Commentary Magazine

Founders & Fur Traders

On September 30, 1847, when the founding father of Montgomery, Alabama, cradle city of the Southern Confederacy, had reached his ninetieth year, he was visited by a reporter for the Montgomery Flag and Advertiser, Albert James Pickett, who was later to write the official history of the State of Alabama. Pickett found the old man living alone in an abandoned Indian hut on the outskirts of the city. Once a man of property—not only had he founded Montgomery but he had also introduced the first cotton gin into the county—he was now a pauper, dependent upon neighbors for his sustenance. A coffin, built by his own hands, stood by his bedside. The only other furnishings Pickett noted in the hut were two crude chairs, an old chest, a few bottles suspended by strings from the ceiling, and a rough table, on which rested a Hebrew Bible. His name was Abraham Mordecai and he was a Jew.

Pickett was at first quite taken with the old gentleman and described him as alert and intelligent despite his advanced years. Later, however, when he came to write his history, Pickett revised his favorable opinion. “Old Mordecai,” as he had come to be known, was now “a Jew of amorous disposition, living among border ruffians and carrying on with Indian squaws in approved border style.” Moreover, wrote Pickett, “Mordecai had married an Indian woman . . . tainted with the blood of Ham.”

Undoubtedly, Mordecai’s life had its shady aspects. Little is known of his early background. He was born in Pennsylvania and had probably traded there with the Indians before the Revolution. For three years he fought with the Continental Army, and as soon as he was mustered out, he went south to Alabama to establish a trading post among the Coosarda Indians at a place called Buzzard’s Roost, which soon became the rendezvous for English deserters, horse thieves, smugglers, and other questionable characters. From there, Mordecai traded for peltries, pink-root, and medicinal herbs, which he transported with the help of two Indians by packhorse to Pensacola and Augusta, and by barge and canoe to Mobile and New Orleans. On occasions he penetrated deep into Chicksaw country in search of furs and he is credited with having helped to ransom some white captives from the hands of the Creeks. For some years he got along well with the Indians, marrying an Indian woman, by whom he had two children—he subscribed to the then popular theory that the Indians were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes.

In 1805, however, Mordecai had a falling-out with Chief Towerculla of the Coosardas for reasons that are not clear. The version accepted by Pickett was that Mordecai had been “messing around” with one of the chief’s women. Mordecai’s story was that his horse had strayed into Towerculla’s fields and eaten the corn. If true, the punishment far exceeded the offense. Towerculla and his men descended upon Mordecai’s trading post, stove in his boats, burned down his house, beat him into insensibility, and as a parting gesture, cut off his left ear. Mordecai was left for dead, but his faithful Indian wife nursed him back to health. His trust in his supposed co-religionists, the Indians, was, however, shaken. He packed his remaining goods and fled to Georgia, where he joined General Floyd as a scout in the Autosee and Caleebee expeditions against the Indians. Later, when things had apparently calmed down, he returned to his old haunts.

All in all, “Old Mordecai” was perhaps not the most proper person to have nurtured the cradle city of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, some years after his death, the Montgomery Evening Times sought to give him his due. “Why not,” an editorial suggested, “in the spirit of services rendered, in pride of the work of his hands securely laid, erect on Court, our most beautiful square, a monument to the name and memory of Old Mordecai, the cradle-rocker of Montgomery’s infancy?” The suggestion, one regrets to report, was not taken up.



Astonishing though it may seem to some that a city like Montgomery should have been founded by a Jew, the fact is that Jews were present in the American colonies earlier and in far greater numbers than is commonly supposed. Nor was “Old Mordecai” the first Jew to engage in the Indian trade or to embrace rude frontier ways.

To tomahawk and wampum
He’s more than half a Cherokee

This rollicking description, from a poem by David Garrick on his friend, Alexander Schoenberg, converted Jew and British sea captain, who saw much service in the French and Indian wars, could apply with equal force to many a Jewish merchant engaged during the 17th and 18th centuries in the Indian fur trade.

Primacy here is a difficult thing to establish. The safest procedure to follow was laid down by Jacob Marcus, the indefatigable archivist of American Jewish history: “The careful historian soon comes to the unfailing rule that no Jew was ever the first in town: there was always one before him.” Thus, the twenty-three refugees who were unceremoniously deposited by the French ship St. Charles upon the reluctant hospitality of the Dutch in New Amsterdam in 1654—then-landing is commonly regarded as marking the founding of the American-Jewish community—had been preceded by two other Jews, Jacob Barsimmon and Solomon Pietersen, and there is evidence that Jews had been trading with the Indians in New Holland even earlier. Be that as it may, the twenty-three newcomers of 1654 lost no time in seeking to enter the fur trade, which then constituted virtually the sole economy of New Holland, New Amsterdam being little more than an Indian trading post. In 1655 a group of Jews petitioned Peter Stuyvesant for the right to trade with the Indians on the South River (the Delaware) and at Fort Orange.

The petitioners [Abraham de Lucena, Salvador d’Andrada, Jacob Cohen, and others] have from the honorable Lords the directors of the Incorporated West Indies Company, Masters and Patroons of this Province, received permission and consent to travel to and trade there like the other inhabitants and to enjoy the same liberties which are provided by the document here annexed. They request therefore, respectfully, that your Noble Worships will not prevent or hinder them therein, but will allow and consent that pursuant to your permission they may with other inhabitants of this Province travel to and trade in places within the jurisdiction of the Governor of the New Netherlands.

Stuyvesant denied the petition—he had not wanted the Jews in his colony in the first place—but the Company, with Jews influential on the Board in Amsterdam, overruled him. Meanwhile, without waiting for an answer to their appeal, the New Amsterdam Jews had already shipped goods to the advanced trading posts, and Stuyvesant gave grudging acknowledgment: “We have been informed that the suppliants have already embarked some goods thither so that they are now permitted to send two persons to trade with it, and when they have disposed of their goods to return hither.” Israel Israel and Isaac Cordosa were the two who were chosen—a peppery pair for we soon find them at odds with the authorities on the Delaware, as witness the minutes of the Council in 1658:

A treaty was made with the Indians on behalf of the community living at Fort Casimir, which they willingly consented to, and each subscribed to a subsidy with the exception of Israel Israel and Isaac Cordosa, who refused to give their consent and prepared to leave the river and give up their trade rather than to assist the good inhabitants in maintaining the peace of the highway.

Apparently the two Jewish traders won their point—whatever the issue—for we find them the following year not only pursuing their trade but engaged in further argument, this time with the captain of a Dutch sloop carrying their goods; they claimed the skipper had gotten drunk with his crew and run the ship ashore, and they refused to pay his bill.

When the ban was lifted, Jewish traders invaded the Delaware Valley in force, penetrating well into Pennsylvania some twenty-five years before William Penn established his colony there. It is safe to assume that every Jew in New Amsterdam was involved in the fur trade since retail trade was forbidden him. Even the famous Asser Levy, the first shochet in New Amsterdam—he set the precedent for full citizenship rights for Jews in the New World by his insistence on burgher rights—although listed as a butcher, had a trading post in Albany.

Generally speaking, the Jews fared better in the Delaware than in the Hudson Valley, where the patroon of Renssalaerswyck and the Dutch colonists conspired to make life difficult for them, as for all free traders. “It is possible,” wrote Killian van Renssalaerswyck from Holland to his commissioner in Albany, “that the Company will throw open the beaver trade to some extent: if they do that, I do not intend, nor shall I allow, any but those of the Company, to whom I cannot forbid it, to trade furs in my colony; to private individuals I do not wish to permit it. With my own people, some discretion will have to be used, provided that they deliver skins to you at a reasonable price for my account.” What the patroon considered reasonable was a 60-per-cent profit for himself on trading goods sold to his settlers against their wages, and up to 100 per cent on the sale of peltries received by him. The Albany settlers, too, were tough competitors. “If a Jew, who understands the art of getting along perfectly, were to settle among them, they would not fail to ruin him,” wrote Peter Kalm, the Swedish traveler to the colonies.

At least one Jew besides Asser Levy, however, managed to break through the barriers. In 1670, Jacob Lucena wrote to Governor Edmund Andros as follows:

. . . Your humble peticion’r hath been a dweller in the collony for the space of twenty-two years and upwards and hath . . . been a trader for himself for the space of eight years and upwards. . . . Y’r peticion’r therefore humbly prays y’r honour’s pass to goe to Albany and Esopus to deale and trade. . . .

Lucena obtained his pass for the sum of twelve pounds, one shilling, but he ran into trouble with the authorities on another score—for making proffers, the charge read, to several women. He was fined twenty pounds, but on appeal the fine was cut in half on the curious grounds that he was a Jew. Whether this was an expression of philo-Semitism, not uncommon in the English colonies, or an inference that a Jew could not be expected to conduct himself in the manner of a Christian gentleman, cannot be ascertained. Later the fine was remitted altogether as a token of respect for Asser Levy, who interceded in Lucena’s behalf.



Throughout the 17th century only two Jewish names appear among the traders licensed to operate out of New England, and in Maryland, only one, Joseph Lumbrozo “—ye Jew Doctor, late of Lisbone.” In 1658, Lumbrozo received both his papers of denizaction (establishing his right to reside in the colony) and his license to trade with the Indians. He was, apparently, a man who did not hesitate to speak his mind, for he had earlier been committed for blasphemy, the penalty for which in Maryland was death (he was spared by a Cromwellian amnesty) .

The 18th century, however, saw extensive activity on the part of Jewish traders in the English colonies. In 1714, Lewis Moses Gomez established an outpost along the Hudson at a point where Indian trails converged on their ceremonial grounds, known to the Dutch as the Danskammer or Dance Chamber, in what is now Orange County. The house he built there for himself and his sons is the oldest standing Jewish house in the United States. His sons, Daniel and David, followed him in the fur trade. Another Albany trader, Hayman Levy, among other things, gave John Jacob Astor his start in the business: Levy’s account books show him employing the future tycoon to beat furs for one dollar a day. Levy, at one time the largest fur dealer in the English colonies, enjoyed an excellent reputation for honesty and fair dealing. When Fort William Henry was under siege by Montcalm, and Albany seemed threatened, Levy transferred not only his own goods but those of fellow traders to the safety of New York. At one time he owned or outfitted a number of privateers; later, when British restrictions put him out of the shipping business and he faced utter ruin, he paid his creditors in full and with interest. When the Revolution broke out he was in his sixties, but he joined the Fourth Battalion, Pennsylvania Militia, as a private.

By the middle of the 18th century, the center of the American fur trade had shifted again, from the Hudson to the Ohio Valley. Jewish traders could claim to have anticipated the movement westward. As early as 1641 a certain Mathias de Sousa led a party to trade with the Susquehanna Indians. Three Jews of Portuguese descent, John Pedro, Manuel and Silvado Rodriguez, were in Lancaster County in 1652. In 1710, Isaac Miranda, “late of Tuscany,” settled at Conoy Creek to trade with the Indians. He was described by James Logan as “an apostate Jew or fashionable Christian.” Miranda died in 1733 but his son, George, carried on in his pioneering spirit, joining that year with the Levy brothers, Nathan and Isaac, in an expedition to western Pennsylvania to trade with the Mingoes and the Shawnees. Joseph Simon, who was to become the wealthiest of the Pennsylvania traders, arrived in Lancaster in 1735: it is he who is credited also with being one of the founders of Louisville, Kentucky. Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania, was named after Aaron Levy, a prominent Indian trader. Meyer Hart was one of the ten original settlers of Easton, Pennsylvania.

These were not isolated instances. In 1723 Jews were reported to have arrived in Tulpehocken Creek with some German settlers from Schaharsie, New York. Fried-rich Sachse, in his book, German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, wrote with some bitterness of the Jewish influence on the New Denkers, who observed the seventh day as their Sabbath, circumcised their children, and refused to eat pork. He attributed these Hebraic observances to the effect of Jewish traders “who came without their families, with no intent to settle but purely to barter”—but in this last he was surely mistaken, as witness the “Journal of the Treaty with the Six Nations” in which the English commissioners who prepared it make reference to “a number of Jewish settlers and Jewesses, not long come from New York, who were residing in Lancaster County.” By the middle of the 18th century, sizable numbers of Jews could be found in the Pennsylvania towns of Reading, York, Easton, Schaefferstown, Heidelberg, and Lancaster—all border communities.

At the same time, wealthy Jewish shipowners and merchants of Philadelphia and New York, their ships laid up because of British restrictions, turned to the Indian trade in the Ohio Valley and soon began to dominate it. The principal trading companies were the consortium formed by David Franks, Joseph Simon, and Colonel William Trent; the house of Barnard and Michael Gratz; and the Quaker firm of Bayton, Wharton, and Morgan. These were not stock companies but shifting partnerships based on expediency or organized around specific expeditions into the fur country. On various occasions independent traders, like the Lowrey Brothers or George Croghan, were associated with Jewish firms. Business was conducted in true frontier fashion—there was never a contract between Levy Andrew Levy and Major Alexander Lowrey in more than forty years of frequent association, and when the time came to settle their accounts, the transaction was conducted with the two of them sitting on a log alongside a creek. When Lowrey fell on hard times because of losses incurred during the French and Indian Wars, Simon waived interest on a mortgage he held on Lowrey’s plantation, as did David Franks on a note he held. And when Croghan, known as the “Prince of Pennsylvania Traders,” was utterly ruined, it was to Michael Gratz that he turned for aid. Gratz supplied him with money, food, and clothing, and remitted all debts in exchange for land grants already of dubious value.



David Franks was prominent not only in the Indian trade but in Philadelphia society as well and was a member of the exclusive “Assembly,” whose annual ball was the social event of the season. He seems to have been a man of divided and tortured loyalties in both politics and religion. Franks married out of the faith and encouraged his children to become Christians, but to the end of his days he contributed to the support of the Shearith Israel synagogue in New York. Because the social-climbing Franks maintained friendships not only with Whiggish gentlemen but also with British officers stationed in Philadelphia, he was accused of Tory sympathies after the Revolution and forced at one time to leave for London, though he was later cleared and permitted to return. The charge of Toryism was not without a certain irony, inasmuch as it was one of his ships, the Myrtilla, which transported the Liberty Bell to America.

The Gratz brothers were no less firmly entrenched in Philadelphia society, but unlike Frank, their Jewish commitments were of a deeper sort. Barnard Gratz, whose portrait, painted by Sully, shows a modish Colonial gentleman, learned in the absence of a ritual slaughterer to butcher his own meat in the prescribed traditional manner, though later he trained a young apprentice, Joseph Etting, whose father was one of the first of the Pennsylvania fur traders, to perform the task for him. His brother, Michael, on one of many excursions into Indian country, carried kosher meat (salted) in his pack train. Michael was the younger brother, who before arriving in the colonies had a reputation as a ne’er-do-well: he had gone off on a wild voyage to India in quest of pearls and had unforgivably returned empty-handed to the family home in Silesia. Barnard, who was already prospering in the colonies, sent for him with some misgivings. “This place,” he warned, “requires honesty, industry, good-nature, and no pride, for one must do anything pertaining to business.” “Anything” comprised a little smuggling—“the trade offers quick and good returns, with the assistance of the great run,” he wrote—but then smuggling was not regarded as much of a crime in the colonies.

Michael, as it turned out, proved his worth in the Indian trade, making frequent trips to Indian country while Barnard, for the most part, conducted the shipping end of the business from Philadelphia. Michael married the daughter of Joseph Simon, a trustworthy citizen—“a worthy and honest Jew,” in Reverend Thomas Barton’s words—who conducted his trading transactions on the border with a fine disregard for the social graces; it is reported that he had the disconcerting habit of entering people’s houses without knocking.

It must not be presumed that the elegant Jewish merchants of Philadelphia restricted their business activities to the snug confines of their counting houses. The exigencies of the fur trade—it was all too easy for an agent to abscond and blame the loss on Indian raiding parties—often made it imperative for the merchant to travel with his goods. Francis Parkman, in his Conspiracy of Pontiac, gives the following description of the operation:

The chief thoroughfare from the middle colonies was from Philadelphia westward across the Alleghenies to the valley of the Ohio. . . . merchandise was sometimes carried in wagons as far as the site of Fort Pitt. From this point the goods were packed on the backs of horses which . . . climbed the shadowy heights of the Alleghenies and threaded the forests of the Ohio. The principal trader, the owner of the merchandise, would fix his headquarters in some large Indian town, where he would dispatch his correspondence to the surrounding villages with a suitable supply of blankets, guns and hatchets, liquor, tobacco, . . . beads, and hawkbells. . . .

Thus we find Simon at Fort Pitt, Jacob Franks (David’s father) in Green Bay, Levy Andrew Levy at Presque Isle, Hyman Levy at Fort William Henry, Emanuel Joseph at Michilimackinac, Gershon Levy at Detroit, and others at Three Rivers, Sandusky, and points beyond—all the way to the Illinois and Mississippi, and this when the whole frontier was inflamed.



The Seven Years’ War (1755-63), waged in North America solely for the control of the fur trade, created a no-man’s-land between the French and the English in which neither man nor merchandise could safely journey. To the ordinary hazards of the wilderness were now added the perils of war and the depradations of hostile Indians. The Jewish fur trader was subject to particular dangers; he never knew when he might find himself in the shifting frontier caught in traditionally antagonistic French-Catholic territory, from which he was barred by edict. Nor could supposedly friendly Indians be trusted; allegiances shifted with the changing tides of war, and unfortunate indeed was the trader who found himself trapped between the contending forces. Washington’s surrender of Fort Necessity and the even more calamitous defeat of Braddock’s Redcoats brought panic to the border communities and ruin to the traders who resided there. Prosperity returned when the French finally surrendered huge areas they had held for one hundred and fifty years, but it was of short duration. Soon the traders were in trouble deeper than the war had created.

Traditionally, the traders had enjoyed good relations with the Indians. To the settler the trader might be a villain who supplied the redskins with the rum that inflamed their murderous passions and the arms used to massacre peaceful villagers. But in truth, the Indians—who in their raids relied more on the element of surprise than on their outmoded rifles—needed the weapons to hunt furs; the Indian never learned to be a trapper and, surprisingly, was a poor archer. To the Indian, therefore, the trader was a bringer of precious gifts in exchange for what were to him often worthless peltries—the trade preferred worn furs because of their superior sheen. Frequently, a blood-brother relationship existed between trader and Indian, sealed by an exchange of clothes and maintained through years of close association.

The Pontiac Conspiracy (1763-65) and Cresap’s War (1774), the latter provoked by the slaughter of peaceful Indians, changed all that. The encroachment on Indian lands by the settlers and the broken promises of colonial authorities inflamed the red man more than rum, and converted every white man into an enemy. Lulled into false security by the British conquests of French territory and by the amicable relationships of the past, hundreds of traders were trapped in the fortified outposts taken by the Indians through storm or duplicity—only Detroit survived the sieges of the Pontiac confederacy. To be sure, warnings had been issued, but they were ignored. “These lands,” wrote Colonel Bouquet, “have been overrun by a number of vagabonds who, under the pretense of hunting, were making settlements in various parts . . . of which the Indians made grievous and repeated complaints.” He was a fine one to talk, having proposed to Lord Amherst that blankets impregnated with smallpox be distributed among the Indians! A better friend, David Franks, in a letter to Lord Dunmore, warned of evil consequences “from the great number of irregular and lawless emigrants that are . . . seating themselves upon the land of the natives without having obtained their consent . . . which irregular and unlicensed encroachment might very probably be productive of the Indian insurrections. . . .”

The Jewish traders, by all accounts, enjoyed exceptionally good relations with the Indians but they did not emerge unscathed. William Murray, Irish agent for the Gratz brothers, wrote to Barnard in Philadelphia: “Thirty-eight to forty Indians have been killed by white people on the Ohio, but the intelligence is only verbal. Not a word from J. Simons or any other person at Fort Pitt. If this intelligence is true, it would be much against us and would greatly endanger my scalp.” The news was all too true. Simon was one of a group of twenty-three traders led by Lowrey whose pack train was attacked by Indians at Bloody Run: they escaped with their lives but lost all their goods. Of a consortium of five Jewish traders operating out of Montreal, four were captured by the Indians, but they either escaped or were ransomed.

Caprice ruled the fate of all Indian captives: hair’s-breadth escapes were common. Levy Solomon is mentioned in the Amherst papers as a “New York trader who managed to make his escape from Detroit after being held by the Indians for some time.” Gershon Levy was captured along with two other traders and he, too, escaped, but nothing is known of what happened to his companions. Not all of the traders were lucky. The Reverend John Heckenwelder, in his Narrative of a Journey in the Wabash, tells of a Jewish trader named Jacobs, intercepted by hostile Indians while on his way to Saginaw: “Jacobs shot dead one of the gang after being mortally wounded himself.” Andrew Levy—not to be confused with Levy Andrew Levy—was killed by Indians. The story of Chapman Adams, who appears in Heckenwelder’s Narrative, belongs to the legends of Indian warfare. He was twice a prisoner, the first capture being reported in Major Robert’s Siege of Detroit:

. . . They have taken Chapman and his merchandise, as also a canoe with five Englishmen coming from Sandusky yesterday; among whom were Small-man and two Jews, who must have fallen into worse hands if they had not taken them, as they have not killed any of them. They desired to know what opinion the commandant had of them; and if he would make peace with them they would give up their prisoners and pay Chapman for that part of the merchandise that fell to their lot in the division of them with other Indians.

On the second occasion, as reported by Heckenwelder:

. . . the unfortunate man was betrayed by a false friend and again fell into the power of the Indians, who took him across the river to be burned and tortured, tied to a stake with a fire burning by his side. His thirst, from the great heat, became unbearable and he begged that some drink might be given him. It is a custom among the Indians, previous to the prisoner being put to death, to give him what they call his last meal. A bowl of pottage or broth was therefore brought to him for that purpose. Eager to quench his thirst, he put the bowl imimmediately to his lips . . . and was dreadfully scalded. Being a man of quick temper, he threw the bowl with its contents full into the face of the Indian who brought it to him.

His captives, as the story goes, decided he was mad and therefore under divine guidance; they spared his life and later released him for ransom.



The defeat of the French, the crushing of the Indian uprisings, opened up vast areas of the interior, extended the borders to the Mississippi, and introduced a fresh orgy of land speculation in which the Lees and the Washingtons of Virginia (through the Ohio Company) had long been involved. The Pennsylvania traders now became their rivals, through the Illinois Company. Of the twenty-two shareholders of the Illinois Company, eight were Jews and a ninth, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, had married into the Gratz family. Isaac Isaac hired Daniel Boone to obtain land for him in Kentucky—the record of the transaction still exists—and Michael Gratz purchased the region on which the Mammoth Caves now stand. The traders saw in their land acquisitions an extension of the fur trade, but the rush of “illegal” settlers swamped their holdings. Few profited ultimately from the land deals, or indeed from the fur trade in general. When the trade was in a shambles, Jewish traders turned to supplying the armies in conflict; they became sutlers first for the British forces and later for the Continental Army. This, too, was a treacherous business. The Continental Army paid badly when at all, and Haym Salomon was not the only Jewish businessman who lent money to the rebels without recompense.

Nevertheless, the Jewish traders of Pennsylvania seem to have survived the successive blows to their business better than their Gentile counterparts. The Lowrey Brothers and Croghan, for all of their political connections, had to turn to Jews in the end for aid and the firm of Boynton, Wharton, and Morgan failed—they were forced to sell their goods to David Franks for the sum of 10,000 pounds. The Jews were either more resourceful or more adaptable and survived the debacle. Michael Gratz moved to Virginia, where he was involved in the outfitting of privateers and in an ambitious but abortive plan to drain the Dismal Swamp. Solomon Etting, whose son used to slaughter meat for the Gratzes, prospered to such an extent that he was able to write to Robert Fulton with a proposal to build a steam-driven man-of-war. Simon, who lived to be ninety-two, remained a wealthy patriarch to the end of his days. Michael Gratz also lived to a ripe and prosperous old age; he helped finance the Rogers Clark expedition of 1781, the purpose of which was to find new lands for the pursuit of furs.

When the Ohio Valley fur trade came to an end so, for all practical purposes, did the Indian trade and the Jewish role in it. Thereafter, the emphasis passed to the trapper along the Wide Missouri and to the huge trading companies whose operations more or less excluded the private trader. But that is another story.



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