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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Anti-Semitic Excitement in New York

By William Smith (1728–1793)

[From The History of the Province of New-York. 1757. Completed from the Author’s MS., and republished by the N. Y. Hist. Soc., 1826–29.]

THE OLD party had made some efforts at the election, but with little success. Their most strenuous exertions were in the city during the session to introduce Adolph Philipse, the late Speaker, in the place of Gerrit Van Horne, a deceased member, whose son offered himself in the place of his father.

Before Cosby, the Sheriff, had made a return of Mr. Philipse, petitions were preferred by the other candidate and his electors, complaining of partiality; upon which the House ordered, that neither of them should sit till the conduct of the sheriff had been examined and considered.

Mr. Smith appeared as counsel for Van Horne and insisted that Philipse should distinguish which of the allegations of his client he denied or confessed, that time might be saved in the exhibition of the proofs. His antagonist, more consistent with the usage of Parliament, moved and carried a majority for a scrutiny of the votes….

In the debates between the candidates, Mr. Smith made a question, whether the Jews were qualified for electors, some of them having voted for Mr. Philipse. The cavil was taken up hastily in one day, and referred for argument on the next; and a resolve carried against the Hebrews by the mere dint of eloquence.

The auditors of this memorable debate of the 23d September never mention it without the highest encomiums upon the art of the orator.

Mr. Murray, as counsel for Mr. Philipse, drily urged the authority of the election law giving a vote to all freeholders of competent estates, without excepting the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh; and with astonishment heard a reply which captivated the audience into an opinion that the exception must be implied for the honor of Christianity and the preservation of the constitution. The whole history of the conduct of England against the Jews was displayed on this occasion, and arguments thence artfully deduced against their claims to the civil rights of citizenship. After expressing the emotions of pity naturally arising upon a detail of their sufferings under the avaricious and barbarous policy of ancient times, he turned the attention of his hearers to that mystery of love and terror manifested in the sacrifice of Christ; and so pathetically described the bloody tragedy at Mount Calvary, that a member cried out with agony and in tears, beseeching him to desist, and declaring his conviction. Many others wept; and the unfortunate Israelites were content to lose their votes could they escape with their lives; for some auditors of weak nerves and strong zeal were so inflamed by this oratory, that but for the interposition of their demagogues, and the votes of the House in their favor, the whole tribe in this dispersion would have been massacred that very day for the sin of their ancestors in crucifying Jesus of Nazareth, and imprecating his innocent blood upon themselves and their children.

It is at such moments that the arts of persuasion show their power, and few men were more eminently possessed of them than Van Horne’s counsellor. He had the natural advantages of figure, voice, vivacity, memory, imagination, promptness, strong passions, volubility, invention, and a taste for ornament. These talents were improved by the assiduous industry of a robust constitution, with uninterrupted health and temperance, in the pursuit of various branches of science, and particularly in the law and theology. His progress in the latter was the more extensive, from an early turn to a life of piety and devotion. He studied the Scriptures in their originals, when young, and in advanced life they were so familiar to him that he often read them to his family in English from the Hebrew or Greek, without the least hesitation. He was bred a Dissenter in Buckinghamshire, and attached to the doctrines of Calvin; a great part of his time was spent in the works, French, English, and Latin, of the most celebrated divines of that stamp. He was for some time in suspense about entering into the service of the church. Dr. Colman of Boston, upon the perusal of a letter of his penning, in the name of the Presbyterian Church of New York, requesting a minister to take the care of it, declared that no man could be more fit than he who had so well described the character of a proper subject for that vacancy. These things are mentioned, to account for that surprise of his auditors at that copia and oratory which Mr. Smith indulged, when he laid aside his law books and took up the Bible in the debate I have mentioned. He imagined that the House would reject the votes of all the non-resident freeholders, and if the Jewish voices were struck out of the poll-lists, that his client would prevail. His religious and political creed were both inflamed by the heat of the times. It was natural for a mind trembling several years past for the liberties of the colony, and himself then under the rod of oppression for asserting them, to take fire at the prospect of the most distant inlet of mischief. And perhaps he was not himself conscious at that time, of the length to which his transition, from the impolicy of a Jewish interposition in the legislation of a Christian community, to the severity of exercising it, would carry him. That severity was then to be justified, and to this he reconciled his judges by an affecting representation of the agonies of the Cross. He prepared no notes for this memorable speech; it was delivered within a few hours after the thought of an implicative exception in the election act was first conceived; and the astonishment of the audience rose the higher, by the rare instance of so much pulpit eloquence from a law character at the bar of the House.

But though the Israelites were rejected, the non-resident voices were accepted, and Mr. Philipse, with his nephew the second Justice, admitted to a share in councils which they would neither sway nor control. And yet this act of justice to the old Speaker gave great offence within doors, the majority adopting Mr. Alexander’s erroneous opinion, contrary to legal exposition and parliamentary usage, that a personal residence was as requisite in the elector, as communion of interests by a competent freehold.

The Judges, too, about this time grew not only impatient under the reproaches incurred by the order for silencing Zenger’s counsel, but fearful of its consequences. The populace wishing for an opportunity, by action for damages, to repay them the losses they had sustained, their resentment rose the higher, as Mr. Smith, who had lately visited Virginia, was importuned to remove to that colony. To effect a reconciliation, the Lieutenant-Governor and Mr. Murray were employed to feel the pulses of the two popular lawyers, and testify the wishes of the Judges that they would return to the bar. After some punctilios, honore servando, the Judges agreed to cancel their injurious order, upon the promise of the latter to release all actions and damages, under the pretext of gratifying the timidity of their wives, who were said to be in constant anxiety from the apprehension of prosecutions and outrages, and in the October Term this year, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Smith appeared again at the bar, without any further condescensions on either side.