America’s Founding Fathers and the Jews
Around Presidents’ Day every year, there are well-meaning declarations that America’s founding fathers were friendly to Jews and Zionism.
Friendly quotations are easy to find, but private attitudes tell a different story.
Unexcelled benevolence was true of President George Washington.
On August 18, 1790, congregants of America’s oldest synagogue, Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, warmly welcomed President Washington’s visit to their city.
Responding that same day, Washington promised the synagogue more than mere religious tolerance because: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” His letter declared “the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He also invoked the Hebrew Bible: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Compared to this, President Thomas Jefferson offered abstract support for religious liberty combined with Deistic disdain for Jews and Judaism: “Jews hold ideas that are degrading and injurious to Jesus … possess imperfect and immoral ethics, and … their social behavior is repulsive.”
Perhaps most interesting is the contrast between second president John Adams and sixth president, his son John Quincy Adams.
Respected by virtually everyone but liked by almost no one, John Adams was an exacting man whose philosophy combined Enlightenment beliefs with a bedrock Puritan faith rooted in lifelong Bible reading.
Adams wrote two important letters to Mordecai Manuel Noah, the American Jewish diplomat, journalist, and early Zionist.
In 1808, he criticized Voltaire, the antisemitic Enlightenment philosopher: “How is it possible [that he] should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation ancient or modern.”
Then, in an 1819 letter to Noah, he wrote: “Farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites … & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”
However, he added the caveat that “I believe … once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character & possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”
John Quincy Adams was brought up on Bible reading, but had a less charitable attitude towards Jews. He reiterated his father’s hope for the “rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.” Yet, as early as the 1790s, he complained in his diary about Jewish money changers in London, and publicly recoiled from the Jews of Frankfurt because the “word filth conveys an idea of spotless purity in comparison with Jewish nastiness.”
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).