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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
The correspondence of John Adams, second president of the United States, reflects the complexity with which Jews and Judaism were viewed in early national America. Most “enlightened” American Christians such as Adams saw Jews as an ancient people who, by enunciating monotheism, laid the groundwork for Christianity. He also saw them as individuals who deserved rights and protection under the law. Like many of his peers, Adams venerated ancient Jews and thought contemporary Jews worthy of respect, but found Judaism, the religion of the Jewish people, an anachronism and the Jewish people candidates for conversion to Christianity.
In an 1808 letter criticizing the depiction of Jews by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, Adams expressed his respect for ancient Jewry. Adams wrote of Voltaire, “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.”
Aware of Adams’ benign view of Jews, American Jewish newspaper editor, politician, diplomat and playwright Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) maintained a correspondence with the former president. In 1818, Noah delivered a speech consecrating the new building erected by his own Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. Noah’s “Discourse,” a copy of which resides in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, focused on the universal history of Jewish persecution at the hands of non-democratic governments and their peoples. An early Zionist, Noah believed that only when the Jewish people were reestablished in their own home, with self-governance, could they live free of oppression. Noah sent a copy of his “Discourse” to Adams.
(Image to the left: Mordecai M. Noah, Discourse, Delivered at the Consecration of the Synagogue K. K. Shearith Israel, April 17, 1818. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)
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