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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Antislavery Movement in America

Jewish Slaveholders.

The institution of negro slavery in America has been traced back to the suggestion of a pillar of the Church, Las Casas, who proposed it as a substitute for the enslavement of the American Indians, since the latter were being rapidly exterminated by Spanish oppression. Experience showed that the negroes were better able to endure the hardships of slavery. Given the institution, it is not hard to account for the fact that so receptive and assimilative a people as the Jews should have adopted it from the people among whom they were living. Thus the Maranos, who settled in the New World soon after its discovery, held slaves, and numerous references are made to Jewish slaveholders in Brazil, Mexico, the West Indies, New York, and New England, long before and down to the American Revolution. There are several early references even to American-Jewish slave-dealers. The growth of democracy and changed economic conditions had gradually put an end to slavery in the North soon after the beginning of the nineteenth century; but in the South slavery remained common, among Jews as well as among others. Shortly before the Civil War there were among the aggressive Southern sympathizers some Jews who used, as conclusive proof that it was not wrong to keep slaves, the alleged fact that noble philanthropists like Judah Touro sanctioned slavery. The whole argument, in reality, rested on a false assumption regarding Touro's attitude toward the institution. He evinced his antislavery views in no uncertain manner; for the negroes who waited upon him in the house of the Shepards—with whom he lived for forty years—were all emancipated by his aid and supplied with the means of establishing themselves; and the only slave he personally possessed he trained to business, then emancipated, furnishing him with money and valuable advice.

Anti-slavery Jews.

As a body, the Jews in America took no action either for or against the slavery question, though individual Jews were numbered among members of American abolition societies in the early forties, and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in its report, in 1853, noted that some Jews in the Southern states "have refused to have any right of property in man, or even to have any slaves about them," and that the cruel persecutions they themselves had been subjected to tended to make them friends of universal freedom. But such tendencies were at least partially checked by the fact that the Oriental customs and antecedents of the Jew did not incline to make him per se an enemy of slavery, that certain precepts in the Maimonidean code of laws were specifically antagonistic to the emancipation of non-Jewish slaves, and that pecuniary and political considerations frequently dictated an attitude friendly toward slavery among Jewish citizens. Appeals to religion andmorality, however, could not fail to produce their effect, and Jews as well as people of other denominations were destined to contribute greatly to the development of antislavery sentiment in America, in spite of the pronounced repuguance of a number to "carrying politics into the pulpit." Dr. David Einhorn, for instance, shortly after he arrived in Baltimore as minister of the Har Sinai congregation, took strong ground against slavery, first in his monthly "Sinai," in 1856, and afterward in the pulpit.

Einhorn Against, Raphall for, Slavery.

He contended that if it were true, as asserted, that the Union rested on slavery, then with so thoroughly immoral a basis it would be neither capable of surviving nor fit to survive; and he pointed out that the spirit of Judaism, as opposed to its letter, demanded the abolition of slavery. An address delivered by Dr. Morris J. Raphall, a New York rabbi (Jan. 4, 1861), on the national fast-day designated by the President, aroused much attention and comment; for in it he contended on behalf of Judaism that slavery had the divine sanction of the God of Israel, and that only ignorant babblers invoked the alleged "higher law" against slavery, since there could be no higher law than the Bible, and this ordained slavery. Numerous antislavery leaders immediately protested against these views on behalf of Judaism, and refuted Raphall's arguments. Dr. Einhorn attacked them so strongly and unmistakably that he aroused the ire of the proslavery leaders, and his life was in danger during the Baltimore riots in April, 1861. He was forced to flee from Baltimore, and, rather than permit himself to be muzzled, he surrendered his position. Other Jewish pulpit-leaders also took strong ground on the subject, especially after the outbreak of the Civil War. This was particularly true of Benjamin Felsenthal and Liebmann Adler of Chicago, Sabato Morais of Philadelphia, Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, and Samuel M. Isaacs of New York.

Heilprin, Pinner, Benjamin.

For a number of years before the war, Jewish laymen as individuals had been active in the same cause. Chief among these was Michael Heilprin, the distinguished Jewish scholar. He had taken an active part in the course of antislavery meetings in Philadelphia a few years before the war, and was roused to immediate action by Dr. Raphall's sermon. On Jan. 16, 1861, he contributed a fiery denunciation and an exhaustive scholarly refutation of Raphall's views to the "New York Tribune," which at once recognized the article editorially. Thus indorsed, it commanded the widest attention; and owing to this vehement but convincing repudiation of alleged proslavery views, Heilprin succeeded in arousing the public in a more marked degree than any other American-Jewish antislavery champion. During the five years preceding this time, Moritz Pinner had also done yeoman's work in the same cause by circulating antislavery literature and developing antislavery propaganda. In 1857 he started an abolitionist newspaper in Kansas City, a proslavery region; and was an antislavery delegate to the state and national Republican conventions of 1860, which latter included other Jewish members. In Chicago as early as 1853 Jews were active in liberating an imprisoned fugitive slave, and soon after in securing German recruits for the Republican party in the West. Nor did the South, which produced such brilliant Jewish workers in the proslavery cause as Judah P. Benjamin, fail to contribute a fair quota also of Jewish antislavery workers, in some instances as early as 1849. Numerous other examples of Jewish antislavery activity in America are at hand. In the West Indies some Jewish antislavery sympathizers were to be found early in the nineteenth century; others actually devised efficient methods for rendering emancipated slaves self-supporting and independent. In the United States these various tendencies which developed and aroused a sentiment in favor of the antislavery movement among Jewish residents are responsible in a large degree for the enormous number of Jewish soldiers who enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War.

  • The articles and sermons referred to above;
  • also Simon Wolf, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen, 1895.
M. J. K.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Antislavery Movement in America'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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