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he ever increasing acculturation of English Jews, the liberal and humanitarian ideas of the Enlightenment, and theological views of the people of God differing among many Christian sects from those of the established Church of England led to growing pressure for the removal of every remaining piece of discriminatory legislation affecting the Jews of England, less subject as they already were to being discriminated against than the Jews of many continental countries. At the same time, opposition to full emancipation did not vanish, by any means. Partly the persistence of such opposition can be attributed to traditional theologically inspired misgivings and partly it was motivated by centuries-old prejudices, distrust, and outright hostility.

In addition, the immediate political context of the long debate and of the repeated rejection by Parliament of bills brought forward in favour of full emancipation should not be overlooked. The Napoleonic Wars and the fervent nationalism they encouraged focused attention on the Jews as a persistent, stubborn minority, a nation within each nation, sharing a national identity with fellow-Jews dispersed in other nations rather than with the nationals of the country in which they resided, made their living, and may well have been born. Were English Jews, in short, as fully English, as unequivocally dedicated to the English state as English Christians? Could their loyalty, in short, be counted on? Or did their remarkable, centuries-long survival as a distinct people, a nation in its own right, set them so much apart from others that, as long as they continued to insist on their identity as Jews, the possibility that essential state functions would be entrusted to them provoked misgivings and opposition. It was almost inevitable that the process leading to full emancipation of the Jews would be longer and more difficult than that which led to the undoing of restrictions imposed on Dissenting Christians and Roman Catholics.

Not all Jews themselves, moreover, favoured or cared about emancipation. The poor, street Jews and even some who had moved up in the world somewhat were often so completely absorbed in making a living that they were both indifferent to and ignorant of politics. Occasional public meetings organised by the emancipationists to get them engaged were largely ineffective. There is little reason to doubt the basic truth of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s claim in 1841 that emancipation measures “might satisfy the ambitious view of a few individuals but . . . cannot increase the comfort or happiness of the great proportion of the Jewish people” (Quoted Finestein, 127). In articles written in the 1840s for the Morning Chronicle, Henry Mayhew recounted that “I found among the Jewish street-sellers and old-clothes men with whom I talked on the subject [. . .] a perfect indifference to, and nearly as perfect an ignorance of, politics” (127. A decade later, in its issue of 10 January, 1850, the London correspondent of the New York Jewish weekly, the Asmonean, reported that “the Jews as a body are quite indifferent in England to Jewish emancipation. It appears to me,” he wrote, “that it is but the ambition of a few individuals in the Jewish community in England who care at all about it” (Quoted Finestein, 133). The view that only a few Jews cared about emancipation was so entrenched that on 11 April, 1833, a letter asserting that the allegation was unfounded was sent off to Robert Grant, the M.P. then leading the case for a second emancipation bill in Parliament. However, since of the sixty-eight signers of the letter, three were Rothschilds, six Goldsmids, and five Mocattas (an extremely wealthy, well established Sephardi family, some members of which were in business partnership with the Goldsmids), along with various other prominent emancipationists, the assertion was less than overwhelmingly convincing.

Some better educated Jews even opposed political emancipation on the grounds that it would spell an enfeeblement of the Jewish identity, faith, and religious commitment that had endured for thousands of years. Thus, for example, the Hungarian-born Joseph Crooll, a teacher of Hebrew at Cambridge and former preacher at the Manchester Synagogue, argued in a work of 1829 entitled The Last Generation that Jewish “separateness” was a divinely ordained condition pending the messianic restoration of God’s people to the Holy Land. Emancipation, he feared, would wean Jews from Judaism. “London,” they would say, “is our Jerusalem; we have no need of any other Jerusalem.” Inevitably this position was exploited by the opponents of emancipation. Thus Sir Robert Inglis, M.P. for Oxford University, one of the most persistent of the latter, as well as a no less persistent opponent of any move towards Roman Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reform, maintained in the House of Commons, at the time of Robert Grant’s second introduction of an Emancipation Bill to Parliament in 1833, that “birth does not make a Jew an Englishman” and that “those Jews who preserve their scriptural character do not desire the boon of emancipation.” In similar vein the Archbishop of Canterbury, another regular opponent of the emancipation bills, declared that “the greater portion of the Jews are perfectly indifferent about the Bill. I know that some of them are decidedly hostile to the measure and sincerely deprecate it on conscientious grounds” (Quoted Finestein 116-17).

George Eliot summed up something akin to the anti-emancipation position of some Jews when she had it presented, with an extreme emphasis on the identity of religion and race or nation, by Mordecai, the ailing but passionately Jewish Jew who attaches himself to the hero Daniel Deronda in her novel of that name, published in 1876 but set in the 1860s (i.e. only a few years after full emancipation had been realised and Jews had finally been officially permitted to take their seat in Parliament). The rationalist Gideon in the poor man’s “philosophers” club that Mordecai frequents outlines a favourable view of emancipation and gradual assimilation:

I’m a rational Jew myself. I stand by my people as a sort of family relations, and I am for keeping up our worship in a rational way. I don’t approve of our people getting baptised, because I don’t believe in a Jew’s conversion to the Gentile part of Christianity. And now we have political equality, there’s no excuse for a pretense of that sort. But I am for getting rid of all of our superstitions and exclusiveness. There’s no reason now why we shouldn’t melt gradually into the populations we live among. That’s the order of the day in point of progress. I would as soon my children married Christians as Jews. And I’m for the old maxim, “A man’s country is where he’s well off.”

To this “modern” and emancipationist statement Mordecai responds emotionally, rejecting both the desirability and the possibility of assimilation for an authentic Jew – a position articulated at several points in the novel:

What I say is, let every man keep far away from the brotherhood and inheritance he despises. Thousands on thousands of our race have mixed with the Gentiles as Celt with Saxon, and they may inherit the blessing that belongs to the Gentile. You cannot follow them. You are one of the multitudes over this globe who must walk among the nations and be known as Jews, and with words on their lips which mean, ‘I wish I had not been born a Jew, I disown any bond with the long travail of my race, I will outdo the Gentile in mocking at our separateness,’ they all the while feel breathing on them the breath of contempt because they are Jews, and they will breathe it back poisonously. Can a fresh-made garment of citizenship weave itself straightway into the flesh and change the slow deposit of eighteen centuries? What is the citizenship of him who walks among a people he has no hardy kindred and fellowship with, and has lost the sense of brotherhood with his own race? It is a charter of selfish ambition and rivalry in low greed. He is an alien of spirit, whatever he may be in form; he sucks the blood of mankind, he is not a man, sharing in no loves, sharing in no subjection of the soul, he mocks it all (Book VI, ch. xlii).

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espite the indifference of many poorer Jews and the resistance of others fearful for the continuation of the Jewish religion and of the Jews as a people, the chosen people, despite the hostility, more or less deeply ingrained of significant sectors of Christian society, including members of the political class, the movement for complete emancipation of the Jews in England was not abandoned by its supporters. In the concluding section of this study an attempt will be mad to map out the essential lines of the long and complicated process of emancipation in nineteenth century England.

For a century and a half the Corporation and Test Acts of 1661 and 1673 had excluded anyone who did not take Holy Communion in the Church of England from serving as the mayor of a town or a member of the town corporation and from holding civil and military office. In February 1828, with the Tory Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister and Robert Peel as Home Secretary, the Liberal Lord John Russell, under whose government the great Reform Act of 1832 was soon to be passed, introduced the Sacramental Test Bill, which aimed at the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. With the support of the Tories and the House of Lords, including many Anglican bishops, his Bill was passed three months later, with the result that all civil and municipal offices were opened to Protestant Dissenters, including Unitarians, Methodists, and Quakers. As if in anticipation that the Jews would seek to take advantage of the repeal, the Bishop of Llandaff managed to have the words "upon the true faith of a Christian" incorporated into the new oath on taking office – despite the strong opposition of Lord Holland, the most prominent Liberal in the House of Lords. It took another year, an explosion of pamphlets and persistent agitation on the part of champions of emancipation led by the indefatigable Daniel O’Connell, for public offices, including Parliament itself, to be opened to Roman Catholics. The Catholic Relief Act abolished a requirement of the Sacramental Test Act that all M.P.s take the oath of abjuration and declare against transubstantiation, the invocation of the Virgin Mary, and the sacrifice of the mass. O’Connell believed that the principles underlying Catholic emancipation also supported emancipation of the Jews and he urged his Jewish fellow-citizens to continue to agitate for the emancipation of their co-religionists, promising to help in every way possible.1 That turned out, however, to be a much more difficult and protracted affair, proceeding slowly, step by step, for the next thirty years. Opposition to Jewish emancipation, in particular to the admission of Jews to Parliament, proved to be deeply entrenched in influential social milieux.

Restrictions on Jewish Occupations

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t will be useful to begin by outlining briefly what some of the disabilities affecting the Jews of England were. It should be borne in mind, however, that the mere knowledge that disabilities existed, no matter how slight, no matter how rarely encountered or experienced, was inevitably accompanied, especially among the super-wealthy and well established, by a more general feeling of remaining, in some measure, tolerated and respected outsiders rather than full fellow-citizens who happen to be Jewish by religion, as the more educated and well-to-do Jews in general wanted to be seen. Being seen as Englishmen and women who happen to be Jewish by religion, rather than as a different people altogether, was the desire of most of those who struggled for complete emancipation, even if some of their Christian supporters placed their hopes in a gradual and friendly conversion.

The most prominent and successful Jews, it will be recalled, were financiers, stockbrokers and prominent merchants engaged in the West Indies and China trades. This in itself was in part the consequence of the restrictions to which Jews were subject. As we shall have occasion to mention again shortly, retail trade within London, for instance, was not permitted to Jews, since the regulations of the City of London prohibited all but freemen of the City from engaging in retail trade inside the city boundaries and all persons of Jewish birth, even if converted to Christianity, were barred from the freedom of the City. Jewish professional men were likewise few. Until 1833 Jews were excluded from the Bar and although some can be found in the lower branch of the legal profession, the number of solicitors was still small. As already noted, Jews were excluded from serving as mayor of a town or member of the town corporation and from holding civil and military office. Even in the field of medicine, where Jews had always been active, Jews were not numerous. As the Anglo-Jewish historian and British civil servant Albert Hyamson put it a century ago in his History of the Jews in England (1908):

The number of disabilities under which the Jews of England laboured was considerable, but they varied in their pressure. Several were theoretical rather than practical, and the sole inconvenience to which they gave rise was the doubt in which the position of the Jews was placed. For instance, varying positions were held as to the right of Jews to hold land, and no definite interpretation of the law on the point was accepted. There were, however, a number of legal enactments that differentiated against the Jewish inhabitants as compared with their Christian neighbours. Of these disabilities some were invariably enforced, others were sometimes enforced and at others ignored, while still others had apparently been allowed to become dead letters but were always liable to revival. Summing up, English law as it affected Jews in 1830 excluded them from Parliament, from high rank in the army and navy, from membership of the University of Oxford, and from degrees, scholarships, fellowships, and positions of emolument in the University of Cambridge. There were, in addition, positions from which they might be excluded if those in authority so wished. Jews might be debarred from voting at parliamentary elections if the returning officers cared to exercise their powers to the full. Their admission to the Bar depended entirely upon the attitude of the Inns of Court. It was only at the will of individual corporations that Jews could be admitted to offices connected with them (320-21; also Finestein, 113).

The weakening, under pressure from Dissenting Protestants, Roman Catholics, Liberals, and even some Tories, of the traditional establishment notion that the British state and the Church of England were in some way a single indivisible entity, and the passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 led to what seemed to many a logical consequence: the introduction in 1830, by Robert Grant, a liberally inclined member of a family from North-Eastern Scotland, M.P. for Inverness, and future Governor of Bombay, of a bill for the emancipation of the Jews of Great Britain – or, as the text of the Act always has it, “of His Majesty’s subjects professing the Jewish religion.” (The opening paragraph of the can be read here in Appendix B.) The same oath on the Old Testament, acceptable to Jews and already accepted in courts of law by testifying Jews, was henceforth to apply to all offices requiring the swearing of an oath.

Though the Tory prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, had been at first not unsympathetic to the bill and had in fact recommended that for practical purposes its introduction be delayed until the turmoil over the Catholic Relief Act had subsided, the government opposed Grant’s bill on its second reading and the bill, which had been passed on the first reading by 115 votes in favour to 97 opposed, was defeated on the second reading by 265 votes opposed to 228 in favour. Most liberals supported the bill on the basis of freedom of religion – prominent among them Lord John Russell, a leader of the Liberals in the fight for the 1832 Reform bill, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great historian, who wrote up his powerful pro-emancipation maiden speech in the Commons for publication as a widely read article in the Edinburgh Review (January 1831),2 and Lord Holland, the nephew of the Liberal Charles James Fox, along with a leading Tory, William Huskisson, M.P for Liverpool. In addition, petitions in favour of the bill were submitted from Christians in Bristol and Liverpool, the latter with more than 2,000 signatories, including not only “the Mayor and many members of the Corporation, but every banker, and almost every merchant of weight in the town.” An honourable friend of his, Huskisson informed his fellow M.P.s, had told him that “he had never known any petition from Liverpool more numerously and respectably signed. It was also signed by several clergymen of the Church of England” (Hansard, 4 May, 1830).3 Opponents of the bill – Robert Peel, William Gladstone, Lord Shaftesbury -- argued that a country that was not governed by an exclusively Christian legislature could not be considered a Christian country and, moreover, that the Jew was cosmopolitan rather than English, French, or Prussian and did not look on the country of his domicile in any light but that of a temporary resting place (Hyamson, 325).

In 1833 Grant reintroduced a Jewish emancipation bill virtually identical with the 1830 bill. As the Liberals were now the governing party, the outlook for passage must have seemed more favourable, and Grant’s bill did this time win acceptance in the lower house with 189 votes in favour and only 52 against. In the Lords, the Duke of Sussex, the liberally minded younger brother of King William IV (who was known to oppose the bill) and an accomplished Hebrew scholar, presented a petition in the bill’s favour signed by 1,000 distinguished citizens of Westminster. But the House of Lords again rejected the bill by 104 votes to 56, with Wellington now among its active opponents. A further attempt to get a bill passed in 1834 met with a similar fate, being defeated in the House of Lords by a majority of 92 votes. In 1836 a bill was again introduced late in the session and succeeded in passing its first reading in the Lords, but was dropped owing to the lateness of the session.

Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, 2nd Bt. Albumen print by G. H. Watkins. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Click on images to enlarge them.

Even as bills for general emancipation were failing in Parliament, more and more of the relatively small number of disabilities affecting English Jews were being removed, one after another. In 1831 Jews were admitted as Freemen of the City of London, which opened up the retail trade in the capital to them. In 1833 Francis Henry Goldsmid, son of the financier Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, was admitted to the Bar after taking an oath, modified so as to be binding on his conscience, on a copy of the Old Testament. In theory voters in an election might be required to take an oath, the Oath of Abjuration, in order to be permitted to exercise the franchise. This requirement would have deprived English Jews of the right to vote in elections, since the oath was unacceptable to them as Jews, but in fact it was hardly ever applied and an Act passed in 1835 officially relieved voters of the necessity of taking any oath.

As noted, Jews were barred from the office of mayor as well as from the corporations of the country’s towns and cities. Thanks to the action of one man, David Salomons (1797-1873), this restriction was removed by the early 1840s. The son of Levi Salomons, a prominent Ashkenazi stockbroker, David Salomons became himself a member of the Stock Exchange in 1823 and a Lloyds underwriter in 1834. As a founder of the London and Westminster Bank in 1832, he was one of a small number of Jews who participated in the development of joint stock banking in Britain. In 1835 he decided to run for election as Sheriff of London and Middlesex and won election to the office, but objections were raised to his serving, on the ground that it would be necessary for him to make the declaration on oath required of all holders of corporate offices

Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Bt (1784-1885) by Henry Weigall. 1881 Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 2178.

The question was speedily settled on the initiative of Lord John Russell, who introduced and passed through Parliament a measure declaring that for admission to the office of sheriff the declaration was unnecessary. Salomons accordingly served his year of office, and was succeeded two years later by another Jew, Moses Montefiore. In 1836 Salomons was also elected an alderman of the City of London. Presenting himself to take the municipal oaths of office, he asked to be excused from making the statutory declaration in the prescribed form and to be permitted to make it in a form acceptable to him as a Jew. The Court of Aldermen had the right to grant this dispensation, as the Corporations of Portsmouth, Birmingham and Southampton had already done, but it refused. Though Salomons was repeatedly elected by different wards of the City, the Court of Aldermen would not budge from its decision. Salomons appealed to the courts of law. The Court of Queen’s Bench decided in his favour, but the decision was reversed on appeal. Salomons then petitioned Parliament to enable him to perform the duties for which he had been duly elected, and in 1841 a bill was introduced into the House of Commons “For the Relief of Persons of the Jewish Religion elected to Municipal Offices.” Though the Lords at first rejected the bill, it was reintroduced by Sir Robert Peel’s government four years later and became law. All municipal offices were thus opened to Jews and Salomons himself served with distinction as Mayor of London in 1855. Jews soon served as magistrates and high sheriffs of their counties and Queen Victoria honoured three of them with the title of baronet before any Jew was able to take a seat in Parliament.

It should be noted that converted and baptised Jews were NOT excluded from Parliament, since they could and did take the required oath. Converted Jews had in fact served as MPs from the 1770s on. Benjamin Disraeli is only the best known of them. Among them, as of 1770, Sampson Eardley (or Gideon), son of a Jewish banker (Gideon) who had advised the government in the 1740s; as of 1802 Sir Menasseh Masseh Lopes, born in Jamaica of a former Portuguese Jewish family; as of 1814 his nephew Sir Ralph Lopes. All three were Tories. Another son of a Sephardi merchant, Ralph Bernal, known as a Shakespearean actor and outstanding orator, served as Liberal M.P. for Lincoln (1818-1820), then Rochester (1820-41 and 1847-52), while his son Ralph Bernal Osborne, after beginning his career in the Highland Light Infantry and the Royal Fuseliers, also ended up serving as a liberal M.P., in his case, for Middlesex, Dover, Liskeard, Nottingham and Waterford City in succession (1841-74). He was, in addition, First Secretary to the Admiralty (1853-58).

The failure to achieve passage of the various acts of emancipation introduced in the 1830s meant that the erosion of the remaining disabilities affecting English Jews left the most prominent and essential of those in place: the right of every one of His or Her Majesty’s subjects (Victoria became Queen in 1837) to hold a seat in Parliament and serve the country as M.P. Rather than continue the unsuccessful practice of introducing general emancipation bills, a new tactic was now tried – similar to the one that had worked for Daniel O’Connell in opening up Parliament to Roman Catholics and that had enabled Salomons to serve as an alderman of the City of London, that is, presenting a candidate and winning election. Accordingly, in the election of 1847 Baron Lionel de Rothschild, a leading figure in both the Anglo-Jewish community and the City, was nominated as Liberal candidate for the City of London, along with Lord John Russell, the Liberal Prime Minister. Though the Tories did well in this election, of the four individuals duly elected, Rothschild came in third. When Parliament assembled, the new member for the City presented himself at the table of the House of Commons to be sworn in, but as he declared himself unable to take the required oath “on the true faith of a Christian,” he was refused permission to take his seat. In face of the paradox of an elected individual’s being unable to take his seat, the Prime Minister introduced a bill for the removal of the disability that excluded Jews from Parliament. Russell’s bill aroused wide interest and petitions for and against it came from all parts of the country, with 300,000 petitioning for and 56,000 against and a notable appeal to Christians in the Jewish Chronicle on July 30, 1852. The bill also won support in the Commons, including from some distinguished Tory members (Lord George Bentinck, Sir Robert Peel) and passed through all its readings, only to be rejected by the House of Lords. The same fate befell a similar measure introduced the following year. Rothschild resigned his seat, stood for re-election and was again returned to the House. We can turn again to Albert Hyamson for a succinct account of the events that followed:

Despite the result of the election, the Government decided for the time being not to urge forward the legislation necessary to enable the member for the City to take his seat. His constituents thereupon held a meeting, and resolved to ask their member to present himself at the House of Commons and offer to take the oath in the form binding on his conscience. Rothschild again presented himself at the House, and his request to be permitted to be sworn on the Old Testament was granted after debate. He then proceeded to take the oath, but on omitting the phrase to which he took objection he was requested to withdraw. The House proceeded to discuss the situation, and resolved that, though Rothschild could not act as a member of the House until he had taken the oath in the prescribed form, his seat was not vacant. Finally, it adopted a resolution to the effect that, at the earliest opportunity in the following session, the House would take into consideration the form of the Oath of Abjuration, with a view to relieve Jewish subjects. The resolution was acted upon in 1851, with the result that had attended previous efforts in the same direction (329-30). That is to say that the Lords again rejected the change approved by the Commons.

In 1853, Lord Aberdeen, then Tory Prime Minister in a coalition government of Liberals and some Tory followers of Sir Robert Peel – so-called “Peelites”-- with Radical and Irish support, re-introduced a version of the old Emancipation Bill with, once again, the usual result. A different course of action was therefore decided upon. Since most disabilities from which Jews had suffered had been removed in the course of the previous two decades, it was held, an emancipation bill similar to the earlier ones was no longer required; it was enough to deal with the parliamentary oaths alone. A bill was therefore introduced to the Lords by Lord Lyndhurst, the Tory former Lord Chancellor (born, as it happens, in Boston as the son of the prolific and highly successful American painter John Singleton Copley), for the purpose of simplifying the oaths by striking out such parts of them “as were inoperative, idle, and absurd.” The Lords, however, rejected this Oaths Bill not only on this occasion but in the three successive years when it was reintroduced.

Lionel Nathan de Rothschild by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. 1835.

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 2178.

In 1857, however, the government accepted an amendment to the bill stipulating that no Jew should hold the office of Regent of the kingdom, Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor or Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Introduced yet again in the 1857-1858 session, the bill was not rejected by the Lords. It was amended, however, by removal of the clause providing that a Jewish member of Parliament, when taking the oath, might omit the words containing the reference to Christianity. The Commons refused to accept the amendment, since it would merely have consolidated the oaths to be taken by new members, while leaving the key Jewish question unresolved. A conference ensued between the two Houses and a compromise was suggested by a Tory peer, Lord Lucan, to the effect that each House should be empowered to determine the form of the oath to be administered in that House by persons professing the Jewish faith. The Lords would not even accept this suggested compromise. It did, however, form the basis of legislation adopted on a motion of the Tory Earl Derby’s government in 1858, which allowed each House to administer its own oath. On 16 July of that year Lionel de Rothschild was able, finally, to take his seat in due form in the House of Commons -- eleven years after first being elected as M.P. for the City of London.

Complete emancipation of British Jews had at long last been achieved. It was consolidated in 1866 by passage of another Act by which the three oaths to be taken on admission to Parliament were replaced by a single one containing absolutely no words to which a Jew might object. This measure made it possible for Jews to be admitted to both Houses and in 1886 on being raised to the peerage as Lord Rothschild, Nathan Rothschild -- a son of Baron Lionel de Rothschild -- duly took his seat in the Lords as the first unconverted Jew to be admitted to the Upper House.


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Last modified 9 July 2020