Jewish Stories from the Revolutionary War

“… there was nothing but war talked of etc. Every-body has there (sic) hands and herts (sic) full.”

From the Diary of Benjamin Sheftall

When the Revolutionary War began in April of 1775, the population of Jews in America was barely countable. They were two thousand out of two million, but they sprang into upholding the Patriot position:

“The freedoms that the evolution (sic) sought to secure for New World people were essential for the Jews, if they were to exist and prosper here—or anywhere… the Jews of America had no sense of belonging to any other nation. … For … those reasons, most … eagerly supported the Revolution. In whatever capacity they served, they contributed … out of proportion to their paucity.” [1]

Even before the War began, many Jews were already unsympathetic to the British. They “were a commercial people whose livelihood depended upon the free flow of goods,” [2] but the English had tried to regulate their skein of commerce, and inflict a 1763 Proclamation “which … banned Americans from engaging in trade beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains…” [3]

That decree simmered up animosity because “Jewish merchants had their eyes on the fur, timber, and other resources that lay beyond the line of demarcation.” [4] When combat was inaugurated by the Battles of Lexington and Concord, a variety of posses pounced from New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.

Some were military-oriented, composed of heroes-to-be like Mordecai Sheftall, Jacob Pinto, and Isaac De Costa; Solomon Bush, the Bordeaux-born Benjamin Rones, David Cardozo, and the much-celebrated Francis Salvador, who blockaded, bulleted and barricaded the British, while another cadre of businessmen and merchants utilized their resources, ships, materiel and brain power to impede the progression of the enemy, achieve freedom for the country, and win the war.

Michael and Bernard Gratz of Philadelphia signed pledges to cease trading with the British, and supplied gunpowder and firearms to George Washington’s troops. Along with Solomon Bush, they underwrote the soldiers’ rations at Fort Pitt, PA.

Isaac Moses and Samuel Myers loaded their vessels with cannon to overturn British ships. They were “blockade runners” who purchased goods in Amsterdam, then moved them to St. Eustatius Island for surreptitious transport back to America.

Moses was also the wealthiest Jew in Philadelphia. In 1781, he offered 3,000 pounds sterling to replenish the Continental Army with necessities, and bought bills of credit alongside Mordecai Sheftall and Michael Gratz to sustain the Treasury.

Aaron Lopez, once known as “The Merchant Prince of Newport” because of his armada of 100 ships, was dead by 1782 from a fluke accident, and eulogized by the future president of Yale, Rev. Ezra Stiles.

The equally loyal Solomon Simson donated cannon and lead to make bullets. He was also a business associate of David Franks, who furnished food to the British prisoners — a lucrative business until it ran out of money. Franks was fired in 1778, accused of having British sympathies, tried, acquitted, but never quite forgiven by society.

Samuel De Lucena dispatched potassium carbonate to fashion soap and glass as Joseph Simon reheated his forge to manufacture Henry rifles. Jacob Isaacs sent munitions.

Meanwhile, nephew David Salisbury Franks became a lieutenant colonel with George Washington, then an aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. After Arnold was convicted for treason, Franks’s credibility was besmirched despite an investigation that absolved him, and a return to the Washington command with a promotion.

Dr. Phillip Moses Russell was Washington’s surgeon general at Valley Forge, while Dr. David de Isaac Cohen Nassy tended to Philadelphians, affectionately, during a yellow fever epidemic. He had a better cure rate than the revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, a former signatory to the Declaration of Independence, who opted for a treatment of more bleeding and less heart.

Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation, removed Torahs for safekeeping — the British had burned one — and relocated them to Philadelphia, while the silversmith, Myer Myers, artisan to Paul Revere and others, “… organized a campaign to have … communities remove the[ir] lead sashes … and replace them with wood. He then helped melt the lead … into cannon balls and bullets … to use against the British.” [5]

Perhaps the most important Jew of the era was Haym Salomon. Of Polish birth, he immigrated to America, and “adopted” Liberty. He was ordered by Washington to level British warehouses; he was caught, arrested, and condemned to execution. When the British learned of his facility with languages — Salomon spoke 10 — they decided to use him as a translator. In a twist, Salomon transmitted phony messages, which facilitated his escape.

Afterwards, he re-invigorated his broker business, and was engaged by the Dutch and French as a securities agent. Salomon floated loans to the government without charging fees, equipped military units, servicemen, and intermittently paid the salaries of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe when the Treasury was nearly broke.

Meanwhile, in Savannah, Abigail Minis and her nine children were also toiling. A prosperous innkeeper, she stocked Washington’s troops with homegrown agricultural products until the British became suspicious. Minis relocated to Charleston and resumed her pro-Revolutionary works.

Her son, Philip, contributed $11,000 to cover the salaries of the North Carolina and Virginia Regiments. In 1776, he was appointed acting paymaster of Georgia’s regimental forces; by the end of the War, George Washington acknowledged him as a hero.

According to Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, the War was at a stalemate until the British realized the Jewish merchants had a formidable presence in St. Eustatius. Admiral Sir George Rodney was summoned to shut down the island. In his wrath, he burnt Jewish homes, and the 1739 synagogue, Honen Dalim.

While Rodney ransacked, Lord Cornwallis and his men were wobbling in the Carolinas; they retreated to Yorktown, VA. He hoped for reinforcements, but the French Admiral, Francois-Joseph de Grasse, appeared with 3,000 troops and trounced the British ships sent to his rescue at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September, 1781.

“… Washington … besieged Cornwallis … [who] surrendered … the war was over …” [6]

Ironically, if it had not been for Rodney’s anti-Semitic tempest, he would not have “forgotten” about the rest of the War, and the British strategy might not have veered off course.

By David Bruce Smith
Founder, Grateful American™ Foundation

This article was originally published by The American Revolution Center in Philadelphia, PA

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[1] Robert St. John, Jews, Justice and Judaism: A Narrative of the Role Played by the Jews in Shaping American History (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969).

[2] Hasia Diner, Jewish Americans: The Immigrant Experience (Publishers Group West, 2002).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacob R. Marcus, “The Jew and the American Revolution,” American Jewish Archives (1974).

[6] Jerry Klinger, “How the Jews Saved the American Revolution,” Jewish Magazine (June 2004).

_____________________________________________________________________

References

Books

  • Diner, Hasia. Jewish Americans: The Immigrant Experience. Fairfield, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2002.
  • Feldberg, Michael, PhD. Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History. New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 2002.
  • Reiss, Oscar. The Jew in Colonial America. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2004.
  • Schwartz, Laurens R. Jews and the American Revolution: Haym Salomon and Others. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1987.
  • St. John, Robert. Jews, Justice and Judaism: A Narrative of the Role Played by the Jews in Shaping American History. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969.

Articles

  • Klinger, Jerry. “How the Jews Saved the American Revolution,” Jewish Magazine (2004).
  • Marcus. Jacob R. “The Jew and the American Revolution,” American Jewish Archives (1974).

Papers

  • Kaplan, Earl, “Jews in the British Colonies During the Revolutionary Period, 1775-1783, As Reflected in Marcus’s American Jewry, Documents, Eighteenth Century,” January 14, 1973.
  • Rosencrantz, Dale, “A Study of the Military, Economic, and Financial Contributions of the Jews in the American Revolutionary Period, 1776-1783”; Spring 1977.
  • Sarna, Jonathan D., “The impact of the American Revolution on the American Jews,” Modern Judaism 1 (1981).
  • Wolf, Rick, “Major Contributions by Jews to the Revolution,” (not dated).

Websites

Jewish Stories from the Revolutionary War

July 2017 Book Recommendations

Irving Stone’s, THE PRESIDENT’S LADY; a love story about Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel.

Kitty Kelley’s, NANCY REAGAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY; the first lady’s life through the White House Years.

Lillian Hellman’s, MAYBE: A STORY; During a forty year period, the author meets a woman from time-to-time in Paris, New York, Hollywood, and Rome.

Golda Meir’s, MY LIFE; from Russia to Milwaukee; Israel to Prime Minister.

Tennessee Williams’s, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; A Southern family, a dying patriarch, and two brothers vying  for the inheritance.

July 2017 Book Recommendations

Summer reads for kids from the Grateful American Book Prize

WASHINGTON, DC – Kids learn how to read in school, but they learn the love of it at home, according to education advocate David Bruce Smith. “In the formative years, it is important that parents and grandparents read to their children. It teaches them to appreciate a good story. In later years, take them to the library and let them pick books that have a special appeal for them,” he suggests.

Smith is co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize, an award—which those who know him—say reflects his love of good reads and—for history. He partnered with the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Bruce Cole, to create the Prize.

“In this digital age, fewer and fewer of our children know the historical origins of the United States. Our aim is to show them how a story can “send” them on fascinating, exciting and adventurous journeys whenever they want. The idea is to encourage young people to learn more—with the hope that they will mature into responsible and productive citizens.” says Smith.

The first two books to win the Prize in 2015 and 2016 – Like a River and The Drum of Destiny – did just that, he says. “And now we are in the midst of a hunt for the 2017 Grateful American Book Prize, which is open for submissions through July 31.”

According to Smith each of those novels was an excellent choice for kids.

When Kathy Cannon Wiechman won for Like a River: A Civil War Novel, Smith said: “it is an exemplar of what the Prize is all about—to encourage authors and publishers to produce fiction and nonfiction that accurately depict the past as a means of engaging young readers in American history. Like a River is a page-turner about the plights of a pair of teens—on the battlefield–caught up in the conflict between the states. To call it riveting is a disservice. The book rouses the emotions of its readers in a way that leaves them wanting to learn more about that critical era in the evolution of the country. It goes beyond the dry retelling of the Civil War that often puts students to sleep at their desks during history class.”

Chris Stevenson’s The Drum of Destiny is the tale of a boy on his way to join the American Revolution’s Continental Army. The author says “by reading Drum of Destiny, young readers can learn about history without realizing they are learning about history. Most history textbooks are written with the idea of teaching kids facts they can memorize so they can then take a test. This method misses the most important aspects of history. The real life stories, the reasons behind the facts, and the character of our country’s founders are where the real learning is discovered.”

Smith also recommends other books that might have summer appeal for boys and girls:

  • Homesick: My Own Story by Jean Fritz
  • A Buss From Lafayette by Dorothea Jensen
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • The Revelations of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  • Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia

If ever there was a time to celebrate Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s now. With his 150th birthday just behind us, NYC has come alive with exhibits, celebrations, and opportunities to remember and reflect on his legacy.

As most of you know, Smilow® Furniture was born in the FLW community of Usonia (more on that, here), as a patron of the exhibit (lending 5 pieces of Smilow® Furniture) we are overjoyed to help the Center of Architecture celebrate Kaneji Domoto’s contribution to the iconic community.

Opening THURSDAY, JUNE 22, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM — RSVP

At the Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place [Directions]

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia presents the houses by Japanese American architect and Taliesin student Kaneji Domoto in Westchester County’s Usonia, a small community for which Frank Lloyd Wright designed the site plan and four houses in accordance with his urbanistic principles.

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia follows Domoto as an independent architect working in mid-century America, from his time at Taliesin, to his experiences in a Japanese internment camp in the southwest, to his work in Usonia and beyond. Through construction documents and original photography of his five Pleasantville houses, the exhibition explores Domoto’s architectural style, his references to Japanese design, and his connection to landscape architecture. Curator Lynnette Widder dives deep into the Lurie House, tracing the history of the home from construction, through the lives of the original occupants, and to Widder’s subsequent renovation and restoration.

Curator: Lynnette Widder, Lecturer in Discipline, Sustainability Management, Columbia University, Co-Author, Ira Rakatansky: As Modern as Tomorrow

Exhibition Designer: Studio Joseph

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia is supported in part by:

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia

This exhibition was made by possible by the generosity of the following sponsors:

Patron:

Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia

This project was made possible through support from the Independent Projects category of the Architecture + Design Program at the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Van Alen Institute served as fiscal sponsor.

 

RELATED PROGRAMMING

Exhibition Opening

Thursday, June 22, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Mid-Century Japanese American Designers

Monday, July 10, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Exploring Usonia

Saturday, July 22, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Pl
NY, NY 10012
(212) 683-0023
info@aiany.org

Gallery Hours
Mon-Fri: 9am to 8pm
Sat: 11am to 5pm