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Moses Levy, First Jewish Attorney in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

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 asked Americans to: “acknowledge and celebrate the crucial contributions that Jewish Americans have made to our collective struggle for a more just and fair society; leading movements for social justice, working to ensure that the opportunities they have secured are extended to others, and heeding the words of the Torah, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

One recent post for this commemoration discussed some of the earliest Jews to contribute to the American legal profession both before and after the War of Independence; another highlighted the life of the first Jewish legislator and first Jewish person known to die in the cause of American Independence.

In this post, I would like to highlight the life of the first Jewish person to practice as an attorney in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Moses Levy (1757-1826).

Moses Levy was a second generation American at a time when there were very few Jews in America. Although the first Jewish person known to settle in Philadelphia arrived in 1703, by the time of the Revolutionary War, Jews in America numbered about 2,400 individuals, or less than one tenth of one percent of the population. Levy was born in Philadelphia in 1757 into a prosperous family, one of a small number of Jewish families in Philadelphia that was successfully engaged in trade. His father, Samson Levy (August 19, 1722—March 22, 1781), was born in New York City to a father that hailed from Hannover, in Niedersachsen Germany and a mother who was born in Jamaica. Samson had eight children, of whom Moses was the third in order of birth. Samson Levy was involved in Philadelphia’s burgeoning civil society. He was an early shareholder in the Philadelphia Library Company and a founding subscriber to the City Dancing Assembly, which was an elite social club that became a long-lasting Philadelphia institution. During the crisis that followed the UK Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act of 1765, Samson Levy, along with 371 other Philadelphians, including seven other Jewish men, signed the Non-Importation Resolution that helped to pressure Parliament into repealing the Act.

Philadelphia, in the political and social ferment leading to the Declaration of Independence, provided the backdrop of Levy’s early years. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1772 and received his degree in 1776. He was the first Jewish student to attend the institution. He was admitted to the bar in 1778 and, within a year, he began practicing in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. During the early years of his practice, his brother – who was named Samson after his father – studied law with him. Samson Levy began his own prosperous law practice in 1787, and eventually became one of the best-known attorneys in Philadelphia. A third Levy, Daniel, followed his two older brothers into the practice of law in 1791. These three young men, along with one other person, Zalegman Phillips (1779-1838), who joined the bar in 1799, were the only four Jews who practiced law in 18th century Philadelphia.

Levy was sympathetic to the politics of Thomas Jefferson’s nascent Republican party. He was defense counsel in The United States v. Worrall (1798), one of a series of trials that related to the question of whether there is a federal common law of crime. In the years immediately leading up to the case, a number of judges took interest in the idea that the power to punish misdemeanors was a common law power that inhered in federal courts without dependence on any specific statutory definition of the crime in question. District Judge Richard Peters of the District Court of Pennsylvania explained his understanding of the theory in his order in Worrall, writing, “Whenever an offence aims at the subversion of any Federal institution, or at the corruption of its public officers, it is an offence against the well-being of the United States; from its very nature, it is cognizable under their authority; and, consequently, it is within the jurisdiction of this Court” (2 U.S. 384, 395 (1798)). Associate Justice Samuel Chase concluded the contrary, arguing that while the states have adopted elements of the common law, the United States federal government has not. He wrote, “The United States must possess the common law themselves, before they can communicate it to their Judicial agents: Now, the United States did not bring it with them from England; the Constitution does not create it; and no act of Congress has assumed it (2 U.S. 384, 359 (1798)).

In the tense political environment of the late 1790s, anti-federalist journalists published hostile political commentary about George Washington and his administration and supporters, driving at various kinds of democratic reform. In response, Federalists, anticipating the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, took an interest in prosecuting journalists for the common law offense of seditious libel. On June 24, 1798, a little more than two weeks before the acts’ passage, District Judge Peters issued a warrant for the arrest of the founder of the Philadelphia Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache – Benjamin Franklin’s grandson – for seditious libel. Bache, who founded his newspaper after the death of his famous grandfather, had slowly turned it over to anti-federalist commentary and was widely loathed among Federalists. Moses Levy joined Alexander James Dallas in the defense of Bache. Levy and Dallas cited Chase’s position in Worrall. Peters agreed to release Bache on bail and they scheduled the trial for the October term of the circuit court. Bache, however, never lived to see the trial. He died in September from Yellow Fever at the tail end of the epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia starting in 1793 (Preyer, p. 236, n.35).

Some records suggest that between 1802 to 1806 Moses Levy was a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, which made him the first of his religion to participate in that assembly (Morais, p. 38).

In 1802, Levy became the Recorder of Philadelphia, a role he held for twenty years until 1822. In that year, he became the Presiding Judge of the District Court of the City of Philadelphia, a post he held until 1825. From 1802, and until his death in 1826, Levy was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

It is frequently repeated that Moses Levy was on Thomas Jefferson’s short list for the role of United States Attorney General, after the resignation of Levi Lincoln who held the post during Jefferson’s first administration. In an 1804 letter to Albert Gallatin, Jefferson noted that he was considering “Mr. Levy of Pennsylvania” for the job because it would be advantageous to place a Pennsylvanian in the position. Eventually, the role of Attorney General went to John Breckinridge from Kentucky. Historian Leon Hühner suggests that it is not clear that this mention of a Mr. Levy is a reference to Moses Levy. Hühner points out that the correspondence notes that Levy has a prosperous law practice. Moses Levy, however, was a public servant at that time, working as Recorder of Philadelphia, and it remains a question whether he was able to practice law while holding that post. On the other hand, it may be worth mentioning that Levy took that position in 1802, and that Jefferson and Gallatin may not have known about his change of employment (Hühner, pp. 161-162).

It may also be that the Mr. Levy under discussion was Samson Levy, Moses Levy’s well-known brother. Samson Levy did have a lucrative law practice, but he was an unlikely choice for the office of Attorney General, since he had a reputation as an eccentric and a courtroom showman. He was not known for deep learning or for particular skill as a jurist (Hühner, p. 161).

Portrait of Samson Levi

Engraved Portrait of Samson Levy, brother of Moses Levy by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The record is full of anecdotes about his courtroom manner. One source remembers him this way:

“The species of quackery (the term is justified by the circumstances resorted to) employed by Mr. Levy in conducting cases, proved very humorous indeed; but surprise at his boldness might be mingled with the merriment his actions aroused. On a certain occasion, he was counsel in a marine case; the opposing side being represented by Mr. Alexander James Dallas. It was readily noticed that Mr. Levy’s client had “no case,” and after argument by Mr. Dallas, the opposing attorney was called on to answer him. With utmost confidence, Mr. Levy arose and remarked: “Mr. Dallas is not familiar with Maritime Law, your honor, and he has made some egregious mistakes in his views of the case, which I should not like publicly to expose in a crowded court-house, but if my learned friend will allow me a moment’s private interview, I will convince  him of his error.” The two attorneys retired, and Mr. Levy then conceded the case to Mr. Dallas” (Morais pp. 39-40).

Hühner, Leon. “Jews in the Legal and Medical Professions in America Prior to 1800.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1914, No. 22 (1914), pp. 147-165.

Leon Hühner, “Jefferson’s Contemplated Offer in 1804 of the Post of Attorney General to Moses (?) Levy, of Philadelphia.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No 20. Pp. 161-162.

Morais, Henry, S. The Jews of Philadelphia: their history from the earliest settlements to the present time; a record of events and institutions, and of leading members of the Jewish community in every sphere of activity. Philadelphia, Levytype Co., 1894.

Oaks, Robert F. “Philadelphia Merchants and the Origins of American Independence.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 121, No. 6 (Dec. 1, 1977), pp. 407-436.

Preyer, Kathryn. “Jurisdiction to Punish: Federal Authority, Federalism and the Common Law of Crimes in the Early Republic,” in Law and History Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 223-265.

Wiernik, Peter, 1865-1936. History of the Jews in America, from the period of the discovery of the New World to the present time. New York: The Jewish History Publishing Company, 1931.

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