"Keep us all from so much danger": a revolution in epistolary modes
Philadelphia merchant Jonas Phillips' July 28, 1776 letter to his Amsterdam cousin Gumpel Samson bore witness to a heightened mood of political momentousness. (1) Phillips had accompanied his letter with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, but the forthrightness of its tone was an even more powerful conveyance of enthusiasm. "The Americans have an Army of 100,000 soldiers and the English only 25,000 and some ships," (2) he boasted, before going on to tell Samson, "[The] Americans [had] made themselves [free] like the states of Holland." Despite his admitted inability to predict an outcome--"How it will end the blessed God knows," he said--Phillips sounded an optimistic, even breathless tone as he exclaimed, "[The] war does me no damage, thank God!" (3) Through much of the eighteenth century, letters by North American Jews had displayed an attitude of restraint. As Jacob Rader Marcus put it, colonial era Jews "kept their mouths shut and accepted a secondary status because they were convinced that there was nothing they could do to improve it." (4) This habit of reticence on public matters had been nowhere more apparent than in Abigaill Levy Franks' letters to her son Naphtali (Edith Gelles refers to their powerful display of "rationality, acceptance, and adaptability" (5)), and in the correspondence of several other aspiring members of the merchant class. (6) The outbreak of the Revolutionary War, by contrast, saw the rise of an epistolary attribute that had been lacking among Jews until that point: unbridled passion.
Phillips' letter affords insight into the emotional fervor that infused Jewish writing about the American Revolution. In the face of what Jonathan D. Sarna refers to as a thematic background of "exile, loss, destruction, and redemption," (7) Revolutionary War-era Jews created an effusive family and business correspondence that described the depredations of war, enumerated the sufferings it brought, and projected the hope for a more tranquil future. While this body of epistolary literature was not always a testament to their devotion to the patriotic cause (or, for that matter, that of the Loyalists), its rhetorical force was indicative nonetheless of its authors' deepening conviction that they had found a home in North America. Regardless of their individual or familial circumstances, Jewish correspondents during the Revolutionary War knew that they could ill afford to remain indifferent to the conflict's progress. Like the highly individualized portraits for which some of them sat in the war's aftermath, the letters that Jewish merchants wrote during the conflict reflected a profound change, if not in their actual social status, then in their view of themselves as "part of, rather than apart from" early American society. (8) As Richard Brilliant writes with reference to those portraits, the experience of the Revolution allowed Jews to represent themselves in "more personal, more specific" ways. (9) This "growing confidence in their ... sense of belonging" also inspired Jewish letter writers on both sides of the conflict to be more emotionally assertive than they had been during the previous decades of the century. Then, life in the colonies had felt like a less secure prospect to many of them, and they had gone out of their way to withhold all political pronouncements. That "nearly all [of them] chose one side or another" during the war, as Eli Faber suggests, was an indication of the firmness of their commitment and their newfound willingness to take "public political stands for the first time." (10)
Deliberate attention to Revolutionary War Jewish correspondence allows us to see how formal shifts in epistolary communication can reflect the ways in which subjects experience and integrate social and political changes. Building upon the considerable efforts that scholars have already made to explore the contents of this correspondence in pursuit of a deeper insight into how Jews negotiated the fraught and bracing events of the Revolutionary War, this essay concentrates its attention primarily on the formal qualities of that correspondence in order to address a similar line of inquiry." Letters are by no means the sole documentary index of the Jewish experience of the Revolutionary War, but they do constitute the most sustained form of Jewish self-expression available to us from that period, and for this reason, their formal qualities merit special attention. Since the war has been broadly understood as having had a socially and politically transformative effect upon the lives of North American Jews, scholarly interest in the language, tone, topical interests and actual opinions of letter writers is warranted. The abrupt tonal shift found in these Revolutionary War letters substantiates Michael Kramer's recent contention that as early as the eighteenth century, Jews were engaging in "innovative modes of Jewish-American expression." (11)
The habit that North American Jews acquired of "portraying] their [wartime] experience more in personal and religious terms" and of noting "the divine hand working behind the scenes on the field of battle" signaled their newfound willingness to dispense with their habit of extreme caution in written expression, especially when the military conflict affected the communities in which they lived or had taken temporary shelter. (12) Bluntness in epistolary communication reflected the cathartic experience of war itself, and, for Jews, it marked an end to what Howard Rock refers to as "long-standing ... preference for restraint." (14) Accordingly, it was also indicative of a nascent and unprecedented Jewish politicization. Expressing his gratitude that "the Lord for his mercy's sake" had caused New London harbor to be "blocked up" by ice, thereby preventing the redcoats from marching on Connecticut, Isaac Seixas wrote to Aaron Lopez in March 1779 of his hope that God would "[keep] us all from so much danger." (15) His identification of God as the agent of the colonies' well-being was a striking acknowledgement that the fate of the Jews and the fate of the Americans were one and the same.
Like the members of the gentile majority, Jews were profoundly divided in their allegiances, often in accordance with their geographical provenances. A significant number of Newport Jews, for instance, were Loyalist in their sympathies, while Southern Jews were largely proponents of the rebellion. The occupation of New York by the British from 1776 to the war's conclusion precipitated a split in that community, as those who sympathized with the Americans fled for Philadelphia and Connecticut, among other places, and those with Tory leanings remained in the city. Notwithstanding their respective political affiliations, however, Jews on all sides of the conflict understood that they were profoundly involved in it. By the time the war broke out in 1775, the approximately 2,500 Jews who lived in the North American colonies had come to look upon that place as a "land of opportunity" regardless of the variations (and frequent shifts) that occurred in their political persuasions and partisan affiliations. If nothing else, "though they were not all necessarily willing to identify themselves as Whigs or Continentals," the Jews of British North America were "at one in their love of the land" and now certain that "they were not going back to Europe." (16)
The passionate, often anxious tone of their wartime letters manifested their sense of connection to their new home, as well as their deep concern that it could be torn apart by the conflict being fought over its political future. Lacking any representation in the Continental Congress or at the very highest echelons of the colonies' mercantile elite, Jews could hardly be considered to have been major players in the events of the 1760s through the 1780s, but neither were they disinterested parties in those occurrences. "Literate, propertied, and often well connected," as Richard Morris writes, Jews throughout the colonies "had a stake in the establishment without being a part thereof." (17) Jews were singular and fairly immediate beneficiaries of the revolutionary era's rising spirit of individualism, and they were also the victims of the war's unpredictable course. Lor Jews, "the Revolution's impact ... was anything but muted," writes Jonathan D. Sarna, and the vivid emotionality that found its way into their expressions about the war constituted a powerful demonstration of that fact. Their acquisition of an uninhibited tone in their written correspondence was indicative of the growing resemblance between them and their gentile neighbors, for many of whom the war had also necessitated and inspired a passage from discursive "sensibility" to expressions of "mass rage and grief." (18)
The increasing willingness of Jews to write openly about public affairs was a measure of their growing sense of themselves as participants in, as opposed to mere observers of, the historical transformations of the age. As Jonathan D. Sarna points out, Jews, like other would-be Americans, "vacillated and pledged allegiance to both sides in the dispute for as long as they could," but even the most cautious among them eventually understood that they had no choice but to take sides in a conflict that encompassed their interests and, often enough, took place on their doorsteps. (19) The war itself was not an abstract condition to be withstood from a distance and addressed with bemused or cautious detachment, as Frances Sheftall's letter to her husband in the aftermath of the British siege of Charleston in July of 1780 demonstrated with sobering candor:
We have had no less than six Jew children buried since the sige [siege], and poor Mrs. Cardosar, Miss Leah Toras, that was, died last week with the small pox. Mr. DeLyon has lost his two grand children. Mrs. Mordecai has lost her child...