Jewish American Heritage Month is a time 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 30, 2021, president Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued this year’s proclamation. In his statement, President Biden reminds Americans that: “The Jewish American story, and the story of our Nation as a whole, is fueled by faith, resilience, and hope. It is a story defined by a firm belief in possibilities, the resolve to make real the promise of America for all Americans… ”
In recent years, posts on this blog have highlighted a number of Jewish firsts in American life – the first Jewish judicial officer, the first Jewish legislator, and the first Jewish person to practice law in Pennsylvania.
In this post, I would like to discuss the life of Joshua Montefiore. Montefiore was a soldier, an adventurer, an activist for a more humane approach to colonization, and a prolific author. Among his accomplishments, he was also the first Jewish author to have a law book published in the United States.
Montefiore was born in 1762 as one of 17 children of a wealthy Jewish family in London, England. His father, Moses Vital Montefiore, brought his family to London in 1758 from Livorno, Italy, where his forebears had lived since the 16th century in a community of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Jews – former conversos and others with roots in the Iberian Peninsula. Moses Vital Montefiore was the grandfather of the more famous Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), the English banker and philanthropist who was widely known for his financial support of the Jewish communities in what was then Ottoman Palestine. Despite certain obstacles that then prevented Jews from fully participating in English society, the Montefiore family was able to flourish. Joshua Montefiore spent four years apprenticed to a London attorney by the name of James Cross. In 1784, at age 24, he served as a notary public. He also worked as a solicitor – an attorney that performs tasks generally outside of the court. That position became open to Jews following the Indemnity Act of 1727 (1 Geo. II, c. 23), which created a loophole in the longstanding obligation that civil servants must swear an oath in terms specific to faith in the Church of England. (Henriques, p. 204.)
The details of his legal career came under intense scrutiny in 1787 when Montefiore attempted to relocate to Jamaica, a move he may have taken in part over grief at the death of his wife, Esther Supino, who died of illness in 1785, less than two years into their marriage. There, when he petitioned on August 31, 1787, to be admitted to the practice of law, a group of 60 members of the Jamaican bar objected, arguing that it was against the laws of England and Jamaica to permit a Jew to be called to the bar. This, they claimed, was explicitly prohibited by a Jamaican statute of 1711 that excluded Jews along with “mulattos,” “Indians,” and “negros” from performing a variety of roles, among them, holding public office, serving on juries and acting as court clerks or attorneys. (Mirvis, p. 251; Jamaica, p. 96.) They also argued that the Corporation Act of 1661 (13 Cha. II. St. 2 c. 1) and the Test Act of 1673 (25 Car. II. c. 2), then in force in England, obliged attorneys to swear an oath in which they profess adherence to the Church of England. This was incorrect, as mentioned above, since the rules in England for such oaths had been modified by that time. It remained, however, impossible for Jewish people to become barristers – attorneys who represent clients in court – until after 1833 when the Inns of Court, responsible for training and admitting barristers to practice, admitted the first Jewish barrister, Francis Goldsmid. (Henriques, p. 204.)
Montefiore made his case before the Grand Court of St. Jago de la Vega on September 5, 1787, providing his certificate of admittance to the Court of King’s Bench, as well as his certificate of notary public. A witness in Montefiore’s cause shared testimony that he knew of Jewish attorneys who practiced law in London. A controversy arose in the court over an apparent erasure on Montefiore’s certificate of Notary Public. The word “Christ” was deleted and the word “God” was inserted in its place. On these grounds, the bar moved to have Montefiore’s credentials confiscated to prevent him from using them in the future, whether in Jamaica or in England. The court, however, refused to take this step. By the end of the proceedings, all parties agreed that it was clear that Jews served as notaries public in England. (Mirvis, pp. 251-254.)
Montefiore returned to England in 1791. In the following year, he joined a company of 300 Englishmen led by Philip Beaver, an officer in the Royal Navy, that aimed to create a colony on the island of Bolama off the coast of then Portuguese Guinea. The purpose of the colony was to promote European habits, and especially a culture of wage labor, among the Africans in the region, which the colonists envisioned as a stepping stone toward colonization without slavery. The colony, however, encountered severe illness and a violent reception from the region’s indigenous people. The English abandoned the island in 1794 and the project came to an end. Montefiore, who spoke Portuguese, briefly served as a translator and military consultant for the colony before returning to England in 1792. (Mirvis, pp. 247-249.)
In the following years, Montefiore wrote and published in London a handful of successful books on law and related topics. In 1802, he published The law of copyright: being a compendium of acts of parliament and adjudged cases, relative to authors, publishers, printers, artists, musical composers, print-seller (London: J. Wallis, 1802). In that same year, he published Commercial and notarial precedents: consisting of all the most approved forms, special and common, which are required in transactions of business: with an appendix, containing principles of law relative to bills of exchange, insurance, and shipping (London: Printed for R. Phillips … and Messrs. Blacks and Parry …, 1802). In 1803, he completed what was to become his most successful book, A commercial dictionary: containing the present state of mercantile law, practice and custom (London: Printed for the Author, 1803).
The latter two of these books subsequently appeared in American editions: Commercial and notarial precedents (Philadelphia: James Humphreys, 1803); and A commercial dictionary (Philadelphia: James Humphreys, 1804), which was a three volume set, published by subscription in Philadelphia in 1804. The Law Library’s copy of this edition formerly belonged to the United States Department of State, into whose possession it came, according to an inscription on the title page, on November 1, 1821. The Library of Congress also owns Thomas Jefferson’s copy of this title, which Jefferson sold to the Library with his collection in 1815. These works, which were published at a time when American printers had produced very few legal treatises, made Montefiore the first Jewish author to have a law book published in the United States.
In 1809, Montefiore participated in the English campaign to capture French Martinique and Guadeloupe, a battle in the Napoleonic wars, where he served as a paymaster in the York Light Infantry volunteers.
From about 1811, he settled in Philadelphia, and quickly became a member of the city’s professional elite. (Mirvis, p. 246.) He continued his literary career there, publishing The American trader’s compendium (1811); a second American edition of Commercial and notarial precedents (1822); and Synopsis of mercantile laws (1830). Among other titles, he also authored a manuscript entitled Vindication of Chartered Companies, which argued against the liberalism that followed the French Revolution and for the superiority of trade under arrangements provided by the ancien regime.
Later in his life, Montefiore was married to his third wife, Elizabeth Maher, a Catholic woman. The couple had eight children together. In 1835, he purchased farmland near St. Albans, Vermont, and lived there with his family for the last eight years of his life. He died on June 26, 1843, and was buried on his farm in a place that is called now Montefiore Cemetery.
Titles by Montefiore that are held in Library of Congress collections:
Montefiore, Joshua. The law of copyright: being a compendium of acts of parliament and adjudged cases, relative to authors, publishers, printers, artists, musical composers, print-sellers / by Joshua Montefiore. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2008. Originally published: London : Printed for James Wallis, 1802.
Montefiore, Joshua. Commercial and notarial precedents : consisting of all the most approved forms, special and common, which are required in transactions of business : with an appendix, containing principles of law relative to bills of exchange, insurance, and shipping / by Joshua Montefiore. London: Printed for R. Phillips … and Messrs. Blacks and Parry …, 1802.
Montefiore, Joshua. Commercial and notarial precedents: consisting of the most approved forms, common and special, which are required in transactions of business : with an appendix, containing principles of law relative to bills of exchange, insurance, and shipping / by Joshua Montefiore. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by James Humphreys, 1803.
Montefiore, Joshua. A commercial dictionary: containing the present state of mercantile law, practice and custom / by Joshua Montefiore, author of Commercial precedents, &c. &c. &c. The first American edition, with very considerable additions relative to the laws, usages, and practice of the United States. Philadelphia: Printed and sold by James Humphreys, 1804. Thomas Jefferson Collection.
Montefiore, Joshua. The American trader’s compendium: containing the laws, customs, and regulations of the United States, relative to commerce.Laws of Land and Sea. Philadelphia: Published by Samuel R. Fisher, Junr. no. 30, South Forth Street. William Brown, printer., 1811.
Montefiore, Joshua. Commercial and notarial precedents: consisting of the most approved forms, 2d American from the last London ed. Philadelphia, H.C. Carey & I. Lea; New York, H.C. Carey & co., 1822.
Montefiore, Joshua. Synopsis of mercantile laws : with an appendix : containing the most approved forms of notarial and commercial precedents, special and common, required in the daily transaction of business, by merchants, traders, notaries, attornies, &c. / by Joshua Montefiore. New ed. rev., cor. and enl., with reference to the alterations effected by the rev. statutes of the state of New York. New York : G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830.
Assembly of Jamaica Acts of the assembly passed in the island of Jamaica, from the year 1681 to the year 1769 inclusive in two volumes. Kingston: printed by Alexander Aikman, 1787.
Friedman, Lee M. “Joshua Montefiore of St. Albans, Vermont,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, Vol. 40, No. 2 (December, 1950), pp. 119-134.
Mirvis, Stanley. “The Trial of Joshua Montefiore and the Limits of Atlantic Jewish Inclusion,” in From Catalonia to the Caribbean: the Sephardic orbit from medieval to modern times: essays in honor of Jane S. Gerber / edited by Federica Francesconi, Stanley Mirvis, Brian M. Smollett. Leiden; Boston: Brill, , pp. 243-254.
Montefiore, Joshua. Vindication of Chartered Companies, after 1818, BA MSS.Eup.B.27, The British Library, London, England.
Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.