Past and Present

Jewish World Review

Michael Feldberg

"I am a Jew, I am a Republican and I am poor" -- POLLSTERS report that Americans are tired of political campaigns rife with smear tactics and attack ads. They long for candidates to focus on issues rather than personalities, to debate substance rather than mount character assassinations.

This preference for polite campaigning is relatively new to American politics and reflects a desire for civility in public life unknown in previous eras. In the early Republic, for example, the first two political parties, Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans routinely and falsely charged one another with corruption, sexual scandal and even treason. In Philadelphia in 1800, the Federalists introduced anti-Semitism into the political fray.

A vivid example is the vicious attack launched against Benjamin Nones. Born in France in 1757, Nones immigrated to Philadelphia around 1772. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Nones chose to fight for his adopted nation. In 1777, Nones saw heavy action as part of General Pulaski's legion. He earned the rank of major with a citation for bravery.

After the war, Nones returned to Philadelphia a war hero, but struggled to make a living. As a notary public and government interpreter, he barely earned enough to feed his growing family, which eventually numbered 14 children. Nonetheless, he was active in civic and Jewish communal affairs. Nones served as an officer of the Society of Ezrath Orchim, the first organized Jewish charity in Philadelphia and as president of that city's Congregation Mikveh Israel. He was also an active member of an anti-slavery society.

Philadelphia was rife with political rivalry throughout the 1790s with Nones in the thick of it. The conservative Federalists, representing the interests of merchants and financial speculators, battled Jeffersonian Republicans, who presented themselves as the party of small businessmen, farmers, artisans and laborers. Many Jews in the young nation leaned toward the Jeffersonians, considering them more favorable to religious liberty for minorities.

The Federalists responded to the Jewish penchant for Jeffersonianism with a barrage of anti-Semitic attacks. In August 1800, Benjamin Nones became their target.

That summer Nones participated in a Republican convention in Philadelphia. The city's leading Federalist newspaper, the Gazette, published a scurrilous account of the meeting, calling all who attended "the filth of society." It singled out Nones for its ugliest attack. "Citizen N----," it sneered, was "a Jew, a Republican, and poor," the three worst epithets in the Federalists' lexicon.

Nones immediately penned an impassioned response. When the Gazette refused to publish it, even as a paid article, he took it to the Aurora, the city's Jeffersonian newspaper, which was happy to run it. Although hot with indignation, Nones's reply conveys a dignity that transcends nearly two centuries.

"I am a Jew. I glory in belonging to that persuasion, which even its opponents, whether Christian, or Mahomedan, allow to be of divine origin -- of that persuasion on which Christianity itself was originally founded, and must ultimately rest -- which has preserved its faith secure and undefiled, for near three thousand years, whose votaries have never murdered each other in religious wars, or cherished the theological hatred so general, so inextinguishable among those who revile them....

I am a Republican!...I have not been so proud or so prejudiced as to renounce the cause for which I have fought, as an American throughout the whole of the revolutionary war....I am a Jew, and if for no other reason, for that reason am I a republican...In republics we have rights, in monarchies we live but to experience wrongs .... How then can a Jew but be a Republican?...

But I am poor, I am so, my family also is large, but soberly and decently brought up. They have not been taught to revile a Christian because his religion is not so old as theirs...."

Nones's letter breathes the fire of pride in his religion and nation. His manifesto links American Jews with the ideals of democratic government, individual liberty and toleration and reveals Nones as both a distinguished Jew and patriot.

Michael Feldberg is the director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Comment on this article by clicking here.


The temptations of marrying 'out' ... in Colonial New York
Vindication of an American Jewish patriot
Old in wisdom, tender in years
Mordecai Sheftall and the Wages of War
Haym Salomon: The rest of the story
Francis Salvador: Martyr of the American Revolution
How Hebrew came to Yale
The Making of a Jewish Citizen

© 2001 Michael Feldberg