Past and Present

Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2001 / 14 Teves, 5761

Michael Feldberg

The Making of a
Jewish Citizen -- ON APRIL 18, 1705, Queen Anne, "by the grace of G-d, Queen of England, Scotland France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith," issued a patent to "Luis Gomez … who, although born across the sea, is hereby made our faithful subject and will ever be our licensed denizen." The patent promised that Gomez's heirs "are and will be licensed subjects, and he and his heirs are to be held reputed, treated and governed as our faithful subjects [as if they were] born within the Kingdom of England, and he and his heirs may hold, possess, use and enjoy all property and acquisitions of whatever kind or nature in whatever places and jurisdictions within our Kingdom of England."

With this proclamation, the Americanization of Luis Moses Gomez, one of the early Jewish settlers of New York, was officially recognized.

Luis Moses Gomez was born in Spain in 1660 and lived in France and England before emigrating to New York City in 1703. In 1714, Gomez, now protected by the denization patent, purchased 6,000 acres of land near Newburgh, in Orange County New York and erected a fortress-like house and water mill on Jews Creek, where he and his sons conducted trade with local Indians, sawed lumber and ground grain for their neighbors.

Until his denization, Gomez was legally considered an alien with few rights and many civil disabilities. Perhaps his greatest handicap was his inability to own or bequeath property. To correct this problem, Gomez found it necessary to acquire—or more precisely to purchase—his personal denization patent.

Denization is a term no longer in common usage. Currently, under American law, a resident alien may own property and engage in business, and is, with some exceptions (such as voting in elections) equal to U. S. citizens in the eyes of the law. But eighteenth-century colonial Americans recognized a number of now non-existent legal statuses, each of which reduced the rights of their holders to less than full citizenship: indentured servitude, slavery and, of course, denization. Gomez's patent refers to him as a "licensed subject" of the crown, but not a full citizen.

An alien could acquire the right to own property in the English realm by one of two means: naturalization by a special act of Parliament in London or, more quickly, by the purchase from the crown of a denization patent. Luis Moses Gomez paid 57 pounds for his patent, more than $20,000 in today's currency. In 1715, to assure their right to inherit their father's estate, Gomez's four oldest sons purchased patents from Anne's successor, George I.

Gomez's denization carried specific responsibilities and limitations. His patent required that he pay "the lot and scot (customary taxes) in the same manner as our subjects do." At the same time "said Luis Gomez and his heirs shall pay and contribute … the custom duties and subsidies for materials and merchandise, just as immigrants and aliens are always required to do." Under current American law, such double taxation would be considered unconstitutional.

The patent did provide Gomez and his heirs with some civil liberties accorded true English citizens. It provided that Gomez "may peaceably, freely and fully have, possess, use and enjoy each and all franchises and privileges as any of our loyal citizens born within the kingdom … without trouble or annoyance by ministers and Officials … of the [Anglican] Faith." Queen Anne would not explicitly grant Gomez the right to Jewish worship but she could allow him the same rights possessed by Puritans, Quakers and Catholics—to observe religious practices without subsidy from the crown and to own property for religious purposes. Thus, in 1729, Gomez used his right to own land to purchase a plot in lower Manhattan that became the first cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.

The denization of Luis Moses Gomez and his four elder sons was an important step in the gradual civil acceptance of Jews in colonial American society. After 1715, Gomez had two more sons, both born in New York and both citizens by birth under English law. Luis Moses Gomez had invested in denization to assure that his sons would be citizens. His dream was accomplished.

On October 11, 1998, the Gomez Foundation for Mill House, unveiled the original denization patent at Mill House, the home of the Gomez family and the oldest extant Jewish homestead in North America. The Foundation still operates the original Gomez Mill House as a museum, With the generous help of the Michael Jesselson family of New York City, the Foundation acquired the document, inscribed in Latin, from the estate of a private collector. Visitors may view the document by visiting the house in Marlboro, NY, an hour north of New York City. Call 914-236-3126 for directions and hours.

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


© 2001 Michael Feldberg