Jews and the Founding of America


BY RABBI KEN SPIRO

BY RABBI KEN SPIRO

The amazing story of Jewish influence on the founding of American democracy is a well-kept secret. 

The creation of the United States of America represented a unique event in world history – founded as a modern republic, it was rooted in the Bible, and one of its earliest tenets was religious tolerance.

This is because many of the earliest pilgrims who settled the “New England” of America in early 17th century were Puritan refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe.

These Puritans viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. To them, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land.

Thanksgiving – first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed – was initially conceived as a day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; it was to be a day of fasting, introspection and prayer.

Writes Gabriel Sivan in The Bible and Civilization (p. 236):

“No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation … these émigré Puritans dramatized their own situation as the righteous remnant of the Church corrupted by the ‘Babylonian woe,’ and saw themselves as instruments of Divine Providence, a people chosen to build their new commonwealth on the Covenant entered into at Mount Sinai.”

Previously, during the Puritan Revolution in England, some Puritan extremists had even sought to replace English common law with Biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of Biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies and this was exactly what these early colonists set out to do.

The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony:

“Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men as well as in the government of families and commonwealth as in matters of the Church … the Word of God shall be the only rule to be attended unto in organizing the affairs of government in this plantation.”

Subsequently, the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code – the Code of 1655 – which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained Biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641 adopted the so-called “Capitall Laws of New England” based almost entirely on Mosaic law.

Of course, without a Jewish Oral Tradition, which helped the Jews understand the Bible, the Puritans were left to their own devices and tended toward a literal interpretation. This led in some instances to a stricter, more fundamentalist observance than Judaism had ever seen.

JEWISH INFLUENCE ON EDUCATION

The Hebrew Bible also played a central role in the founding of various educational institutions including Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, Kings College (later to be known as Columbia), Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth etc.

Many of these colleges even adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal. Beneath the banner containing the Latin “Lux et Veritas,” the Yale seal shows an open book with the Hebrew “Urim V’Timum,” which was a part of the breastplate of the High Priest in the days of the Temple. The Columbia seal has the Hebrew name for God at the top center, with the Hebrew name for one of the angels on a banner toward the middle. Dartmouth uses the Hebrew words meaning “God Almighty” in a triangle in the upper center of its seal.

So popular was the Hebrew Language in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew – all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered it. (In America, Bible study and Hebrew were course requirements in virtually all these colleges and students had the option of delivering commencement speeches in either Hebrew, Latin or Greek.)

Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of these American Universities – for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary, James Madison Princeton, Alexander Hamilton King’s College (i.e. Columbia). Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments, but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew.

Notes Abraham Katsch in The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (p. 70):

“At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that ‘certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.’”

JEWISH SYMBOLISM IN AMERICA

Their Biblical education colored the American founders’ attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. We see them adopting the biblical motifs of the Puritans for political reasons. For example, the struggle of the ancient Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny. Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies were identified with the ancient Hebrews.

The first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The motto around the seal read: “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus (25:10): “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Patriotic speeches and publications during the period of the struggle for independence were often infused with Biblical motifs and quotations. Even the basic framework of America clearly reflects the influence of the Bible and power of Jewish ideas in shaping the political development of America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Whereas, these words echo the ideas of the Enlightenment, without a doubt, the concept that these rights come from God is of Biblical origin.

This and the other documents of early America make it clear that the concept of a God-given standard of morality is a central pillar of American democracy. The motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on U. S. currency in 1864 and an a 1956 Act of Congress (largely passed as a counterforce to Godless communism) made it the official motto if the United States.

Many more things can be said about the Jewish influence on the values of America, but this is, after all, a crash course. We next turn to the Jews themselves.

EARLY AMERICAN JEWS

The history of Jews in America begins before the United States was an independent country.

The first Jews arrived in America with Columbus in 1492, and we also know that Jews newly-converted to Christianity were among the first Spaniards to arrive in Mexico with Conquistador Hernando Cortez in 1519.

In fact, so many Jewish converses came to Mexico that the Spanish made a rule precluding anyone who could not prove Catholic ancestry for four generations back from migrating there. Needless to say, the Inquisition soon followed to make sure these Jewish converses were not really heretics, and burnings at the stake became a regular feature of life in Mexico City.

As for North America, the recorded Jewish history there begins in 1654 with the arrival in New Amsterdam (later to be known as New York) of 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil (where the Dutch had just lost their possessions to the Portuguese). New Amsterdam was also a Dutch possession, but the governor Peter Stuyvesant did not want them there. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 21):

“Two weeks after they landed, Stuyvesant heard the complaint from the local merchants and from the Church that ‘the Jews who had arrived would nearly all like to remain here.’ Stuyvesant decided to chase them out. Using the usual formulas of religious invective – he called the Jews ‘repugnant,’ ‘deceitful,’ and ‘enemies and blasphemers of Christ’ – Stuyvesant recommended to his directors … ‘to require them in a friendly way to depart.’”

The only reasons the Jews were not turned out was that the Dutch West Indian Company, which was heavily depended on Jewish investments, blocked it.

JEWS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

By 1776 and the War of Independence, there were an estimated 2,000 (mostly Sephardic) Jews (men, women and children) living in America, yet their contribution to the cause was significant. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of freedom. In Georgia, the first patriot to be killed was a Jew (Francis Salvador). And additionally, the Jews provided significant financing for the patriots.

The most important of the financiers was Haym Salomon who lent a great deal of money to the Continental Congress. In the last days of the war, Salomon advanced the American government $200,000. He was never paid back and died bankrupt.

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when the first synagogue opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. (It was called the Touro Synagogue and it was Sephardic.) He sent this letter, dated August 17, 1790:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Note the reference to the “vine and fig-tree.” That unique phrase is a reference to the words of Prophet Michah prophesying the Messianic utopia:

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. And many nations shall come, and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ And he shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning far away strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.

This was an interesting choice of words on the part of Washington, but, as noted above, it is not surprising in light of the enormous influence that the Hebrew Bible had on the pilgrims and on the founding fathers of the new nation.

AMERICAN AMBIVALENCE TOWARD THE JEWS

It must be noted however that some of the other founding fathers were a bit more ambivalent about the Jews than was Washington.

John Adams, who said some highly complimentary things about the Jews, also noted that “it is very hard work to love most of them [the Jews]. And he looked forward to the day when “the asperities and peculiarities of their character” would be worn away and they would become “liberal Unitarian Christians.”

Thomas Jefferson thought Jews needed more secular learning so that “they will become equal object of respect and favor,” implying that without such learning they could not expect to be respected. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 87):

Jefferson was thus expressing the view of the mainstream of the Enlightenment, that all men could attain equal place in society, but the ‘entrance fee’ was that they should adopt the ways and the outlook of the ‘enlightened.’ Jefferson did not consider that a Yiddish-speaking Jew who knew the Talmud was equal in usefulness to society with a classically trained thinker like himself.”

This idea that there was freedom for you in America as long as you were not “too Jewish,” kept most Jews away. Until 1820, the Jewish population of America was only about 6,000!

This changed in the 1830s when Reform German Jews, who had scrapped traditional Judaism and were not “too Jewish,” began to arrive. The great migrations of poor, oppressed Jews from Eastern Europe would follow near the turn of the century.

About the author: Rabbi Ken Spiro is originally from New Rochelle, NY. He graduated from Vassar College with a BA in Russian Language and Literature and did graduate studies at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He has Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and a Masters Degree in History from The Vermont College of Norwich University. Rabbi Spiro is also a licensed tour guide by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs such as B.B.C. Radio and TV., The National Geographic Channel, The History Channel and Arutz Sheva-Israel National Radio. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children where he works as a senior lecturer and researcher on Aish HaTorah outreach programs. He is the author of WorldPerfect – The Jewish Impact on Civilization.

Reprinted with kindly permission of Aish HaTorah.

6 Responses to Jews and the Founding of America

  1. Theresa Tuggle says:

    What is your opinion on what happened to the American Indian as a result of the settling of America by Europeans whatever their religion? In the comparison I make, that puts Jews and Christians alike in the role of Hitler’s SS in the genocide and removal. With respect, I’d really like your opinion.

  2. Carol Morrisey says:

    Dear Theresa,
    I am not an expert on this, but I did grow up near a reservation, attending school with some native Americans, and have formed an impression based on my history studies. I also recall a conversation with a native American man as we waited together for car repairs. I believe the USA experience is far more diverse than the genocide perpetrated by Hitler and his ilk. There were secular Americans whose only interest was wealth and territory, and this mindset led to tragedies as Indians were dispossessed and forced into reservations. Some Christians, like David Brainard, saw Indians as a mission field and tried to evangelize them, with occasional success. The man mentioned above was of the opinion that Indians fought too much among themselves to resist the European invasion.
    The Indians I went to school with seldom graduated. Their culture was not of an intellectual bent and native religion did not lead to the kind of inventiveness experienced in Judeo-Christian cultures, leaving them vulnerable to superior military clout. Clashes between the very different native American and European cultures are, in my opinion, the main basis for what happened in this country. I see very little to parallel the Nazi experience. I am deeply sorry that so many Americans let greed overshadow our human kindness, and I am thankful that at least some Native Americans have survived and adjusted.

  3. Isireli L. Kacimaiwai says:

    17 June 2008

    Shalom!

    I am writing from Fiji! I just want to thank you for these materials that you are now putting into this web site. I am a subscriber and I did for my personal enrichment and learning on the role of Judaism (and Christianity) in the affairs of the world.

    Thank you…and I am asking for permission to print some of these documents to use for teaching others on the role of Judaism in the affairs of the world.

    Shalom

    Rev. Isireli L. Kacimaiwai
    The General Secretary
    Fiji Council of Churches
    P O Box 2300
    Government Buildings
    Suva
    FIJI ISLANDS

  4. Shalom,

    Thank you for your interest.

    Permission is granted to reprint and distribute all materials of this website for educational purposes.

    Best regards
    HIRAM7 REVIEW

  5. Robert Berentz says:

    In the War of 1812, when Washington D.C. was burned including the White House and the whole East Coast was Captured by the British, one man completely whipped the English Fleet.

    “The Memoirs of Jean Laffite” tell of his very Jewish Grandmother kicked out by the Spanish upheaval … teaching her grandchildren Swordsmanship, Cannoneering and Navigation even dueling at the school she sent them to.

    Jean chose the site for the battle of New Orleans so well that the fort could fire on the British ships and when they came around to put their guns on the fort … the mighty Mississippi River flushed them down river.

    When they marched up the dike to attack New Orleans with a superior force .. Jean’s brother blew General Packingham and his horse to bits … they sent Packingham back to England in a brandy barrel.

    Andrew Jackson accomplished nothing. It was all Jean Laffite!

  6. Praying Phoebe says:

    Dear Rabbi Ken Spiro,

    I came to this website via Jews for Jesus website/e-mail. I found it interesting regarding the FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION $$$ of Jews living in the Great Britain colonies during the American Revolution. I get to see the stuff that George Washington was made of compare to other founding fathers, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Back then “liberal Unitarian Christians” are already using worldly influence to misguide Jesus’ followers, it seems, but under different disguises… 😦 History is often taught with much distortion depending who is teaching it… I intend to share this URL, https://hiram7.wordpress.com/2007/12/25/jews-and-the-founding-of-america, your article to people our Father put in my life. I thank you.

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