In 1876 Leopold Morse entered Congress as Massachusetts’s first Jewish member.

From colonial times, Jewish politicians made a steady ascent in Massachusetts



From colonial times, Jewish politicians made a steady ascent in Massachusetts

In 1876 Leopold Morse entered Congress as Massachusetts’s first Jewish member.

In the early history of Jewish Americans in elective office, Massachusetts stands out in several ways, both good and bad.

The Commonwealth did not change its exclusionary colonial laws to allow Jews to hold public office until 1833, and was among the last American states to do so. Yet in 1805, Boston became the first American city outside the South to elect a Jew (illegally) when its voters chose Judah Hays, a major city business figure in shipbuilding, banking, and insurance, to serve as city fireward. The position empowered Hays to direct the public fire department and compel private citizens to help suppress fires.

Hays completed his one-year term, declined renomination, and returned to his diverse business pursuits. He became a leading patron of early Boston charities as a founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Athenaeum (a historic U.S. library association), and was a major benefactor of the Bunker Hill Monument.

In 1840, the Commonwealth’s Jewish population still numbered just 40, but by 1861 Jewish immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe increased that number to 1,000 (in a national Jewish population estimated at 150,000). In 1870, Samson Levy, a Newburyport dry goods merchant turned railroad executive, became the state’s first legal Jewish officeholder by winning a seat on his city council.

In the era through 1920, Boston Jews won 97 elections, and Jews in Boston’s suburbs (led by Malden and Chelsea) were elected 36 times. Outside the Boston area, Jews won another 22 elections; Pittsfield elected a Jewish mayor named Daniel England in 1901.
In the decades after 1900, Bay State Jews won elections by the dozens: 48 from 1901 to 1910 and 63 from 1911 to 1920.

Boston’s most important Jewish officeholders in the 19th century were brothers Leopold and Godfrey Morse, from the Kingdom of Bavaria that later merged into unified Germany. Older brother Leopold arrived in America in 1849 at age 18; Godfrey, youngest of the family’s eight children, arrived in 1854 with six other siblings and their mother. Leopold opened a successful clothing store in downtown Boston that supported the entire family.

In 1870, Leopold ran for Congress as a Democrat but lost. He tried and failed again in 1874, but in 1876 won the seat and entered Congress as Massachusetts’s first Jewish member. He was reelected three times, passed on a reelection bid in 1884, but returned and won a fifth term in 1886.

Godfrey Morse graduated from Harvard College in 1870 (said to be its first Jewish Bostonian graduate), and earned a law degree from Harvard in 1872. In 1875, he won a seat on the Boston School Board, and was reelected twice. In 1881-1882, Godfrey was twice elected to the Boston Common Council. In 1883, Godfrey was elected council president, the city’s second-most powerful municipal office. Leopold was beginning his fourth term in Congress, giving the Morse brothers unprecedented Jewish political influence in Boston.

Both brothers were active in Jewish communal affairs while in office and after. In 1889, Leopold purchased a building for a Jewish orphanage and old-age home to be run by Boston’s United Hebrew Benevolent Association. After Leopold’s death in 1892, the Massachusetts Legislature renamed the facility the Leopold Morse Home for Infirm Hebrews. Godfrey became long-time president of that institution, and also served as first president of the Boston Federation of Jewish Charities.

In the early 20th century, Elihu David Stone, a Lithuanian immigrant who came to Boston in 1906, combined elective public service with important Jewish activism. After graduating from Boston University Law School in 1915, Stone was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1918 and 1919, where he led passage of a resolution urging American delegates to the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference to support a Jewish state in Palestine.

Stone founded the New England Region of the Zionist Organization of America, was its president for 13 years, and in 1922 persuaded Massachusetts U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to offer a resolution in Congress supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which Congress enacted that year. Stone was New England chairman of the United Palestine Appeal, a director of the Jewish National Fund, and president of Boston’s Congregation Mishkan Tefila for 10 years.

By 1920, Jews were commonplace in Massachusetts elective politics, and have remained so ever since; Massachusetts’ early history of Jewish political exclusion is today largely forgotten. The early political careers of the state’s Jewish electoral pioneers established a lasting Jewish electoral presence in the Bay State, and they deserve a moment of recognition. Θ

Mark Rutzick, a Harvard-trained attorney, is author of the forthcoming “Votes of Confidence: A History of Jewish Americans in Elective Office 1788-1920.”

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