Jews in Colonial New York — Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of Jews in Colonial New York, please head on over there first.

Before we look at Jewish rights under British rule in the colony of New York, we must look at Jewish rights in England to get a feel for the coming changes.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell in armor.
A Painting of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656. Source: Wikimedia

This was a precarious time during the Interregnum with Oliver Cromwell installed as the Lord Protector*. Between Cromwell and the leaders that followed him, they never put forth a statute authorizing the settlement of Jews in England. Nor were they prohibited either. Because of this, Jewish rights under British rule remained uncertain and insecure.

As we’ll see, ambivalence is not the same as religious tolerance.

English Law & Antisemitism

Lord Edward Coke, as Chief Justice, was considered one of the greatest jurists of his time. In his legal commentaries, he mixed theology with law**, and considered Jews (and any other group who did not identify as Christians) infidels and perpetual enemies of Christians, and therefore had no rights whatsoever which a court of justice could enforce. (Kohler)

Painting of a British courtroom with robed men seated on the floor level and in the gallery.
Court of Common Pleas, Westminster Hall, Thomas Rowlandson, 1808. Source: Wikimedia

In 1673 this principle was invoked to prevent a Jewish plaintiff from recovering a debt admitted to be due to him, the defendant claiming that a perpetual enemy had no standing in a court of justice. (Kohler)

While many judges used Coke’s principles when arguing a case, some dismissed it.

This is where laws and rights regarding Jews (and other foreigners) diverge between England and the colony of New York. As we discovered in Part 1, when New Netherland passed into British hands, there was ambiguity on England’s part in how to categorize the takeover. If the Crown considered New York a conquered land, the leaders in New York could write their own laws. However, if it was an “acquisition by discovery,” the laws of England prevailed. All this is to say, some of England’s laws carried over to New York, and some laws were created by the General Assembly of New York, a colonial governing body who answered to the Crown.

Naturalization and Denization

Over the next sixty years, the Crown and General Assembly passed a variety of laws regarding naturalization and denization.

Denization: An obsolete term, dating back to the 13th century in British controlled countries in which a foreigner, through letters patent, became a denizen. This was not full citizenship, meaning they were not subjects of the Crown, though they were allowed to own land.
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021
Naturalization: A foreigner’s ability to gain full citizenship of a country
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

In 1683, the colonial Assembly passed a general naturalization act limited to those professing Christianity. Coke’s jurisprudence remained a powerful influence; the Crown did not include Jews with the right of naturalized citizenship. Despite this, Jewish residents did not give up on their quest to build a synagogue, and they petitioned Governor Dongan two years later “for liberty to exercise their religion.” In a time when they were denied naturalization, they had the chutzpah (or the Ladino equivalent) to ask for what they wanted, anyway.

Petitioning for a Synagogue

Governor Dongan handed off the request to the Mayor and Common Council of New York who decided:

“that no public worship is tolerated by act of Assembly but to those that profess faith in Christ, and therefore the Jews’ worship not to be allowed.”

A print of the Mill Street Synagogue. A small building with a picket fence in front of it.
Mill Street Synagogue

In the intervening years, Jews continued to gather and worship in their homes. However, somehow, a synagogue must have existed by 1692 because it was mentioned in a court proceeding. Next, it appeared on Chaplain Miller’s map in 1695 as the Jews’ Synagogue — the correct name of the synagogue is Congregation Shearith Israel, and it is still an active synagogue today. The first legal document reflecting its existence appeared among the New York City public records in 1700 where a property is described as bounded on one side “by the house and ground of John Harpending, now commonly known by the name of the Jews’ Synagogue.” Some scholars consider Miller’s map “questionable” due to Miller losing his notes before drawing up the map. (Hershkowitz)

Yellowed map of Manhattan 1695. there are few streets drawn, some property listed out by numbers with a legend in the corner.
Try as I might, I could not find #14, The Jew’s Synagogue, on the map.

It is important to mention that Shearith Israel considers their founding in 1654 when the first group of Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. Whether or not they had a building, if they gathered to worship, they existed.

Partial Naturalization

Some Jewish residents gained naturalization in 1715 when the colonial Assembly passed another naturalization act. This time, it included Protestants and “all persons alive who inhabited the colony before November 1, 1683.” Obviously, this did not include all Jews.

Amending the Oath of Abjuration

There were other considerations beyond naturalization that were important to Jews. If a person wished to take public office, they had to take an Oath of Abjuration swearing they would not take arms against the king. The phrasing included “on the true faith of a Christian,” which denied Jews’ political rights.

In 1723, Parliament recognized Jews as his Majesty’s subjects and omitted the phrase. This allowed Jews to lawfully swear in English courts. However, it wasn’t until 1727 that the colonial Assembly passed a general act omitting the phrase in New York.

Voting Rights

A major setback occurred in 1737 that reminds me of the voter suppression wave sweeping America right now. Adolph Philipse ran against Cornelius Van Horne for a seat in the General Assembly. He lost to Philipse 399 to 413, causing a controversy over who had the right to vote in that election. The lawyers handling the situation referred to New York law and decided that “all freeholders of competent estate, without excepting the descendants of Abraham” could vote. The lawyer representing Van Horne successfully appealed to the laws of England and to anti-semetic prejudice. (Varga)

voting rights for
all freeholders of competent estate. 

~No exceptions~ 

Image of a scroll with a checkmark with a quill beside it.
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

In the end, Philipse was still declared the winner, and Jews lost the right to vote and to be admitted as witnesses again. (Kohler) [Prior to this case, the requirement to vote in New York was a freehold worth at least £40.]

1740 brought a little hope for Jewish residents. The Naturalization Act of 1740 passed by Parliament gave special provisions for Jewish citizens. If a Jew resided in a colony for at least seven years, they could be naturalized by swearing an oath of allegiance before a local magistrate. This gave them full civil rights while it still withheld various political rights.

Finally, the first Constitution of the State of New York adopted in 1777 gave Jews and other disenfranchised minorities “absolute equality with all other subjects.” (Kohler) The State of New York was a leader in religious liberty by rejecting Lord Coke’s antisemitism!

“Announcing the Founding,” Secretary of the 1777 Convention, Robert Benson, mounted a barrel in front of the courthouse and read the document to assembled citizens.
New York’s First Constitution 1777, Darley, Felix, 1877. Source: NYPL

So, it’s time for white antisemitic supremacists to remember the principles America was founded on: absolute equality (still working on this one) and a rejection of Lord Coke’s principles based on combining church and state. Keep the Bible away from my rights!

Thank you for reading to the end. I know this has been a lot to digest. I welcome your comments, not your hate.

Footnotes:

* Lord Protector is a title used in British constitutional law for the head of state. It is also a particular title for the British heads of state in respect to the established church. (Source: Wikipedia)

** Separating church and state is a pillar of American constitutional law for a reason. And Lord Coke is that reason. He was also the inspiration behind our third, fourth, and sixteenth amendments.

Sources:

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Jews in Colonial New York — Part 1

Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.

Dutch people gather in a town square.
New York of 1660. Source: NYPL

The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1

Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule

Menasseh ben Israel by Rembrandt, 1636 (etching). Source: National Portrait Gallery (UK)

In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.

Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.

A fleet of Dutch merchant ships, sails billowing, flying the Dutch red, white, and blue flag.
Dutch West India Company. Source: Public Domain

Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.

Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.

While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:

“… After many consultations we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail to and trade in New Netherland and to live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company, or to the community, but be supported by their own nation. You will govern yourself accordingly.”

Peter Stuyvesant, April 26, 1655.

New Amsterdam

Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.

The left page shows handwriting: Isaac Mattahias Gomez. The right page is engraved with Biblia Espanola.
A Sephardic bible, translated into Spanish, printed in 1661.
Source: Gomez Mill House.

Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.

Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.

The articles of capitulation provided that:

All people shall still continue free denizens and enjoy their lands, houses, goods, ships wheresoever they are within this country, and dispose of them as they please.

The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.

Was it so simple? Yes, and no.

English Colonial Rule

A painting of the surrender.British ships in the background.
The fall of New Amsterdam. A woman pleads with Peter Stuyvesant. Source: Wikimedia

Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.

What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.

Next, we’ll explore the nuances of British control up through the American Revolution in Jews in Colonial New York – Part 2.

Ships approach the fortress at the tip of New York City. A Union Jack flies above the fort.
A view of Fort George with the city of New York. Source: John Carwitham, 1731.

Footnotes:

  1. Civil Status of the Jews in Colonial New York

Sources:

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