American Jews: How 1789 Created 2019

Shari Rabin

If anything has been made plain in recent history it is that the place of Jews in American society is complicated. Two recent Pew Surveys find that Americans feel the most warmly toward Jews of all religious groups and that less than half of them know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday. More gravely, there’s been a resurgence of anti-Semitic violence, most horrifically on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018. This paradox has a number of proximate historical causes; it is a product of the post-2016 and post-1945 worlds. But it is also, in important ways, a post-1789 phenomenon, shaped by the United States Constitution and its aftermath.

The Constitution was important for Jews in large part because it never mentioned them at all. In 1790 there were at most 2,500 Jews in all of the United States, but they were long resident and clustered in major cities, including Philadelphia. For most of western history, Jews had lived as an autonomous collective, governed by their own extensive legal tradition. Throughout Europe, “the Jewish question”—whether Jews could or should be granted the rights of individual citizenship—was one of the major concerns of the nineteenth century.

The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 ensured, without ever explicitly saying it, that European Jews would be considered individual citizens and “free white people.” This brought with it the right for propertied men to vote, the ability to move and settle without encumbrance, and the promise of free exercise of religion. Jews at the time knew that this was a major victory. In 1790 Levi Sheftall, president of Savannah’s Mickve Israel congregation, wrote to George Washington, thanking him profusely for having “Enfranchised us with all the privileges and immunities of free citizens, and initiated us into the grand mass of legislative mechanism.” The congregation, originally founded in 1735, was legally chartered by the state of Georgia later that year.

And yet legal whiteness and freedom of worship did not mean complete equality. The first amendment applied only to federal law, leaving individual states free to make their own decisions about religion. The states gradually disestablished religion by 1833, but a nascent evangelical reform movement fought to entrench Christianity in public life through other means, often in the name of order and morality. Jews lived in states where their children were taught using the King James Bible, where those who represented them called for days of thanksgiving in Christ’s name, and where they were prevented from holding office themselves because the oaths were Christian. Most challenging of all were the laws that prohibited work on Sunday, forcing all but the wealthiest of Jews to violate their own Saturday Sabbath.

Mordecai Sheftall (1735‒1797), Levi Sheftall’s Half-Brother. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

Some Jews challenged the privileges given to Christianity, both in court and in public discourse. When they did so in Richmond, Virginia, in 1845, a local newspaper responded by asking whether “the Jews were not aware of this law or something similar, when they emigrated to this country and why did they come if it was so in-tolerable!”[1] A contest over religion in public life quickly turned into an ugly referendum on Jews’ claim to American belonging. This became most explicit in California in 1855, where the Speaker of the House touted Sunday laws as an effective means of preventing Jewish settlement in the state. They were, he argued, “a class of people who only came here to make money, and leave as soon as they effected their object.”[2] Although Jews could be white citizens, public assertion of those rights could open the door to vitriol and exclusion.

The problem here was not only that Jews were a minority religion with theological differences from the majority. It was that the logics of religious freedom were far more limiting than they appeared. While belief and worship were protected, the primary metric of Jewish piety was observance, which could not always be contained within the private sphere. The Sabbath was a public institution, and one that unified a wide array of Protestant sects. Jewish challenges proved especially threatening, then, and they led to the activation of older strains of anti-Jewish thought that identified Jews as inherently different and economically suspect. In these moments, Jews were not only white citizens but threats to the moral order.

This post-1789 story shows that Jews have long attracted interest, confusion, and hostility in the United States because they are citizens, most of whom are understood to be white, although their forms of difference baffle prevalent notions of “religion.” It is not only Jews, however, who have found themselves tolerated only until they act collectively and visibly to challenge a public order that was built by and for white Protestants. When George Washington answered Savannah’s Levi Sheftall, he ended with a prayer, asking that, “the Deity . . . make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.” While the story of Jews in America has not always been one of blessings, it is important to recognize how it has had—and continues to have—implications for all Americans.


[1] News and Star, Sept. 25, 1845.

[2] Sacramento Union, Mar. 17, 1855.

4 November 2019

About the Author

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Religion at Oberlin College.

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