradually allowed the exercise of certain undefined rights.”

However, it was not easy for a Jew who ventured into Massachusetts or Connecticut to settle there, because the authorities were quick to “warn [him] out” of town on the ground that he might become a charge on the township. In Connecticut, at one time, he had to he “accepted by a major part of the Towne”: not because he was a Jew but because he was a newcomer. But settle there they did.

So, a man here, a family there, even a small company in New Netherland and Georgia, the Jews established themselves in the American colonies.



Jacob Lumbrozo

Lumbrozo (d. 1665 or 1666), a “Jew doctor,” came to Maryland sometime before 1656. (The Maryland Archives mention a “Jewes store” in 1653—a year before the settlement in New Amsterdam—but this may be a mistake, for it is part of the records of a court that did not sit until 1656.) Lumbrozo had been born in Lisbon, Portugal—a Marrano. As English Catholics, the Calverts who owned Maryland provided a certain measure of toleration in the colony in order to include Catholics as well as Protestants; but the Toleration Act of 1649, although providing that no person in the province professing to believe in Jesus as the Christ should be in any way troubled, also provided that any person who denied that Jesus was the son of God should be put to death. This was the law in Maryland until after the American Revolution and the adoption of a constitution for the state.

However, no Jew was accused under the Act except Jacob Lumbrozo. He was arrested in 1658 for blasphemy. One of the two who testified against him swore that, “falling into discourse” with Lumbrozo about Jesus, the witness had said: Jesus “was more then [sic] man, as did appeare by his Resurrection.” Lumbrozo, the witness went on, had answered: “his Disciples stole him away.” Another witness declared that he had heard Lumbrozo asked if the Jews looked for a Messiah and that Lumbrozo had answered yes. Then Lumbrozo had been asked what was “hee . . . that was crucifyed att Jerusalem?” Lumbrozo had answered: “hee was a Man.” Lumbrozo was then asked how did “hee . . . do all his miracles?” Lumbrozo had answered: “by the Art Magick.”

But Lumbrozo was not punished, after all. The general amnesty of 1658, when Richard Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England, most likely saved him. It has also been suggested that his usefulness as a physician helped.

Perhaps Lumbrozo was badly frightened. He may have decided that it was still safer, even in the New World and among Englishmen, to be at least outwardly a Christian. After all, he had been schooled as a Marrano. He became known as “John” instead of Jacob; in 1663, taking out letters of denization (for he had become a speculator in land and could not own land otherwise), he took an oath “on the true faith of a Christian”; the year before, he had married a Christian woman. In 1665, he was given the right to trade with the Indians and a grant of land, known for some time as “Lumbrozio’s Discovery.” That year or the next he was dead. In his will he called himself “John” but said nothing of his Christianity: “I bequeath,” he wrote, “my soul to its Creator assuredly believing that he will in mercy look upon it and restore it to Eternal rest. . . .”



Judah Monis

A convert of another sort than Dr. Lumbrozo was Judah Monis (d. 1764). He is supposed to have been born in Italy about 1683. He was made a freeman of New York by the mayor and council (1716 New Style), and in 1720 settled in Boston. Here he made the acquaintance of Increase Mather and another minister and was given an honorary degree of master of arts by Harvard College (1720). He was the first Jew to be granted a degree by Harvard but his Judaism, by that time, must have been merely nominal. He began to teach Hebrew at Harvard in 1722, the year he was baptized, and taught for almost forty years. His Hebrew grammar was published at Boston in 1735—the first to be published in what was afterwards the United States.

Although his conversion was publicly welcomed, he was not received as a Christian without some skepticism. But he did his best to prove his sincerity by a “discourse” at his baptism and in two essays afterwards. In fact, he was so ardent in his Christianity that it was thought advisable to warn him “not to judge too hastily of his neighbor and exclude from salvation everyone that differs from him in the explication and belief of the article of the Trinity.”1



* * *

Of the thousand or so Jews living among the three million colonists in 1775, almost all lived in centers of trade: Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Charlestown, and Savannah. It might have been expected that Boston with all its shipping would have a Jewish community. It had none, although Jews were in the city for a while, now and then, engaged in small and unimportant business. One reason for the absence of a Jewish community in colonial Boston may have been that mentioned above: the selectmen “warned out,” as strangers likely to become a charge upon the township, Jews who might have settled there. Another reason may well have been that Newport with its established Jewish community was near and more attractive. There were likewise few Jews in colonial Connecticut. Ezra Stiles (pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport and afterwards president of Yale College), born in the colony, knew of none in 1760 except the “two Jew Brothers Pintos who renounced Judaism & all Religion.”

The Jewish communities of Newport and New York were the largest in the colonies: not that either community was large. At that, the Newport community had almost all the Jews of New England. According to Ezra Stiles, there were in the city in 1760 fifteen Jewish families, consisting of fifty-eight Jewish men, women, and children. (Moses Levy of Newport counted ten families and fifty-six Jews.) By 1769, the Jewish community had grown to twenty-five families. A census of the colony in 1774 showed Newport a city of nine thousand; about a hundred of the inhabitants were Jews.

Newport was one of the great ports of the colonies. More ships sailed from Newport in 1750 than from New York. Indeed, a number of Jews left New York for Newport as the better for trade. The city was a center of the whaling industry: not only for the ships of the whalers but, in 1760, it had seventeen factories for refining sperm oil and manufacturing candles. By that time, Newport had twenty-two distilleries of rum, its most important staple, with which the merchants of the city paid for the slaves they shipped from Africa to the West Indies. There were also sugar refineries, rope walks, and furniture factories in Newport. Its furniture was sold in New York, the West Indies, and as far south as Surinam. Besides the vessels that crossed the Atlantic to Europe and Africa and the West Indies, many smaller vessels of Newport’s merchants were in the coast trade.



Aaron Lopez

Lopez—he took the name “Aaron” when no longer a Jew in secret—was born in Lisbon and came to Newport in 1752. He owned, or had a share, in vessels in the European and West Indian trades and in whaling. Ezra Stiles thought there was no merchant in America with a more extensive trade. His warehouse with its gambrel roof was at the waterfront. The first story was used to store merchandise; on the second, Lopez had his counting-room or office, neatly papered in a wallpaper with a small plain figure; the third and top story was a sails-loft. The ceilings were so low Lopez could use a crossbeam in his office, just above his head, for pigeonholes, each labeled with the name of one of his vessels.

In 1773, Aaron Lopez was appointed by the assembly of the colony a member of a committee of three to draft a petition to the British secretary of state for recognition of the right to fish in Canadian waters. Although he had refused to join in the non-importation agreements that proved, before the actual fighting of the American Revolution began, the strongest weapon of the Americans against Parliament, when war broke out he was a Patriot. Both he and his father-in-law, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, with their families and slaves left Newport for Leicester in Massachusetts.

Newport was soon in British hands as, sooner or later, were all the important American ports. Lopez was then engaged, perhaps one might say entangled, in the greatest of his enterprises: a fleet to hunt whales in the South Atlantic. It would have to elude the British ships—and it did not: in the end, some ships were lost at sea, others taken into an English port, and finally all was lost. The war practically over (1782), Lopez went back to Newport (evacuated by the British in 1780). On the way, he drove into a pond to water his horse and was swallowed up in a quicksand.

Dr. Stiles mourned him: “His Beneficence to his Famy Connexions, to his Nation, & to all the World is almost without a Parallel. . . the most universally beloved by an extensive Acquaintance of any man I ever knew.” The great merchant died insolvent. In 1767, he had been heavily involved and at one time owed his agent in Bristol, England, more than ten thousand pounds. But he managed to pay his debts, chiefly by his trade in Jamaica. Dr. Stiles remembered that “He did Business with the greatest Ease and Clearness—always carried about with him a Sweetness of Behav. a calm Urbanity an agreeable and unaffected Politeness of manners.”

His picture shows a man with a firm jaw and a rather long nose. He has a smile which is somewhat sardonic but the unknown artist may have intended it to be only pleasant. The portrait itself, with its lifeless eyes, is almost a mask instead of a face. Finally, it is worth noting that in 1804 his son, Joseph, assigned the sum due him from the estate of his father to Aaron Lopez’s largest creditor.



Jacob Rodriguez Rivera

Rivera, Lopez’s father-in-law, is said to have been the first to manufacture candles from spermaceti in Newport. In 1761, the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers was formed to divide the spermaceti brought to Newport and to fix the prices of spermaceti and candles; it was reorganized in 1763. Jews were in the company from the beginning, and four of the eight in the second organization were Jews, including Rivera. After the Revolution, he returned to Newport and died there in 1789. He was more fortunate than Lopez in his portrait: painted by Gilbert Stuart, it shows a living, if less handsome, face. Rivera must have lost his upper teeth by that time, for the upper lip has fallen in and the jaw is conspicuous. The brow is narrow; his eyebrows high and still dark. It is a wizened face, meditative and not happy, the face of a tired old man.



Isaac Hart

Isaac Hart had been in partnership with a governor of Rhode Island in a privateering venture during the French and Indian War. But he paid for his friendship with British officials of the colony and his own loyalty to the king. When Newport was evacuated by the British, the Harts went to New York—then a haven of the Loyalists. The Rhode Island assembly confiscated their property. Hart, together with other Loyalist refugees, was given land on Long Island. Here in 1780, according to a Loyalist gazette, he was “inhumanly fired upon and bayoneted [by Americans], wounded in fifteen parts of his body, and beat with their muskets in a most shocking manner in the very act of imploring quarter, and died of his wounds a few hours after.”



The Newport Synagogue

When Ezra Stiles became a minister in Newport in 1755, the Jews of the city still had no minister of their own. Isaac Touro came to Newport from Jamaica, about 1758, to be the hazan or cantor of Jeshuat Israel (“Salvation of Israel”). The synagogue, built at a cost of two thousand pounds sterling, was dedicated in 1763. (Shearith Israel of New York had sent the Newport congregation 149 pounds as a contribution in 1759, and in 1761 they were asked for help again.) The synagogue is now the oldest in the United States. Its length, from wall to wall inside, is only forty-two steps; its width, thirty-four. Aaron Lopez laid the first cornerstone, contributed much to the congregation, and was one of the presidents. Judaism to an Aaron Lopez, for example, was not an inheritance that had come easily. When he and others like him had the money for a place of worship, they built as beautiful a building as they could in the fashion and good taste of the general community and never quite lost their wonder at their synagogue.

In 1780 the synagogue was closed for lack of worshippers: the Patriots had left the city long before, and now the Loyalists left for New York with the English. The cantor, Isaac Touro, went along to New York and there, for a while, held the vacant post of Gershom Mendes Seixas in Shearith Israel. Touro finally returned to Jamaica and died there in 1784. His widow and their two sons, Judah and Abraham, went back to New England and settled in Boston: here her brother, Moses Michael Hays, was doing very well in the business of marine insurance. But his story and that of his famous nephew, Judah Touro, belong to the days of the Republic.

The Newport congregation was reorganized after the Revolution. Moses Seixas (b. New York, 1744), a brother of Gershom Mendes Seixas, as warden sent Washington the congregation’s letter of congratulation upon his election as President of the United States. Seixas was one of the founders of the Bank of Rhode Island and its cashier until his death. But the Jewish community, small as it was, dwindled. One reason may have been that in the difficult years that followed the war the legislature of Rhode Island turned to more desperate remedies than any other. Rhode Island not only issued script in 1786 and made it legal tender but permitted payment into court, by script, of any debt due, and it was also an offense, punishable by a fine, to refuse payment in the script. A traveler through Newport in 1788 saw “groups of idle men, standing with folded arms at the corners of streets; houses falling to ruin; miserable shops, which present nothing but a few coarse stuffs, or baskets of apples, and other articles of little value; grass growing in the public square, in front of the court of justice; rags stuffed in the windows. . . .” (de Warville. But John Quincy Adams thought Newport’s decline due to the loss of the African slave trade.) This was hardly the climate for a merchant. When Abraham Touro died in Boston in 1822 and left a fund to keep the Newport synagogue in repair, there was not a Jew left in the city.



* * *

No colony had less cause, on economic grounds, to quarrel with the British than South Carolina. It was a favored colony: by an exception to the Navigation Acts, it could export its principal crop, rice, directly to Southern Europe; and its planters of indigo had a British “bounty to aid them against the competition of the better indigo of the French and Spanish colonies. In 1775, before the Revolutionary War, Charlestown (as it was known until 1783), the chief port of the colony, was as important a port as Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. In fact, Charlestown did more business than Boston and in the export of domestic produce was more important than either New York or Philadelphia.

In 1770, Charlestown had about five thousand white inhabitants and there were six thousand or so Negro slaves. Thirty years afterwards, Charleston (as the city was called after the Revolution) was to have the largest Jewish community in the United States—about five hundred; but at this time it did not have as many Jews as New York or Newport. The Jews of the city had been organized in a congregation for twenty years: Beth Elohim, founded in 1749, was the fifth or sixth congregation of Jews in what is now the United States. (The congregation is still in existence and in 1950 elected as its president a direct descendant of the very first “parnass” or president.) The Jewish men of that early congregation were chiefly storekeepers and merchants. One of the most important, just before the Revolution, was Moses Lindo, a sorter of indigo.



Moses Lindo

Lindo came to Charlestown in 1756. Indigo had been grown successfully for export in the colony for about ten years and since 1748 Parliament had granted the planters a bounty of sixpence a pound. Lindo had been a merchant of indigo in London. In 1762 he was appointed by the governor of the colony, on the recommendation of a number of merchants and planters, “Surveyor and Inspector-General of Indigo.” The purpose of the appointment was to standardize the indigo of the colony and to certify the “First Sort” for the dye-makers of England. There was no obligation upon any planter or merchant to have indigo inspected by Lindo, in spite of his title. However, to judge from his advertising, he did inspect a good deal of it, and undoubtedly contributed to the sale of Carolina indigo. Two years before Lindo’s arrival, the colony was already exporting almost a quarter of a million pounds a year; in 1775, a year after Lindo’s death, South Carolina was shipping five times as much. It had become the colony’s second crop—next to rice in importance.



Francis Salvador

Among the men who fought as Patriots in South Carolina and among the first to fall was Francis Salvador. He had landed at Charlestown in the winter of 1773 with the manners and speech of the English aristocrat he was. His family had been Marranos. Their name was really Jessurun and Salvador was their Marrano, or public, name. Francis Salvador’s great-grandfather, like other Marranos, had escaped to Holland and there he did not have to be a Jew in secret. Salvador’s grandfather settled in England and secured the rights of a denizen, that is, he could trade like any Englishman; and he had his coat of arms registered among those of the nobility. Francis Salvador inherited great wealth. He married his cousin and with her received another fortune. But he lost most of his money in investments and so did his father-in-law. Then the younger man went to South Carolina where, in one of the newly settled districts in the west of the colony beyond the parishes of the coast, the family had land.

It was Salvador’s intention to become a planter. There is an advertisement of his in a Charlestown gazette for an overseer to look after thirty or so slaves and raise indigo. But he was soon caught up in the rebellion against England and accepted by the leaders of it in South Carolina—themselves aristocrats—as one of them. In 1774, he was one of the representatives from his district in the first provincial congress of South Carolina. (Where the Patriots in a colony did not control the legal legislature, or the royal governor would not allow it to sit, out of their long experience in local government they would organize a legislature of their own—the provincial congress.) In South Carolina, representatives of the outlying districts were selected by the leaders of the Patriots from among those “favorable to the cause.” It would not then, strictly speaking, be true to say that Francis Salvador was the first Jew in the New World, or the modern world for that matter, to be “elected” to office by Christians. But he was the first Jew to hold an elective office of importance.

Salvador was also a member of the second congress of South Carolina and when this congress, under the first constitution of the state (1776), became the General Assembly, he was a member of it. He was on important committees, for the legislature of the Patriots had the task of organizing the government of the new state. When the Indians, as part of the English plans, began to lay waste plantations in Salvador’s district and to murder planters and their families, Salvador, after warning his neighbors, left his plantation and rode off to join the commander of the local militia. It was almost a month before they had enough men to act, and then they moved against the Indian villages.

In the evening of a summer day (July 31, 1776), the local commander, at the head of three hundred mounted men, set out to surround a camp of Indians and Tories. Salvador rode at his side. Just after midnight as they entered an Indian village supposed to have been abandoned, they were ambushed. Salvador was shot down and scalped in the darkness and confusion. He was dead in an hour at the age of twenty-nine. The report of his death adds that all in the company regretted it, for he was “universally loved and esteemed.” So died the first Jew to fall for American liberty. He was buried in the roadway—without stick or stone to show his grave.



David Nunez Cardozo

A native of New York (d. Charleston, 1835), David Nunez Cardozo held the rank of first non-commissioned officer in a company of grenadiers among the troops that marched from Charlestown in an attempt to recapture Savannah. He led “the forlorn hope” as a volunteer against the British lines, and this distinction is carved on his tombstone in the old Jewish cemetery of Charleston. He was not a hero, it seems, to a fellow Jew who provided that if his daughter Sarah “marrys David Cordoza otherwise called David Nunes Cordoza, my Will and Desire is that one Shilling Sterling be paid her & no more.” She probably married him, however, for David’s widow was called Sarah. His son, Jacob Newton—really Nunez—Cardozo, who died in 1873, became a newspaper man and, a self-taught economist, won distinction advocating policies favored in the South. Another Cardozo, Francis Louis, is supposed to have been Jacob’s son. His mother was half Negro and half Indian. He became secretary of state and treasurer in the “Reconstruction” governments of South Carolina. It is generally conceded that he was an honest man among thieves, although sentenced to prison for fraud after the election of Wade Hampton as governor (1876).



Mordecai and Sheftall Sheftall

Mordecai Sheftall (1735-95), a native of Georgia, was the son of Benjamin Sheftall, a native of Bavaria or Frankfort on the Main and in the Sephardic group that came to Savannah a month after the city was founded. Mordecai Sheftall, among his other activities, was a merchant in Savannah. He became chairman of the “rebel” committee of Christ Church Parish (including Savannah) : for a while, it was in fact the government of the parish. In 1777 he was appointed commissary-general of the militia of Georgia to supply them with food and clothing and later he was deputy commissary-general of the Continental troops in Georgia. When Savannah was captured in 1778 by the British, he and his son, Sheftall Sheftall, who had been acting as his deputy although only a lad of fifteen or sixteen, were taken prisoners.

The elder Sheftall, for refusing to answer questions about the supplies of Savannah, was imprisoned among soldiers who were in the guardhouse for being drunk: one kept trying to bayonet him. He had no food for two days. On the prison-ship to which he was transferred, he was put on a diet of pork since he was a Jew. He and his son were finally released on parole and Mordecai Sheftall was listed by the British as disqualified from ever holding public office (1780). In 1781 Sheftall Sheftall, then no more than eighteen, was sent from Philadelphia by the American Board of War as flag-master on a sloop flying a flag of truce to bring money and food to the sick and hungry Americans who were prisoners of war in Charlestown.




1 Josiah Quincy, History of Harvard University, Vol. I.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.