For 200 years after the Maryland colony was established in the New World in 1534 as a haven from religious persecution, and for 50 years following the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence, Jews in Maryland could neither vote nor hold public office.
In colonial Maryland and even later under its state Constitution – which, ironically, was adopted in 1776 – all state officers and employees were required to swear allegiance to Christianity. At the dawn of the 19th century, Maryland was the only state to maintain such laws.
Maryland could get away with such overt discrimination because, before the post-Civil War enactment of the 14th Amendment, the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government and not to the individual states. (In Barron v. Mayor and the City Council of Baltimore , the Supreme Court later unanimously upheld the right of the state to deny protections to its citizens under the Bill of Rights.)
The denial of Jewish civil rights in Maryland – which was condemned by no less than three American presidents: Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Madison – continued until Thomas Kennedy, a Scottish Presbyterian, determined to right what he considered to be a great wrong. After leaving his native Scotland for America at age 20, Kennedy (1776-1832) became a staunch Jeffersonian; went on to be elected to the Maryland State Legislature from Washington County (1817); and almost immediately began a long and arduous battle to win civil rights for Maryland’s 150 Jews.
Kennedy gained no political advantage for his struggle on behalf of the Jews because none of his constituents were Jewish; he had never even met a Jew. He actually was publicly pilloried as an enemy of Christianity and as a “Judas Iscariot,” and lost his office.
On December 9, 1818, Kennedy’s tenacious advocacy led to the appointment of a legislative committee, which he served as chair (and which Judge Henry Brackenridge and Ebenezer S. Thomas served as committee members), to consider “placing the Jewish inhabitants on equal footing with Christians.” The final Committee Report recommended the adoption of a bill to amend the Maryland Constitution based upon similar legislation in England (see below), which became known as “the Jew Bill” – and, to its rabid opponents, as “Kennedy’s Jew Baby.” The draft provided that:
no religious test, declaration or subscription of opinion as to religion shall be required from any person or sect called Jews, as a qualification to hold office or employment of trust in this state…and every oath to be administered to…Jews shall be administered on the five books of Moses…
Kennedy argued that Maryland must follow the federal Constitution, pursuant to which there may be no religious qualification for public office. In a beautiful statement of his personal ethic – which, sadly, only further alienated him from his Christian co-religionists – he proclaimed: “If Christianity cannot stand without the aid of persecution, then let it fall; and let a new system, more rational and more benevolent, take its place.” The final vote wasn’t even close: On January 13, 1819, the Jew Bill was defeated 50-24.
Yet Kennedy persisted, introducing a new bill “to extend to the citizens of Maryland the same civil rights and privileges enjoyed under the Constitution of the United States.” Although he was careful to use only the most general language and not to make any specific reference to Jews, the ensuing vicious debate centered on whether Jews should be emancipated.
One of the repercussions of the bitter fight was a defamatory campaign against Kennedy and his “Jew ticket” and his crushing reelection defeat in 1823; in fact, a striking 24 out of 40 incumbents who had supported the bill went down in defeat. Nonetheless, he continued to battle for the bill, and his movement began to gain public support through his continuing efforts and the efforts of others, including Solomon Etting and John Tyson.
Kennedy was reelected to the Maryland House in 1825, and his Jew Bill finally passed by a single vote, 26-25 (29 members absented themselves from the controversial vote). On January 5, 1826, the legislature, in a 45-32 vote, passed an enabling statute that repealed the provisions of the Maryland Constitution regarding religious qualifications for public office.
Interestingly, probably to continue keeping atheists out of office, the new law required that officeholders declare their belief in an afterlife, “a future state of rewards and punishments,” but that provision was later stricken from the Maryland Constitution in 1867. Soon after, Solomon Etting, the first American-born shochet, became the first Jew to hold state office in Maryland when he was elected to the Baltimore City Council.
Exhibited here is a poignant letter published in the February 14, 1826 National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) written by Bishop John England of Charleston on January 23, 1826, to Rep. John Tyson only a few weeks after the final passage of the Maryland Jew Bill:
On my way home, I have, in this city, read your speech in favor of the Jews of Maryland. I cannot avoid, however, obtrusive it might appear, making to you my acknowledgments for that effusion of just and spirited vindication of an injured race.
Having been myself, in the land of my birth, (unfortunate Ireland) the victim of a persecuting code, perhaps I more keenly feel when injustice has been done under the semblance of religious zeal, and feel more grateful to him who rebukes the unholy spirit of monopoly or oppression. I should hope, sir, if I were in your place, I would have maintained your principles though probably not with such ability or such effect. But I regret much to find that, even one was found who professed that faith which I preach, who could have opposed the principle of which you were the advocate; though I feel proud that many of my Catholic friends in your State were your admirers and supporters.
The Catholic, who in your state, now enjoys religious right, ought to recollect that not long since, the arguments, if they can be so called, which were urged against the children of Abraham, were, at least in principle, urged by others against himself. North Carolina and New Jersey still exclude the Catholic by their constitutions.
Thanks to the member from Washington, whose name I desire to know, and to you and your associates, Maryland has wiped from her escutcheon the stain of intolerance.
May you long live to adorn the councils of your State and op the Nation, is the prayer of, sir, your obedient humble servant. JOHN, Bishop of Charleston.
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By the late 17th century, Jews were tolerated as resident aliens in England, but they were nonetheless ineligible for citizenship and “disabilities” – legal restrictions on English Jews – remained in effect. Jewish hopes, though, grew when the law relieved English Roman Catholics of their civil disabilities in 1829.
The first steps toward Jewish emancipation were taken when William Huskisson presented a petition signed by 2,000 merchants and others of Liverpool in 1830; Thomas Macaulay, an influential historian elected to Parliament in 1830, attacked the treatment of Jews under the law; and Robert Grant presented a “Jewish Disabilities Bill” to “repeal the civil disabilities affecting British born subjects professing the Jewish religion” on April 15, 1830.
That bill kept Parliament busy for the better part of three decades. At first, notwithstanding a petition signed by 14,000 Londoners in support of the bill, it failed even in the House of Commons. When it passed the House of Commons three years later, it was rejected by the Lords, notwithstanding the objection of the Duke of Sussex, a steadfast friend to the Jews who presented a petition in support of the bill signed by 1,000 eminent citizens.
Unlike the United States, England had an official Church, and opponents of the Disabilities Bill argued that Jews, who rejected Christianity, should not be permitted to play any role in legislating for a Christian Church and a Christian nation, an argument strongly supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
After the Disabilities Bill was defeated a second time in the House of Lords, with every Tory voting against it, English Jews poured their efforts into obtaining admission to municipal office. That struggle led to the passage of the Municipal Bill on July 31, 1845, at which point the only remaining civil right denied to English Jews was election to Parliament.
Two years later, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was elected to Parliament from London by a large majority and he was sworn in on an Old Testament, but he was nonetheless denied his seat when he refused to take a Christian oath.
In 1858, the House of Lords finally passed the Disabilities Bill, but even that historic legislation contained a limitation on Jewish rights: “It shall not be lawful for any Person professing the Jewish Religion, directly or indirectly, to advise Her Majesty…touching or concerning…any office or preferment in the Church of England or in the Church of Scotland.”
Baron Rothschild became the first Jewish member of Parliament on July 26, 1858 when he took his oath with his head covered, as per Jewish tradition, and substituted the phrase “so help me, Hashem” instead of the usual Christian affirmation. Two years later, a more general form of oath for all members of Parliament was introduced, which freed the Jews from all cause of exclusion.
Benjamin Disraeli, born a Jew (but later baptized), became the first Jewish prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1868.