Jewish American Heritage Month is a month to celebrate the contributions Jewish Americans have made to America since the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants in New Amsterdam in 1654.
Every year since 1980, Congress and the President have acted together to declare an official observance to recognize the contributions of Jewish Americans to American society. Since 2006, Congress and the President have proclaimed that the month of May is Jewish American Heritage Month. On April 29, 2020, President Donald J. Trump issued this year’s proclamation. In his statement, President Trump said: “Jewish Americans strengthen, sustain, and inspire our country through dedication to family, respect for cherished traditions, and commitment to the values of justice and equality that unite Americans of every faith and background. We give thanks for the profound contributions that Jewish Americans continue to make to our society, and way of life.”
In this post, we look at the life and times of the first Jewish member of a legislative assembly in American history, Francis Salvador (1747-1776).
Francis Salvador was the first Jewish American to be elected to a popular assembly, serving in South Carolina’s first and second Revolutionary Provincial Congresses from 1774 to his death in 1776. This statement, however, should be qualified. Another Jewish man, Joseph Ottolengui, was elected to the Georgia Assembly in 1761, and served there until 1765. He previously held the post of Justice of the Peace for the Savannah District. The distinction between these men was that Ottolengui had become an Anglican before occupying public office. Salvador, on the other hand, did not convert (Hühner, p. 112, n. 3). This difference is noteworthy because it bears on the history of Jewish Americans’ pursuit of full political rights.
Generally, throughout the 18th century, British colonies in America were lowering their resistance toward Jewish immigration. South Carolina in particular had a strong Jewish community from a very early date, welcoming its first Jewish immigrants in 1697 (before the division of North and South Carolina, which took place in 1712). Nevertheless, following an English statute of 1701 relating to state oaths (The Security of Succession, etc. Act of 1701), most of the American colonies, enacted statutes that required office holders to swear an oath affirming some form of Protestant Christianity. Carolina adopted a state oath in a 1704 enactment (An Act for the More Effectual Government of the Province, etc.) that required members of the colonial assembly to swear fidelity to the Church of England. These statutes effectively prevented Jews in most colonies from holding political office; it appears to have had that effect in South Carolina as well. Between 1716 and 1759, South Carolina also required that voters must be Christian (Sheldon, p. 48).
Francis Salvador was born in London in 1747 where he lived most of his life. He was the scion of a wealthy family of Portuguese-speaking Jews that came to England from the Netherlands at the beginning of the 18th century. He had a privileged upbringing and was educated by private tutors. He married his first cousin, Sarah, with whom he had four children. The Salvadors were for several decades important financiers in England and throughout Europe. Salvador’s uncle and father-in-law, Joseph (1716-1786), was a leader of the London Jewish Community and a major investor in the Dutch East India Company. Joseph also took an interest in Jewish immigration to America. In 1733, he supported the transit of 42 Jewish immigrants to Georgia. The trustees of the colony objected strongly to the idea of growing the Jewish community, but the immigrants were permitted to stay. Most of these immigrants subsequently fled to Charleston, South Carolina –adding substantially to the size of the Jewish population of that city–when hostilities with the Spanish in Florida made them fear that the Spanish would conquer the territory and subject them to the Inquisition. In the 1730s, Joseph purchased two hundred thousand acres in the Ninety-Six District of South Carolina, covering more than half of present-day Greenwood County, a region that would subsequently be called Jews Land. The family lost a large part of its wealth in two important blows. First the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon destroyed the family’s interests in Portugal, and second, and more importantly, the fortunes of the Dutch East India Company declined. Joseph also suffered severe social humiliation after he lobbied for a Jewish naturalization bill that aroused strong anti-Jewish feelings in London society (Elzas, p. 162). In 1773, when twenty-six year old Francis bought 7,000 acres of his father-in-law’s property in South Carolina, it appeared that the family’s future was in America.
In 1774, Francis Salvador left his wife and children in England, intending to send for them once he had prepared their home. He settled in Coronaca (often called Corn Acre) in Western South Carolina, where he purchased slaves and set about building an indigo plantation. Very soon he befriended some of the leading figures in South Carolina and was drawn into the colony’s politics. The conflict that led to independence was already well underway. In 1773, Committees of Correspondence were created in most of the colonies, including South Carolina, to coordinate resistance to British policies. Within a year of Salvador’s arrival, South Carolina’s Committee of Correspondence convened two General Meetings in order to establish a body that would serve as a temporary government. The first temporary government, the Committee of 99, was decisively under the control of Charlestonians. People of the backcountry, where the Salvadors held property, were by contrast poorly represented by the Committee. In part to rectify this, the Committee created a Provincial Congress for the colony. The Provincial Congress was, like the Committees of Correspondence and the General Committee, an extra-legal body. It served as an interim legislative assembly during the crisis. Elections were held in the backcountry through December of 1774. Salvador was selected as one of ten deputies from the Ninety-Six District. Although a legal objection to Francis Salvador’s service on the grounds of his religion was imaginable, it appears no one was inclined to make one.
The First Provincial Congress met on seven days in January 1775. Its work included developing a state constitution, composing a bill of rights, and drafting a missive to the royal governor of South Carolina laying out the colonists’ grievances against the King. Salvador served on a committee to draft a statement explaining to the people the purpose of the Congress. He also served on a delegation to convince loyalists in the critical northern and western South Carolina not to take up arms against the patriot cause.
The Second Provincial Congress, which met throughout November 1775, debated how to instruct the colony’s delegation to the Continental Congress. Salvador spoke strongly in favor of independence. In addition to this, Salvador chaired the Committee on Ways and Means and participated in a delegation that sought to diffuse continuing tensions in the colony’s interior.
At the beginning of 1776, Cherokee allies of the British began raiding frontier settlements. On July 1, they launched attacks in the Ninety-Six District. When Salvador became aware of the attacks, he rode to the plantation of Major Andrew Williamson (1730-1786), a soldier in the South Carolina militia who later became a Brigadier General in the continental army, to alert the militia. For the following month, Williamson led the militia on a campaign throughout the region. On July 31, Williamson, Salvador, and 330 militia men fell into an ambush at the Keowee River. Salvador was shot in the battle, and fell into the bushes where he was found and scalped. Williamson recounted approaching Salvador after the battle: “When I came up to him after dislodging the enemy and speaking to him, he asked whether I had beaten the enemy. I told him ‘Yes.’ He said he was glad of it and shook me by the hand and bade me farewell, and said he would die in a few minutes” (Drayton, v. 2, p. 370). Salvador was 29 years old, the first Jewish person known to have died for the cause of American independence. Although the Continental Congress voted for independence almost a month earlier, it is probable that news of it did not reach Salvador or the others who were fighting on the South Carolina frontier before his death. His family never joined him in America, and they did not leave London after his death (Hühner, p. 120).
The Jewish citizens of Greenwood, SC erected a memorial to Salvador in 1960 on South Carolina Highway 221 (Laurens Highway) about 3.6 miles northeast of Greenwood in the vicinity of Coronaca.
Bass, Jack. “Salvador, Francis.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies. http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/salvador-francis/ Accessed on April 30, 2020.
Elzas, Barnett A. The Jews of South Carolina from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. 1905. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1972.
Drayton, John. (1821/2009) Memoirs of the American Revolution, Charleston: A.E. Miller, 1821, online at Open Library Internet Archive
Godfrey, Sheldon J., 1938- Search out the land: the Jews and the growth of equality in British colonial America, 1740-1867 / Sheldon J. Godfrey & Judith C. Godfrey. Montreal; Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, c1995.
Gould, Christopher. The South Carolina and Continental Associations: Prelude to Revolution. The South Carolina Historical Magazine. Vol. 87, No. 1 (Jan., 1986), pp. 30-48.
Hühner, Leon. Francis Salvador, A Prominent Patriot of the Revolutionary War. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 9 (1901), pp. 107-122.
Woolf, Maurice (1968). “Joseph Salvador, 1716-86”. Transactions, Jewish Historical Society of England. 21: 104–137.