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.
Adams responded encouragingly to Noah, although the former president was evasive regarding Jewish self-governance. Adams expressed to Noah his personal wish that “your Nation may be admitted to all Privileges of Citizens in every Country of the World.” Adams continued,
This Country has done much. I wish it may do more, and annul every narrow idea in Religion, Government and Commerce. … It has please the Providence of the ‘first Cause,’ the Universal Cause [phrases by which Adams’ defined God], that Abraham should give Religion, not only to the Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest Part of the Modern civilized World.
For Adams, Jews had earned their rights by virtue of their historic contributions and by virtue of their citizenship, but he did not respond to the idea of a Jewish homeland.
Remarkably, a year later, Adams made the first pro-Zionist declaration by an American head of state, active or retired. In 1819, Noah sent Adams a copy of his recently published travel book, Travels in England, France Spain and the Barbary States. In his letter acknowledging the gift, Adams praised Noah’s tome as “a magazine of ancient and modern learning of judicious observations & ingenious reflections.” Adams expressed regret that Noah had not extended his travels to “Syria, Judea and Jerusalem” as Adams would have attended “more to [his] remarks than to those of any traveller I have yet read.” Adams continued, “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.”
What was the source of Adams’s Zionist sympathies? What moved him to make his extraordinary statement? A clue can be found in the next sentence of his letter:
I believe [that] . . . once restored to an independent government & 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 for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is our God.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The Americans combine notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to conceive the one without the other.”
Adams was clearly confident that freedom would lead the Jewish people to enlightenment and that enlightenment would lead them to Christianity. For Adams, Jewish self-governance in the Holy Land was a step toward their elevation. Today, our understanding of democracy includes respect for diversity and support for the retention of one’s religious faith.
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.