The Revolutionary War and the Jews

While some Jews fought, others suffered at the hands of the British.

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The role of Jews in the events leading up to the American Revolution is largely unrecognized, given that they represented only a tiny percent of the overall population. Like other colonial Americans, their loyalties were divided, with a sizeable majority favoring the Patriot vision of an independent America.

When revolutionary fervor grew after Britain's imposition of the onerous Stamp Act in 1765, Jewish merchants' signatures appeared on the various non-importation resolutions adopted by individual colonies. Like other Americans, they opposed the power of the British Parliament to tax the colonies. But some Jews probably had mixed feelings, given the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule.

jews in revolutionary warThose who Served and Sacrificed

A number of Jews fought in the Revolution, probably about 100. The first Jew to die fighting for American independence was, ironically, also the first Jew elected to public office in them colonies: Francis Salvador.

Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah, Georgia, was the head of the local revolutionary committee and was responsible for provisioning soldiers. In 1778, he was appointed Deputy Commissary General for Federal troops, but before Congress could approve, the British captured and imprisoned him and his son in December 1778. Both were taken to a notorious British prison ship, the Nancy, where they were treated poorly. Eventually paroled to a town under British supervision where local Tories beat and killed Patriots as British troops evacuated under fire from American forces, both Sheftalls escaped by sea, only to be recaptured and sent to Antigua. They were freed in 1780 and made their way to Philadelphia to rejoin their family.

Reuben Etting of Baltimore enlisted the moment he heard about the Battle of Lexington and headed north to Massachusetts. He was taken prisoner by the British who, when they discovered he was Jewish, gave him only pork, which he refused to eat. He was able to survive on scraps of permitted food from fellow prisoners. Weakened by such treatment, he died shortly after his release. A cousin bearing the same name, born in 1762, also fought in the war and was appointed as a United States marshal in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson.

Abgail Minis supplied provisions to American troops in 1779, angering British authorities. She received permission from them, however, to move with her daughters to safety in Charleston, South Carolina. She died in 1794 at the age of 94.

Displacement and Loss

The war inflicted great hardships on individuals and communities alike. Many Jewish merchants suffered dislocations and reverses, and many a personal fortune disappeared as merchants found their trade interrupted. Haym Salomon, later to gain fame as the mythic Jewish financier of the Revolution, began the war as a wealthy merchant whose unstinting financial sacrifices helped to keep the Revolution going. He died penniless.

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Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein is a writer, editor and teacher. A former school librarian in the Brookline, Massachusetts Public Schools, he has been teaching children's literature and history courses at Hebrew College for over twenty-five years. He is the series editor for the JPS Guides series published by the Jewish Publication Society.