Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World/Faith and the Founders of the American Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World/Faith and the Founders of the American Republic

Article excerpt

Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World. By Howard B. Rock. (New York: New York University Press, 2013. Pp. 368. Cloth, $30.00.)

Faith and the Founders of the American Republic. Edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 384. Cloth, $99.00.)

Reviewed by Spencer W. McBride

When nineteenth-century historians such as George Bancroft or their counterparts in the "consensus school" of the 1950s spoke about the role religion played in the founding of the United States of America, they were usually speaking about traditional forms of Protestant Christianity. More often than not, the key players in these narratives were Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. More than ever, historians are exploring the impact diverse religious traditions had on the American founding and, perhaps more importantly, the direct impact of religious minorities on the events that shaped the young country. In this vein of historical thinking are two new books on religion and the early American republic, Howard B. Rock's Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World and a volume of essays edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic.

In 1654, the first twenty-three Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam as refugees from Recife, Brazil, where the Portuguese had wrested control of the city from the Dutch East India Company. Nearly three hundred years later, on the eve of World War II, more than a quarter of New York City's 7.5 million residents were Jewish. Though the highest rate of Jewish immigration to the city occurred in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, Howard B. Rock argues that the key to understanding the appeal of New York City to European Jews lies in the efforts of New York Jews to obtain equal political rights and social standing in the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic eras. In Haven of Liberty, Rock demonstrates how, in the early republic, New York's Jewish citizens successfully developed a synthesis "between American republicanism . . . and their life as a community, both secular and religious" incorporating "revolutionary ideology into the core of their collective lives." This incorporation, Rock contends, "formed the seeds of the city of promises" (4).

Life was not immediately good for the first twenty-three Jews in New Amsterdam. Anti-Semitic colonial leaders initially denied Jews rights to free trade and property ownership while restricting their worship to private homes. Yet, after persistent efforts and petitions, the leaders of the Dutch colony in the 1660s granted the Jewish community "religious toleration, economic opportunity, and full citizenship" (22). When the English assumed control of New Amsterdam in 1664, they left many of the political and legal rights of the city's Jews intact. In fact, the English took it one step further in 1740 when Parliament naturalized all colonists who had lived in New York for more than seven years and opened the right to hold office to Jews by removing a belief in the Christian God from the colony's oath of office. As Rock observes, New York Jews were full citizens of the British Empire at a moment when their co-religionists in England were not.

Despite the relative political equality they enjoyed under the British government, the community of approximately 250 New York Jews overwhelmingly supported the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War. Together with "their Christian counterparts," they "turned from loyal Britons to rebellious Americans . . . endured exile and took to arms against their once-beloved mother country" (71). At war's end, Rock argues that "Revolutionary experience gave New York's Jews a heightened sense of common citizenship." Even though they "had always had political rights, these rights were now those of any American citizen, not a privilege granted by a Christian elite to a quiescent minority. …

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