Freemasonry as a Source of Jewish Civic Rights in Late Eighteenth-Century Vienna and Philadelphia: A Study in Atlantic History

By Weisberger, R. Williams | East European Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Freemasonry as a Source of Jewish Civic Rights in Late Eighteenth-Century Vienna and Philadelphia: A Study in Atlantic History


Weisberger, R. Williams, East European Quarterly


I. INTRODUCTION: FREEMASONRY, THE ENLIGHTENMENT, AND ATLANTIC HISTORY

Separated by thousands of miles, Vienna and Philadelphia during the early 1780s developed into major centers for the promotion of Jewish civic rights.(1) Moreover, at this time, high degree Freemasonry, that conferred degrees beyond the third, flourished as well in both urban environments. More importantly, Freemasonry, whose rituals embodied salient secular and ethical tenets of the Enlightenment, helped to advance the cause of Jews in numerous ways. This essay examines and contrasts the thinking and activities of Viennese Josephinian Masonic enlighteners and Philadelphia republican Masons concerning Jewish civic rights during the late eighteenth century. Such an analysis is warranted, for it reveals much in the comparative sense about Freemasonry's role in Atlantic history. That is to say, Freemasonry, in various ways, assisted in diffusing pertinent Enlightenment ideologies in these two urban hubs located on both sides of the Atlantic.

Several central theses are developed in this article. In striving to uplift the status of Jews, Masons connected with the True Harmony Lodge of Vienna supported major Josephinian reform proposals, while those in the Lodge of Perfection of Philadelphia espoused liberal and republican ideologies.(2) The second thesis is that to improve the plight of Jews, Masons in both urban settings favored the implementation of Enlightenment and Masonic doctrines concerning state building, natural liberties, economic and business incentive, and social assimilation. The third thesis is that these principles and other moral tenets of the Enlightenment would constitute the basis of Masonic civil religions in both cities and would be embraced in efforts to further the cause of Jews.(3) The last thesis is that Viennese and Philadelphia Masons often operated within the institutional structure of high degree Masonry to promote Jewish civic rights.

II. THE ENLIGHTENMENT REFORM PROGRAM OF JOSEPH II AND THE JEWS OF VIENNA

After becoming Habsburg emperor in 1780, Joseph II for several reasons did institute measures to ameliorate the status of some propertied Jews in Vienna. There certainly were ideological motives. Tenets in literature evidently helped to shape Joseph's thinking about Jews in the Habsburg Empire; concepts regarding religious toleration and civic betterment for Jews appeared in major treatises by Moses Mendelssohn and in Nathan the Wise (1779) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.(4) Joseph became a proponent of civic liberties for Jews and other minority groups within his empire. He also was a strong advocate of cameralist and utilitarian ideologies; the emperor realized that to improve Habsburg banking, industrial, and business life, he would be required to extend civic liberties to important minority and religious groups within the empire. As part of his embracing imperial reform program, Joseph issued on October 20, 1781 an Edict of Toleration to abolish disabilities imposed on Lutherans and Calvinists within the empire.(5) The emperor also realized that similar to these Protestant sects, Jews constituted an important component for the economic viability of his empire. Consequently, the next year, he provided help especially to wealthy Viennese Jewish families, who had been expelled in 1670 from the imperial capital by Leopold I, but who gradually during the next hundred years were allowed to return to it.(6)

The measures of Joseph in 1782 to assist Jews in the imperial capital reflected major recommendations of the Staatsrat. In endorsing most of the proposals of this body, the emperor on January 2 of that year promulgated a patent with rather moderate provisions relating to the civic and economic activities of Jews in Vienna and in other Austrian provinces. This edict, among other things, stipulated that to participate in civic life, Jews in Vienna were required to purchase from the government letters of toleration; it also stipulated that Jews with a tolerated status were allowed to attend state schools and universities. …

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