Aaron Lopez’s Struggle for Citizenship

Aaron Lopez was denied citizenship in pre-Revolutionary Rhode Island because he wasn't a Christian.

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Aaron Lopez, a Jewish merchant and philanthropist from Newport, Rhode Island, died in a carriage accident in 1782. On hearing of Lopez’s death, president Ezra Stiles of Yale College wrote that Lopez was an “amiable, benevolent, most hospitable & very respectable gentleman & without a single Enemy & and the most universally beloved by an extensive Acquaintance of any man I ever knew.” Despite the widespread esteem in which Lopez was held, however, only 21 years earlier he and another Newport Jew, Isaac Elizer, were not allowed to become naturalized citizens of Rhode Island. Their case illustrates the limits of political rights for some Jews in pre- Revolutionary America.

The Lopez family left Portugal for New York in 1740. They had been living as conversos in Portugal. Once in America, the Lopez’s reclaimed their Jewish identity. The family moved to Newport in the 1750s and became active in shipping, whaling and the manufacture of candles. After living in Newport for nine years, Aaron Lopez applied to become a naturalized citizen.

There is no official record of the reasons why the Rhode Island Superior Court turned down Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer’s naturalization application, but the two men were not content to accept rejection. They appealed to the lower house of the Rhode Island legislature for redress. The house granted their request; but only grudgingly, and in part. The legislature voted to approve the naturalization applications if the two men returned to Superior Court and took an oath of allegiance. The legislature went on to say, however:

Inasmuch as the said Aaron Lopez hath declared himself by religion a Jew, this Assembly doth not admit himself or any other of that religion to the full freedom of this Colony. So that the said Aaron Lopez nor any other of said religion is not liable to be chosen into any office in this colony nor allowed to give vote as a free man in choosing others.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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