Friday, December 17, 2010

St. Nicholas Visits the Mordecai House

Last December when I wrote "Did St. Nicholas Visit the Gratz House?" my answer was, "Possibly." I was suggesting that the poem now known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was a major source of the American-style holiday. Published in 1823 at a time when the majority of Americans did not recognize Christmas as a religious holiday, the poem re-invented it as a dazzling festival for children. And notice that in "A Visit from St. Nicholas," there is absolutely no mention of the Nativity or even any concern about which children have been "naughty or nice;" Christmas is all about toys and sweets for everyone.

With December 25 a business day in Philadelphia and most people treating it as such, and with a lack of Christmas paraphernalia -- the public Christmas trees, lights and creches -- some American Jews probably did not see it as a threat to their way of life and permitted their children the good time it offered.

In researching Alfred Mordecai, Rebecca's nephew-in-law, for a recent post, I found another reference to Christmas. Emily Bingham, in Mordecai: An Early American Family, describes a letter from Sara Mordecai, Alfred's wife, in December of 1855 in which she "recalled to her absent husband Christmases spent together in Washington, wrapping gifts and filling their children's stockings." It seems to be a happy memory which the two shared.

This is surprising. Alfred Mordecai, although he was brought up in an observant Jewish home, was an agnostic who would not permit his sons to be circumcised. He resisted his wife's attempts to bring him closer to her faith as firmly as he deplored his sister's conversion to Christianity. Sara Mordecai, a niece of Rebecca's, upheld the religion and traditions of her ancestors. She brought up her children as Jews and in 1867 when her son Alfred Jr. married a non-Jew, she refused to attend the wedding. You would think that at least one of these two would find grounds to object to Christmas yet it seems to be a moment they enjoyed together.

To have taken pleasure in a visit from St. Nick in the 1840's when their children were small, neither Alfred nor Sara could have thought of it as part and parcel of a religious observance. But as Protestant denominations warmed to the holiday, its Christian content would become inescapable, and American Jews in the latter part of the 19th century would do some reinvention of their own with Hanukkah.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Doctrine of Discovery, Indian Removal and the Gratz Family

(I recently wrote a post, "The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals & Rebecca Gratz," about Rebecca's opposition to the government's forced removal of Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi.)

It must have seemed quite a caper in 1773, in the waning days of British rule of the colonies. A group of investors, chafing under the British policy forbidding them to buy land from Native Americans west of the Alleghenies, had found a possible way around. Somehow one of their number, William Murray, had come into possession of a doctored document: the original permitted land purchases by individuals without the need of prior royal approval in India; with the removal of all references to moguls and any other words limiting it to the British possession in Asia and the retention of words like "Indians," the "revised" document might seem to an unwary official west of the mountains to give permission for private investors to purchase land from Native Americans.

The investors, mostly Pennsylvanians who included Rebecca's father Michael Gratz and her grandfather Joseph Simon, formed the Illinois Company and sent Murray west. He waved the document in front of the British commander of the region and closed a deal with Native Americans for a stupendous 43,000 square miles of land in Illinois. Now all that was needed was for the claim to be recognized by the government.

The British government instead recognized the fraud and ruled the transaction illegal. The Illinois Company then turned to the Royal Governor of Virginia, a colony which had land claims in Illinois. To encourage his interest, they created the Wabash Company and bought more lands in the region; its investors were mostly Marylanders -- and the Governor of Virginia.
Confirmation of the claims seemed imminent when in 1775 the American rebellion began in earnest and the Governor fled.

For the next 45 years the two companies would press their land claims with whatever government was in power, and all to no avail, sometimes for reasons of national interest, sometimes for reasons of partisan politics. (The colonist investors had morphed into big Federalists whom the Jeffersonian Republican Democrats saw no reason to please.)

Finally in 1817-1818, the heirs to the original investors decided on one last attempt to secure the land through the courts. Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz was sent West to lay the legal groundwork necessary to bring a case. Anticipation ran high among the investing families, as we see from Rebecca's letter to Ben in the West:

"The Illinois & Wabash claim, of which I have all my life heard so much, seemed like a romance. I never expected to see anything but maps & pamphlets of the subject, or that it would cost us your society, for so long a time. but since it has proceeded so far, I catch a little of the mania and frame wishes for its success at any rate hope you will not permit it to engage years of toil on an uncertain event & that after satisfying your curiosity with every thing worth visiting, you will bend your course homeward."

Her words with some minor changes could have come from Dickens' 1851 Bleak House, his novel about a lawsuit which went on for generations.

In 1823, the Illinois and Wabash Companies' case, Johnson v. M'Intosh, came before the Supreme Court. The Gratz's and the other second- and third-generation investors lost, but Native Americans lost much more. John Marshall, the first and great Chief Justice, made a mistake. As part of his ruling, he invoked the "Doctrine of Discovery," which went back to the earliest explorations of America. The doctrine awarded sovereignty to the (white European) discoverers; the discovered lost legal title to their lands.

Marshall, who did have his reasons for invoking the doctrine at this point, realized too late that it could lead to the wholesale removal of Native Americans. He tried to alter what he had done in a later opinion, but the times were against him. Cotton was the greatest wealth-producer in the country, Southerners wanted more land to grow it and the only way open to that land, as they saw it, was to get rid of the Native Americans who held it. Jacksonian Democrats supported them, and as the Supreme Court took on Jackson appointees, Marshall lost control. The new Justices liked his "Doctrine of Discovery" ruling and used it as precedent. Marshall was all too aware of what he had done and regretted his error. Fortunately, he did not live to see the high courts of Canada and Australia use his Johnson v. M'Intosh opinion to disallow their own indigenous peoples' land rights.

Rebecca Gratz probably had no knowledge that her family was implicated in any way in the removal of Native Americans. In a quote reproduced in the earlier post on this subject, she shoulders her share of the blame for the catastrophe, but I think she did that as an American citizen, not as an interested party in a law suit.

(To me a blog post is not a journal article or a book chapter; it can serve to introduce readers to a topic and lead them to more detailed information elsewhere. I have pared down this story to its essentials. If you want to read a full account, including Marshall's reasons for invoking the discovery doctrine, I suggest Lindsay G. Robertson's Conquest by Law: How the Discovery of America Dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of Their Lands, on Google Books. Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson, also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Women's Sabbath

It is Hanukkah again and I still have found no mention of the holiday in the Gratz correspondence. So this may be a good time to talk about the Sabbath which I have been thinking about since a young woman who was researching Rebecca Gratz approached me for information: her professor, she said, questioned whether Jewish women in America, circa 1800, attended synagogue each week. I replied that they did, but the clearest evidence I found was from 1825 when Rebecca, reporting on the dedication of her synagogue's new building, writes that she attended on Friday evenings and Saturdays. After that, there are quite a few mentions of visits made after services (See "Rebecca Gratz's First Bar Mitzvah Party?"as an example.) But there are no straightforward statements about synagogue attendance from her youth, that is, circa 1800. Although evidence may be gleaned from the letters, it is usually in passing remarks: the Sabbath traditions were so much part of the fabric of family life there was never a need to discuss them.

One point at which there is a little more about Sabbath synagogue attendance is when Rachel was away from home. The youngest Gratz sister seems to have been a bit of a slacker in her youth in the area of religious observance. For instance, when 17-year-old Rachel went to New York in 1800 to visit their non-Jewish friends, the Fenno's, her older sister Sarah wrote to her: "Have you been to synagogue -- you know my Rachel your attention on that score will be pleasing to our inestimable Parents." And also during this stay, in a letter to Rebecca, Maria Fenno offered reassurance to the Gratz family that "Rachel has gone to synagogue." I think it is a fair conclusion that her parents expected her to attend as usual although they were worried that she would not.

The strongest evidence for the Gratz women's customary attendance at services on the Sabbath is a poignant remark of Rebecca's. Following her mother's death in September 1808, she first went to synagogue in November for the naming of Rachel's baby daughter. All her grief returned, as raw as ever, when she saw "the vacant seat which our Parent used to occupy there." She knew where her mother had always sat in the women's section because Rebecca had attended services with her on a regular basis.

The correspondence doesn't tell us about how the family spent their Sabbath, but it makes clear that one observance was strictly followed: many, many letters end with a mention that it is nearly the Sabbath and so the writer must lay down her pen, writing being forbidden after sundown on Friday. Usually in the rush to finish, there is little else said, but in one of her letters to Maria Fenno in 1802, 21-year-old Rebecca says she must stop writing because "our dear old day shall not be forsaken." The artless affection for the Sabbath in her choice of words tells us that the "dear old day" was a time she cherished each week.

(The letters concerning Rachel's trip to New York are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. The 1808 letter is in the Gratz Collection, American Jewish Historical Society and the one from 1802 is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Library of Congress. The 1825 letter is reproduced in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson.)

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