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Jewish American Heritage Month: the Story of Moses Levy

by Amanda Duke on 2020-05-28T15:30:00-07:00 in Historical Collection | 0 Comments


Judge Moses Levy by Rembrandt Peale 1808

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Although the celebration is relatively new (beginning in 2006), the contributions of Jewish Americans to American life and culture are not. The first known Jewish individual to come to North America arrived in 1570. By the Revolutionary War, there were roughly 2000-3000 Jews in the colonial United States; most of them were descended from Dutch Jews, who had originally settled in Brazil but were exiled in 1654 when Portugal took over the country and began an Inquisition there.

Discrimination followed them to the colonial United States, as the majority of towns and colonies under British rule denied Jews the right to vote or hold citizenship unless they professed “true faith in Christ.”[1] In 1740, the British Naturalization Act allowed Jews and Protestants to obtain citizenship in the colonies after 7 years of residence. However, some colonies then immediately passed their own laws against Jewish citizenship.[2] Although they were not Christian, Jews were still subject to church taxes and laws observing prohibitions on doing business, the sale of alcohol, hunting, “indecent behavior,” etc. on Sundays. They were often required to take special oaths of allegiance, they were not able to hold federal office until 1788. Jews were forbidden to practice law in most colonies prior to the eighteenth century, with only 3 exceptions: Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia. 

This discrimination made the career of Moses Levy of Pennsylvania, who was on the shortlist for appointment to United States Attorney General under Thomas Jefferson, all the more remarkable. Levy was born in 1757 to a prominent Jewish family of Philadelphia. His father, a merchant, was one of the signers of the Philadelphia resolution not to import goods from England until the Stamp Act was repealed. Moses Levy joined the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and was with George Washington in the Delaware river crossing in a surprise attack by the American army on Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey.

As if being a soldier wasn’t enough to occupy him, Levy found time to gain admission into the Pennsylvania Bar in 1778 while he was still serving. The law seems to have been a family affair, as two of his brothers were also admitted to the Bar. Levy went on to be admitted to the circuit court bar in 1791 and served as a recorder for the Philadelphia circuit court from 1802 to 1822. He later became a presiding judge of the district court of the city, was briefly a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

Connection the State of Oregon Law Library

So how does Moses Levy connect to the State of Oregon Law Library? Through a book called The Reports of Sir Creswell Levinz, which belonged to Levy. He signed it October 1, 1795. 

Levinz was a judge in England during the 1680s. The reporter details some cases he oversaw known as the “Bloody Assizes.” These were a series of trials relating to the Monmouth Rebellion, which was an attempt by James Scott (the Duke of Monmouth), an illegitimate son of King Charles II, to overthrow King James II. James II was a Roman Catholic, which many in England objected to. However, although Monmouth was popular in some areas, his army, largely made up of farmworkers and artisans was no match for the regular British army. The rebellion lasted a mere 3 months before Monmouth was defeated and executed. The Bloody Assizes trials dealt with more than 1400 accused rebels. Most of them were sentenced to death, although ultimately only around 300 were hanged. Eight hundrend were exiled and transported to the West Indies where they were used for hard manual labor in plantations, the remaining died from diseases rife in the overcrowded prisons. Levinz was one of the five judges presiding over these trials, although the Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys (nicknamed the Hanging Judge) is the most well-known judge associated with these cases. Given some parallels between the Monmouth Rebellion and the more recent Revolutionary War that Levy had been a part of, that may have been why he owned the book. 

Sir Creswell Levinz, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons Sir Creswell Levinz, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

In 1804, Levy was under consideration for the United States Attorney General by Thomas Jefferson, when the current Attorney General Levi Lincoln resigned. However, when Jefferson asked Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin for advice, Gallatin recommended that he avoid appointing Levy. His reasoning was that Levy was a superior lawyer, but a "second rate" statesman that would not fit in Jefferson's Cabinet. Gallatin goes on to say that finding someone to give up a practice from more lucrative areas, as Philadelphia seems to have been, to become Attorney General would be difficult.[4] Gallatin’s advice must have won out since John Breckenridge from Kentucky became the attorney general.

Despite their success, even the Levy family were not protected from anti-Semitism. Both Samson Levy and at least one of his sons (Samson Jr.) converted to Christianity. Given the discrimination Jewish people faced at the time, it is not hard to imagine that these two may have converted as a form of protection or when they found certain careers blocked to them.

During the time Moses Levy served as a recorder for the court, he was singled out in the Pennsylvania legislature with a proposed bill that would have prevented him from practicing. It is unclear if this bill was solely due to his being a recorder at the time and would have also applied to future holders of the same office, or if it would have only applied to him. The bill ended up being vetoed.[5] During a lawsuit where Levy represented prominent Dr. Benjamin Rush, the defendant William Cobbett attacked Levy in a newsletter where he said regarding a courtroom statement by Levy: “Such a diabolical thought never could have been engendered but in the mind of a Jew!” And went on to affect a caricature of a Yiddish accent: “a poor devil like Moses . . . did not believe a word that he said; he vash vorking for de monish, dat vash all.”[6] The Levy family came to the colonies sometime around the 1690s from Germany[7], Moses was the second generation born in the U.S. Even though Jews were granted citizenship, the Levy family had been for U.S. independence, that still did not prevent those like Cobbett from still seeing them as foreign or other.




Moses Levy memo,

courtesy of Ian Brabner Rare Americana







As Jewish American Heritage Month is almost at an end, learning about the Jewish people who helped shape this country does not have to be. Related to the Jewish experience more locally, we have the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Research in Portland. One of their projects has been to collect oral histories of Jewish people around the state who have called Oregon home, these histories contain both general stories of growing up Jewish in Oregon, as well as stories from Holocaust survivors who later moved to Oregon. We also have the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park in Portland, which lists victims of the Holocaust and their families who have a connection to the Pacific Northwest. Small bronzes of everyday items are scattered throughout the memorial area in representation of all that was left behind as Jewish people were forced to leave their homes. A portion of the memorial wall contains ashes from several concentration camps.

To learn more, search the SOLL catalog for such topics as Jews and politics, civil rights, or religious discrimination. We also have a collection on the Nuremberg trials due to Oregon Supreme Court Justice James T. Brand having been one of the presiding judges at those trials. 


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