From Inquisition to Freedom
Early American Jews were unremarkable in many ways. They looked and behaved like other colonists: they wore the same clothes, lived in the same types of homes, worried about their children and worked to earn a living, just like other colonists. Their religion and their history were the only differences. Their beliefs had gotten them expelled from England in 1290 and cast out from Spain in 1492. The forced conversions, torture and expulsions of the Inquisition sometimes caused them to change their names and hide their religion, but never to forget who they were. Some fled from Catholic Europe to North Africa, Turkey, the Kingdom of Poland, and Protestant Europe including Slovakia, the German states and Scandinavia, making their homes in Copenhagen or Hamburg. More frequently, Spanish and Portuguese Jews sought refuge in Holland and created a home for themselves in Amsterdam. The Jewish community thrived there; their success allowed them to migrate to Brazil, Suriname, Jamaica and Curacao, where they built synagogues and purchased ground for cemeteries. And in 1654, these Jews came to Nieu Amsterdam (later New York) in the New World.
Their names were Spanish and Portuguese: Abram De Lucena, David Israel, Moses Ambrasias, Abram De La Simon, Salvator D'Andrada, Joseph De Costa, David Fiera, Jacob Barsunson, Jacob C. Henrique, Isaac Mesa and Isaac Levy. Their outlook was cosmopolitan and their trading interests became widespread and varied – and vital to the economy of the colonies. Soon more Jews arrived from Europe and the Caribbean and the Jewish community expanded to Newport, Charleston, Savannah and Philadelphia, always seeking the freedom to practice their religion and their professions. It wasn’t always easy; the Christian community mistrusted the Jews and frequently denied them basic rights of citizenship. New York was one place where Jews were given more latitude: under the provisional transfer to England of New Netherland negotiated by Peter Stuyvesant and his council in 1665, New Netherlanders under future English jurisdiction “shall keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion.” As the Jewish community grew and prospered, they contributed to the welfare of New York and the other cities in which they lived: creating jobs, supporting the prevailing government and, when the time came, frequently joining with the forces of revolution.
The Spanish Jews, the “Sephardim”, were joined by those from other parts of Europe: Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Russia. These “Ashkenazim” used different prayer books and conducted their worship services differently from the Sephardim, but to the Christian community, the distinction did not matter. All Jews were subject to discriminatory rules for trade and citizenship. But in America, it was sometimes possible to challenge discrimination. Little by little, in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York, Jews won the right to be naturalized, to trade freely and to worship publicly. They were able to serve in the military and to provide funds for the infant country. They were Patriots and Loyalists, Whigs and Tories, rich and poor. They were, in short, just like other Americans.
Still, some individuals stand out for their achievements in American and in Jewish history. The thirteen whose lives are commemorated in Patriots Park (one from each colony) and nine others were extraordinary in their own time and in ours. More portraits and biographies of early American Jews can be seen in the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Database of Early American Jewish Portraits, hosted by the American Jewish Historical Society.
Honored in Patriots Park
Solomon Bush (1753-1795) — Delaware
Lieutenant-Colonel Solomon Bush was the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Continental Army, a distinguished public servant, and a leader of the Masons in Pennsylvania. Born Oct 13, 1753, he was the son of Mathias Bush and Tabitha Mears. He joined the Pennsylvania Militia in 1776 and by July of 1777, he was appointed Deputy Adjutant General of the Militia of the State of Pennsylvania. According to a letter of commendation passed by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania in 1779,
…it appears that Major Bush has, on many occasions, distinguished himself in the public service, especially in the winter of 1776, when the service was critical and hazardous . . . in the month of September, 1777, acting as Deputy Adjutant General, he was dangerously wounded in a skirmish between the militia and the advance of the British Army, his thigh being broken and he brought off with great difficulty; that being carried to his father's house, on Chestnut Hill, and incapable of being moved, he fell into the hands of the British Army, when it moved up to Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania in December, 1777 and was imprisoned. Colonel Bush was ultimately released in exchange for British prisoners held by the Continental forces.
Bush was an active Mason and went to London in November 1788 on business for the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge. From there he repeatedly petitioned Washington for a diplomatic post, but was unsuccessful, despite being highly recommended by others close to Washington. Although he apparently had no formal medical training, Bush had evidently picked up enough medical knowledge, perhaps during the time he spent in London, to be generally referred to as Dr. Bush. In 1791, he married Nancy Ann Marshall, most likely in Philadelphia. He died in 1795 and is buried in the Friends Burial Ground in Philadelphia.
Abraham Cohn (1832-1897) — New Hampshire
Cohn, one of the many Jews who fought for the Union (some 2-3,000 Jews fought for the South), won the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty at the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of the Crater in 1864. He was born in Silesia, Germany in 1832. In 1860, he came to the United States and enlisted in the army, first in the Sixty-Eighth Regiment of New York and later the Sixth Regiment of New Hampshire. At the Battle of the Wilderness, he rallied and reformed the disorganized fleeing troops from several regiments and established a new line of defense that held its ground. At the battle of Petersburg, Virginia, (the Battle of the Crater) on July 30, 1864, he bravely and coolly carried orders to the advanced Union line under severe fire from the Confederate troops. While in the Sixty-Eighth Regiment of New York he rose to the rank of Captain. After the close of the war Captain Cohn settled in New York and began a successful business career. He married and was the father of eight children. Cohn died in New York City on June 2, 1897 and is buried in the Cypress Hills Cemetery, New York.
Jacob Hart (1746-1822) — Maryland
Born in Fürth, Bavaria, Hart immigrated to America, settling in Baltimore in 1775. He established himself as a merchant, and though in America only a year at the outbreak of war, aligned himself with the patriot cause. When General Lafayette visited Baltimore in 1791 and told the population of the army's needs, the merchants of the city subscribed for a loan. Jacob Hart was at the head of the list of contributors, with the largest contribution (2000 out of 5,000 pounds contributed).
On November 4, 1778, Hart married Leah Nathan, the daughter of Caroline Webb and Lyon Nathan of Pennsylvania. The couple was married in Philadelphia where Leah’s father served as shammash [caretaker] of Congregation Mikveh Israel. They soon moved to New York where he emerged as an important member of the Jewish community, serving as parnas [president] of Shearith Israel. In 1809, Jacob and Leah’s daughter Ella married Haym Moses Salomon, son of Haym Salomon, who is also represented in Patriots Park.
Hart died on May 9th, 1822 and is buried in the Chatham Square Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York.
Moses M. Hayes (1739-1805) — Massachusetts
As Boston's most prominent 18th-century Jewish citizen, Moses Michael Hays set a high standard for civic leadership and charity. He was born in New York City in 1739 to Dutch immigrants Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels. Judah Hays took his son into his shipping and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the business and largest share of his assets. Moses continued his father’s commitment to Congregation Shearith Israel, serving as second parnas [vice-president] in 1766 and parnas in 1767.
1766 was also the year that Hays was married to Rachel Myers, younger sister of famed New York silversmith Myer Myers [also represented in Patriots Park.] The couple moved to Newport, Rhode Island in 1769, where Hays continued his shipping business. Business reverses landed him in debtor’s prison but he was set free when he liquidated his assets and repaid his creditors. He immediately reestablished himself in the trans-Atlantic trade.
In 1775, seventy-six men in Newport were asked to sign a declaration of loyalty to the American colonies that included the phrase, "upon the true faith of a Christian." Hays publicly objected to the phrase and refused to sign, instead offering a letter affirming his belief that the Revolution was a just cause. Hays signed when the Christian portion of the oath was omitted.
The Hays family left Newport for Boston ahead of the British occupation in 1776. He opened a shipping office in Boston and was among the first merchants there to underwrite shipbuilding, trade and insurance to newly opened Far Eastern markets. In 1784, Hays became a founder and the first depositor of the Massachusetts Bank, still doing business today as part of the Bank of America.
In 1783, Reverend Isaac de Abraham Touro, husband to Hay’s sister Reyna, died in Jamaica, leaving his widow with three children: Abraham, Judah and Rebecca. Moses Hays brought the family to Massachusetts and raised Reyna’s children as his own.
Hays also helped to establish the New England Masonic movement. When Hays was accepted into the Massachusetts Lodge in November 1782, he was the only Jew. In 1792, the lodge members elected Hays their Grand Master with Paul Revere as his Deputy.
Moses Michael Hays provided financial support to beautify Boston Common, establish theaters and endow Harvard College. Hays descendants helped found the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts General Hospital and remain prominent in Boston public life to this day.
Moses Michael Hays died in 1805 and is buried at The Colonial Jewish Burying Ground in Newport.
Aaron Lopez (1731-1782) — Rhode Island
Aaron Lopez, known as “The Merchant-Prince of Newport”, was the most successful of Newport’s merchants and traders and was one of the founding benefactors of Touro Synagogue. Lopez, born to a well-to-do Converso family, was named Duarte [Edward] Lopez at his birth in Portugal in 1731. While in Portugal, Lopez married Anna Lopez and had a baby daughter Catherine before deciding to leave for a new, openly Jewish life in British North America. He joined his older brother Moses in Newport, Rhode Island.
Upon arrival in Newport, Duarte, Anna and their daughter Catherine reverted to Judaism and changed their names to Aaron, Abigail and Sarah, respectively. With the help of his brother Moses, Aaron set himself up in business. He participated with Jacob Rodriguez de Rivera in the manufacture and sale of spermaceti [whale oil] candles. By 1760 his business activities had grown to include whaling and a few ventures in the slave trade, as well his main traffic in the export of Newport manufactures such as furniture, axes, plank and board, flour, barrel staves and salt fish.
As an English crown colony, trade from Rhode Island to the mother country was a privilege restricted to citizens. In 1761 Lopez, along with his friend and business partner Isaac Elizer, sought naturalization in Rhode Island in order to be able to trade freely with Britain. However, the both men were refused by the colony’s courts and legislature primarily because they were Jewish. To circumvent the ruling, Lopez set up residence in Swansey, Massachusetts, and was finally naturalized at Taunton, Massachusetts in October 1762, where naturalization of Jews was allowed. Elizer was naturalized in New York a year later. The Rhode Island authorities accepted the naturalizations from the sister colonies.
Following the death of his wife Abigail in 1762, Lopez married Sarah Rodriguez de Rivera, the daughter of his business partner, Jacob Rodriguez de Rivera.
The American fight for Independence brought significant economic upheaval to Newport merchants, Lopez included. One of his ships, the Hope was seized by privateers as it traveled between Newport and Jamaica, and in 1780, Lopez petitioned the Continental Congress for protection and restitution, which was granted; however, it is doubtful that any damages were ever paid1.
Fairly early in the war the British had taken and occupied Newport. In 1778, Lopez evacuated his family to Leicester, Massachusetts, where he set up a retail shop and a modest commodities trade via overland routes through Salem, Boston and Providence. Over the course of the next four years, he became a key supplier to the American forces, providing such necessities as flour and leather breeches.
In 1782, while on the way to Newport with his family, Aaron Lopez accidentally drowned when thrown by his horse into Scott's pond in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Lopez and his first wife Abigail are buried in The Colonial Jewish Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island.
Aaron Louzada (1693/5-1764) — New Jersey
Aaron Louzada was a wealthy merchant and shopkeeper, dealing in spices and liquor. He was the first Jew to settle in New Jersey, establishing his family in Bound Brook in 1698. Aaron was born in London sometime between 1693 and 1695 to a family whose history can be traced to the beginnings of the Spanish Inquisition.
He arrived in New York in 1717 and soon purchased 877 acres of land, which was ultimately the basis for much of modern Bound Brook. His trade in spices and liquor succeeded and he became known for his generous contributions to Jewish communal causes in New York and New Jersey. Prior to 1740, he married Blume Michaels, the daughter of Moses Michael and Catherine Hachar. The Louzada’s had three children. Aaron died in 1765.
Jacob Mordecai was both a patriot and a pioneer in the education of women. He was born in Philadelphia in 1762, the son of Moses and Esther Mordecai. At age 13, Mordecai served as a rifleman when the Continental Congress was resident in Philadelphia and later helped supply the Continental Army as a clerk to David Franks, the Jewish quartermaster to General George Washington. After the war, Mordecai moved to New York and married Judith Myers. In 1792, the couple moved to Warrenton, North Carolina. Mordecai became a tobacco merchant there, but he was more interested in education and scholarship. In 1796, his wife Judith died in childbirth. He remarried, choosing Rebecca Myers, Judith's younger half-sister.
In 1808 Mordecai’s tobacco business was struggling and he closed the company. At the request of some of the town’s leaders, who respected his knowledge and erudition, he opened the Warrenton Female Seminary (also known as Mordicai’s Female Academy). Initially Mordecai and his wife Rebecca taught all the classes but were later joined by their daughter Rachel and two of his sons.
The school succeeded thanks to its innovative plan of moral instruction and sensitivity to both Christian and Jewish observance. Students of all faiths were represented and each group was able to observe its own holidays and practices. By 1814, the academy’s reputation had spread so widely that Mordecai was forced to cap enrollment at 110 students.
In 1819, at age 56, ten years after opening his Female Academy, Mordecai decided to sell the highly successful enterprise and move his family to Richmond, Virginia. He purchased a farm and lived as an active member of Richmond’s Jewish community, serving as president of its Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, the sixth oldest Jewish congregation in America, founded in 1789.
Moses Myers (1752-1835) — Virginia
Moses Myers was the first Jewish settler in Norfolk, Virginia and had a long career in public service for the City of Norfolk and the United States Government. He was born in New York and after marrying Eliza Judah in 1787 , he moved to Norfolk. Within five years had established a five-vessel fleet for his import-export business. In 1795 he was elected president of the Norfolk city council and in 1804 was commissioned colonel of a regiment of Virginia volunteers. He was appointed vice-consul for both Denmark and the Netherlands at Norfolk and in 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed him collector of customs for the port of Norfolk. Fortune did not always smile on him, however. In 1816, Congress passed the Embargo Act, which forced Myers into bankruptcy. He was told he could avoid debtors’ prison by trafficking in slaves or opium but he refused. Although he was never able to recover his fortune, his debts were repaid by the time of his death in 1833. The classic Georgian townhouse that he and his wife Eliza built in 1792 still stands and is a popular tourist attraction. Approximately 70% of the eighteenth-century furniture in the house was used by the Myers family. This is one of the few historic homes in which Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is celebrated.
Myer Myers (1723-1795) — Connecticut
Myer Myers was born in 1723, the son of Solomon and Judith Myers, and was a dominant figure among a well-established community of silversmiths during the colonial era. Although it is not known with whom the silversmith Myer Myers apprenticed, he became a freeman of the City of New York on April 29, 1746. In about 1753, Myers married Elkaleh Myers-Cohen. In August, 1754, Myers moved his shop from the Meal Market in lower Wall Street to a house on King Street (now Pine Street), where he continued the goldsmith´s business with much success.
By November 1763, silversmith Benjamin Halsted had joined Myers in the firm of Myers and Halsted, goldsmiths, advertising fancy goods, readymade plate, and jewelry for sale at their premises at the lower end of King Street. The firm continued to make all sorts of work, in gold and silver, on a custom, made-to-order basis. Myers´s clients included a broad range of New York society. Myers was a leader of the Congregation Shearith Israel, and crafted religious objects for both Jewish and Protestant congregations.
Myers’ first wife, Elkaleh Myers-Cohen, died in 1765, leaving him with four living children. In 1767, Myers married his second wife, Elkaleh (Joyce) Mears. As the British threatened New York, Myers and his family joined other members of Congregation Shearith Israel in evacuating New York and taking refuge in Norwalk, Connecticut in advance of the British occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War.
In 1776, while the Myers family was living in Norwalk, Connecticut, their daughter, Rebecca Mears Myers, was born. Their fourth son, Benjamin Myers, was born in Norwalk in 1778. The couple had a total of seven children during the period from 1769 to 1778.
Myers and his family fled to Philadelphia by 1782, that city having the largest Jewish community in the Colonies. However, upon the evacuation of New York by British troops late in November 1783, Myers returned north. He was chairman of the Gold and Silversmiths Society in 1786, and maintained a shop at 29 Princess Street (now Beaver Street), at the corner of Broad Street in 1789. By 1792, he had relocated to Pearl Street, where he remained until his death in 1795.
He created the magnificent Torah finials (rimonim) which can now be found in the Touro Synagogue.
Haym Salomon (1740-1785) — Pennsylvania
Haym Salomon was a Polish-born Jewish immigrant to America who played an important role in financing the Revolution. An astute merchant and auctioneer, Salomon succeeded in accumulating a fortune that he subsequently devoted to the use of the American government. He acted as a spy for America in British-held New York, was arrested, then escaped and fled to Philadelphia. He personally supported various members of the Continental Congress during their stay in Philadelphia, including James Madison. Salomon also negotiated sales of a majority of the war aid from France and Holland, selling bills of exchange to American merchants.
Salomon’s contributions to the success of the Revolution have been frequently acknowledged, including the issuance of a US postage stamp in 1975. The Congressional Record of March 25, 1975 reads,
"When [Robert] Morris was appointed Superintendent of Finance, he turned to Salomon for help in raising the money needed to carry on the war and later to save the emerging nation from financial collapse. Salomon advanced direct loans to the government and also gave generously of his own resources to pay the salaries of government officials and army officers. With frequent entries of 'I sent for Haym Salomon,' Morris' diary for the years 1781–84 records some 75 transactions between the two men.
Salomon was also involved in Jewish community affairs, was a member of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, and in 1782, made the largest individual contribution towards the construction of its main building. In 1783, Salomon and other prominent Jews appealed to the Pennsylvania Council of Censors urging them to remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution. In 1784, he answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating:
"I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens."
Possibly as a result of his purchases of government debt, Salomon died penniless in 1785 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Mikveh Israel Cemetery. Two plaques commemorating his achievements have now been placed in the cemetery.
Francis Salvador (1747-1776) — South Carolina
Francis Salvador was born in London in 1747 and moved to South Carolina in 1773. In 1774, at the age of 27, Salvador was elected as a delegate to South Carolina's revolutionary Provincial Congress, which assembled in Charleston in January 1775. He became the first Jew to hold that high an elective office in the English colonies.
When the second Provincial Congress assembled in November 1775, Salvador urged that body to instruct the South Carolina delegation in Philadelphia to vote for American independence. Salvador was also part of a special commission established to preserve the peace in the interior parts of South Carolina, where the English Superintendent of Indian Affairs was busily negotiating treaties with the Cherokees to induce the tribe to attack the colonists. When the Cherokees attacked settlements along the frontier on July 1, 1776, massacring and scalping colonial inhabitants, Salvador mounted his horse and galloped nearly thirty miles to give the alarm. He then returned to join the militia in the front lines, defending the settlements under siege. During a Cherokee attack early in the morning of August 1st, Salvador was shot. He fell into some bushes, where he was subsequently discovered and scalped. He died 45 minutes later, the first Jewish casualty of the war.4
Gershom M. Seixas (1746-1816) — New York
Gershom Mendes Seixas was the first native-born Jewish clergyman in the United States, appointed to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York as its hazzan [reader] in 1768. He was an ardent patriot, a spokesman against intolerance, and was the spiritual leader of Shearith Israel from 1768 until 1776 and again from 1784 until his death in 1816. During the British occupation of New York, Seixas served as hazzan for Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia.
Seixas was a strong advocate for American independence. In 1775, he convinced the majority of his congregation that it was better that Shearith Israel close rather than operate during the British occupation of New York. Seixas packed the congregation's books and sacred scrolls and removed them, with his family, to his father-in-law's home in Strafford, Connecticut.
He was well-regarded in both the Jewish and Christian communities and served as a trustee of Columbia College (now Columbia University). In 1787, when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, Seixas was one of the 14 clergy who participated in the inauguration ceremonies.
Seixas died in 1816 and is buried in the Chatham Street Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York.
Mordecai Sheftall (1735-1797) — Georgia
Mordecai Sheftall was a prominent merchant and leading Jewish citizen of Savannah, Georgia. Born in 1735, Mordecai married Charleston-born Frances Hart in 1761. He became a founding subscriber to Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah and provided the community with land for its first Jewish cemetery. Sheftall was the Jewish representative among the original five incorporators of the Union Society, a non-denominational philanthropic association formed by Savannah's religious organizations to assist widows and poor children.
Sheftall joined the Continental army when war broke out and was appointed Commissary General of Purchases and Issues to the Georgia militia in 1777. In this position, he was responsible for supplying the colony's soldiers with food, clothing and materiel and often spent his own money to purchase supplies for the volunteers.
He was captured with his 15-year-old son, Sheftall Sheftall, by the British in 1778 and imprisoned. Refusing to provide information about the American's sources of supplies and refusing to renounce the patriot cause, father and son were transferred to the prison ship Nancy. After several months, Sheftall and later his son were paroled to the town of Sunbury, Georgia, under close British surveillance. The Sheftalls managed to flee from Sudbury on an American brig bound for Charleston, but were again captured by the British and sent to Antigua, where they remained prisoners until the spring of 1780. Once free, they headed for Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, despite his own financial hardships, Mordecai helped fund a new synagogue for Congregation Mikve Israel.
When the war ended in 1783, Mordecai returned with his wife and children to Savannah, where the family resumed its life. The state of Georgia granted him several hundred acres of land in recognition of his sacrifices on behalf of independence. He died in 1797 at the age of 62 and was buried in Savannah with full honors in the Jewish cemetery he created.
Other Early American Jews Important to American History
Issac Franks (1759 - 1822)
Franks joined the Continental army at age 17, fought and was wounded in the Battle of Long Island. He was captured in Manhattan but escaped to New Jersey. He served as a quartermaster and then as a forage-master at West Point. Congress appointed him ensign in the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment in 1781. He resigned due to illness the following year and married Mary Davidson, a practicing Christian. Franks had been a practicing Christian for several years before his marriage.
The couple moved to Germantown where Franks established his business as a financial broker. The business was successful and Franks was able to purchase a large home in Germantown. In 1793, during the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia, he rented his house to George Washington for use as a substitute White House. Washington met there with his cabinet until the epidemic eased and he returned to Philadelphia. Franks hosted the President and his wife again in 1794 while they were on vacation.
That same year, Franks was appointed lieutenant colonel of the Second Regiment, posted to Western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. The following year he began his service as justice of the peace for Germantown and Roxborough. In 1819 he came to serve as prothonotary [principal clerk of the court, or high notary] of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, a post he held until his death three years later.
Franks’ sister Rachel was the wife of Haym Salomon (see above).
David S. Franks (1740 - 1793)
David Salisbury Franks, son of Abraham Franks and Lady Elizabeth Cecil, was born in Philadelphia around 1740. Franks' father, a successful merchant, relocated his branch of the family to Quebec when Franks was a young man. In 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, he was living in Montreal, serving as parnas (president) of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in that city (organized in 1768), though he was of German Jewish descent. Franks joined the Continental Army when it invaded Quebec to wrest it from British control. He described his activities as paymaster of the Continental Army in Quebec in a letter to George Washington in 1789:
in which Capacity I was indefatigable in forwarding the public Works, & again advanced considerable Sums of Money, at times when there was not a farthing in the Military Chest to satisfy the demands of the Workmen.5
Franks returned to Philadelphia in July 1776, joined the Continental Army and served actively until October 1777. He attained the rank of major and was assigned as aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, the military governor of Philadelphia. When Arnold was convicted of treason, Franks was implicated by his association with Arnold. After two court martial investigations, all charges against David Salisbury Franks were dropped, although the damage to Franks’ reputation would prove to be long-lasting.
In 1781 he was designated an official courier by Robert Morris to carry dispatches to John Jay in Spain and served as vice-consul at Marseilles from 1784 to 1787. During this period Franks experienced considerable financial difficulties, incurring debt at home and abroad. On his return to the United States in 1787, he sought a Federal appointment to support himself and his family. He asked Washington to appoint him as Counsel General in France, but instead received the minor appointment of secretary to the commissioners Washington had appointed to negotiate with the Creek Indians. After his return from the mission to the Creek, he served as assistant cashier of the Bank of the United States. Franks, by now penniless, died of yellow fever in October of 1793 at the age of 53. A Christian neighbor rescued his corpse from the coroner's wagon before it went to potter's field. Franks today lies buried in Philadelphia's Christ Church Burial Yard.
Harmon Hendricks (1771 - 1839)
Harmon Hendricks was a metallurgist, businessman and inventor who helped to transform the United States from an importer to a manufacturer of copper.
His father, Uriah Hendricks, had established a metals business in the American colonies, importing copper and brass from England, which discouraged manufacture of these commodities in the colonies. When Uriah Hendricks died in 1797, Harmon took over the metals importing company, as well as the family role in leading Shearith Israel, where he served as parnas from 1824 to 1827.
He married Frances Isaacs in 1800 and together they had five children.
In 1812, during the American war with England, Hendricks and his brother-in-law Solomon Isaacs built one of the nation’s first successful copper rolling mills in Soho, New Jersey. The Hendricks firm produced the copper used to sheath three Navy vessels in New York harbor at the same time that Paul Revere, a good friend of the Hendricks family, was cladding a fourth, the Constitution, with copper probably supplied by Hendricks. In addition, Hendricks made another contribution to the war effort by subscribing the then-considerable sum of $40,000 to government issued war bonds.
When Harmon Hendricks died in 1838, his three sons and four grandsons succeeded him in the business. The last member of the family to operate the business was Harmon Washington Hendricks, who died in 1928.
Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy (1792 - 1862)
Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy had a long and significant career in the American Navy, beginning in the War of 1812. Moreover, he is singularly responsible for the preservation of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.
Levy was born in Philadelphia in 1792, the son of Michael Levy and Rachel Machado Phillips. He ran away to sea at age ten to serve as a cabin boy on a trading ship, but returned home in time to become bar mitzvah at age 13. By the next year, he had returned to sea and was an experienced sailor when the War of 1812 began. He began his naval service on the U.S.S. Argus in June 1813. In August, the Argus was captured and the crew was sent to Dartmoor Prison in England. Levy remained a prisoner at Dartmoor for sixteen months.
After his release, Levy served on a succession of naval vessels, working his way up the ranks. He commanded USS Vandalia in 1838-39 and in 1857, he received the honorary rank of Commodore. He commanded the USS Macedonian in 1858 and was Flag Officer of the Mediterranean Squadron in 1860. During the 1850s, he was an important figure in abolishing flogging as a Navy punishment.
Levy purchased Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, in 1836 and restored the property to its original condition and opened it for visitation. The house and grounds remained in the Levy family until the estate was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.
He married his niece Virginia Lopez, daughter of his sister Frances Levy and Abraham Lopez in 1853. The couple had no children.
Major Alfred Mordecai (1804 -1887)
Major Alfred Mordecai was a career Army officer who resigned his commission in 1861 rather than lead Union troops against the South, his family home. During an illustrious military career, he was responsible for the introduction of scientific methods into the development of pre-Civil War American military munitions.
Major Mordecai, the son of Jacob Mordecai and Rebecca Mears Myers, was born in Warrenton, North Carolina in 1804. Jacob, profiled elsewhere in these biographies, ran a school for the education of women and Alfred was the only male student. A brilliant mathematician, he left Warrenton at age 15 to enter West Point. He graduated in 1823 at the age of 19, top of his class.
He continued at West Point as an instructor, then as supervisor for the construction of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast. He was then posted to Washington, D.C. as assistant to the Army Chief of Engineers. In 1836, he was appointed commander of the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. That year, he married Sarah Ann Hays, a niece of Rebecca Gratz (also profiled in these biographies). The couple had eight children, including Brigadier General Alfred Mordecai, Jr., who disappointed his father by graduating from West Point in 1861 and fighting for the Union side against his Southern family. Alfred, Jr. was also an instructor at West Point, commanded the National Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, and died with the rank of General in 1920.
Mordecai, Sr., promoted to the rank of major, then assumed command of the army’s most significant arsenal, in Washington, DC. He became an assistant to the Secretary of War and to the Chief of Ordnance, wrote an excellent Digest of Military Laws and served on the Board of Visitors to West Point. As a member of the Ordinance Board, Mordecai instituted scientific testing of munitions and new weapons systems. In 1841, he wrote the Ordinance Manual for the Use of Officers of the United States Army (still in use when revised in 1950) the first manual for the US military that standardized the manufacture of weapons with interchangeable parts.
As his reputation as an expert in military technology and armaments grew, Mordecai was sent by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War under President Pierce, to Russia. He was part of a commission to study the Crimean War and Mordecai’s report Military Commission to Europe 1855–1856 was and is considered to be a model of military and technology analysis. He also wrote the Second Report of Experiments in Gun Powder in 1849.
Mordecai’s military endeavors flourished until the start of the Civil War. He had spent his career in support of the United States Army but all of Mordecai’s siblings lived in the South and sided with the Confederacy. To avoid fighting them, he sought a U.S. Army post in California, away from battle. His request was denied and rather than violate his principles, Mordecai resigned his position. During the war, he sustained his family by teaching mathematics at a private school.
After the war, he did not return to military life, but instead worked briefly as an engineer for the Imperial Mexican Railroad. In 1866, he moved his family to Philadelphia, strengthening their ties to the Jewish community of Congregation Mikve Israel, where both the Gratz and Hays families were prominent. He died in 1887, and he and his wife Sarah are buried in the Federal Street Cemetery of that congregation.
Abraham Touro (1774 -1822)
Oldest son of Isaac Touro, Abraham was born in Newport, Rhode Island. After the death of his father in Jamaica, he lived with his mother and siblings in the home of his uncle Moses Michael Hays in Boston, Massachusetts.
As an adult, Abraham lived in Medford, Massachusetts. He entered into the merchant trade and insurance business with his cousin, Judah Hays, taking over the family business when his uncle died. Like his brother Judah, Abraham was known for his philanthropy, contributing to, among others, the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Female Asylum, and the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys. It was his caring and concern for the synagogue and cemetery in Newport, however, that he truly is remembered. In addition to the maintenance of the synagogue, he also contributed funds and oversaw the erection of a fence around the cemetery, the sidewalk from the cemetery to the synagogue, and maintenance and repair of the street that would one day bear his family name.
Rev. Isaac de Abraham Touro (1738-1783)
Isaac de Abraham Touro was the first permanent spiritual leader of Newport’s Congregation Yeshuat Israel and was served as hazzan in the congregation from 1759 to 1776. He was congregational leader during the construction of the Touro Synagogue from 1759 to 1763 and was responsible for hiring Peter Harrison to design the synagogue.
Born in Amsterdam in 1738, Touro and his family had escaped the Inquisition in Spain, moving first to Lisbon, Portugal and from there to Amsterdam. Touro trained for the Jewish ministry in Amsterdam, then traveled to Jamaica before moving to Newport. He married Reyna Hays in 1773, in the synagogue he helped to build. Reyna was the daughter of Judah and Rebecca Michaels Hays of New York, and sister to Moses Michael Hays of Newport.
Touro was a Loyalist and at the time of the occupation of Newport by the British, remained in Newport to care for the synagogue, when other members of the congregation were fleeing elsewhere. To help protect the synagogue building, he allowed the British to use the sanctuary as a hospital. His loyalty to the British crown came at a cost; in 1782, when it appeared that British would lose the war, he prudently moved his wife and children to the British colony of Jamaica, remaining there until his death in 1783. At that time, Reyna took the children and moved back to Boston to live with her brother, Moses Michael Hays.
Judah Touro (1775 -1854)
Judah Touro was the youngest surviving son of Isaac Touro. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, he and his siblings (Abraham and Rebecca) were raised in the home of his uncle Moses Michael Hays in Boston, Massachusetts after the death of their father in 1783.
According to some sources, Judah fell in love with his cousin Catherine Hays, but was forbidden to marry by her father, Moses Michael Hays. As a consequence, Judah moved to New Orleans where he made his fortune as a merchant/trader. During the war of 1812, he served as a civilian under General Jackson and was severely wounded.
Touro helped found congregation Nefuzoth Yehuda in New Orleans, a Sephardic congregation. He subsequently built its synagogue and attended services regularly. He provided the land and funds for its religious school, bought land for its cemetery and annually made up for any deficits incurred.
At the time of his death in 1854, his estate totaled nearly one million dollars. His will serves as the prototype for modern philanthropy and was so enormous and unusual for the time that it created world interest. The document included bequests to charitable organizations, orphanages and religious institutions in various cities, including his birthplace, Newport. His most enduring and visible legacy is the Touro Infirmary, “a charitable organization for the relief of the Indigent Poor” which today is the only community based, not-for-profit faith-based hospital in New Orleans.
His most significant gifts to Newport included funds to complete the restoration of Redwood Library and to complete the purchase of land along Bellevue Avenue for a public park that now bears his name.
Endnotes and citations to Early American Jews
1 Jacob Rader Marcus , United States Jewry, 1776-1985, p. 241
2 Malcolm Stern, First American Jewish Families, p 218.
4 Feldberg, Michael, ed. Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History. p. 24.
5 The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007. Compiled in rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/pgwde/search-Pre02d202 [accessed 08 Jan 2008]