Franklin Pierce & the Jews

 In which our hero, the plucky fourteenth president,
 becomes a latter-day Moses.

by David Holzel

Of all the annals in the obscure life of Franklin Pierce, none are more obscure than those involving his relationship with the Jewish people.

The Golden Age of Jews in America was 100 years in the future, and what existed in Pierce's time was a world few of us today would recognize.

On the day Pierce became president in March 1853 there were 30 states, and in none of them was there a deli making a decent hot pastrami on rye. You couldn’t get a bagel if your life depended on it. There was no Jewish Mother stereotype. No Alexander Portnoy or Sammie Glick. What some today derisively refer to as the "Jewish Lobby" was then only a vestibule.

The country was a desert as far as Jewish humor was concerned. In fact, it was to be a full 88 years before an American Jew was to make our people’s greatest contribution to this great land—the song "White Christmas."

You see, of all the Jews in all the world, only 50,000 had found their way to the United States before word went out that Franklin Pierce had been elected 14th president.

And yet … and yet … such was Pierce’s draw that he was still able to have annals with the Jewish People, as obscure and trivial as they turned out to be.


 The Yankee Moses

Fortunately, these annals were published in The Presidents of the United States and the Jews, a volume itself arguably bound for obscurity.

According to POTUS&Ys authors, David G. Dalin and Alfred J. Kolatch, Pierce is to be credited with appointing the first Jew as a U.S. ambassador. That groundbreaking Jew—designated U.S. minister to the Hague—was August Belmont. Belmont, an "influential Jewish financier," as the book describes him, is better known as the father of Belmont Park Race Track in New York.

Belmont himself began life in Germany as August Schönberg. It’s possible he changed his name to Belmont because Schönberg Race Track is undoubtedly too difficult to brand successfully.

Another conjecture is that he changed his name because people kept confusing him with the classical composer Arnold Schoenberg, which got in the way of his fundraising for such Democratic Party luminaries as Pierce and James Buchanan. For his help in bringing such leadership to the White House, Belmont became treasurer of the Democratic National Committee in 1860, a watershed year in which the party of Jefferson and Jackson was washed out of office for the following 24 years.


Arnold Schoenberg

After becoming Belmont, Schönberg discovered that gentiles stopped thinking of him as "too Jewish." Encouraged, he became an Episcopalian (possibly so Jews wouldn’t think of him as "too gentile") and married Commodore Matthew Perry’s daughter. This was about the time Perry opened Japan to the West, but years before "Friends" became such a hit on TV.

This whole Belmont mishugas was hardly the last time Pierce intervened like an antebellum Moses to change the course of Jewish history forever. No—first he had to handle the little matter of religious freedom in Washington, DC.

It seems that until what historians refer to as the Age of Pierce, you couldn’t congregate religiously in the District of Columbia unless you were a Christian. That might have been fine for a switch hitter like August Belmont. But it was a problem for the few dozen Hebrews who lived in the national capital. (Contextual note: "Hebrews" is what the Jews of the Era of Pierce called themselves if they didn’t want to seem "too Jewish" and yet didn’t want to change their names to Belmont.)

That’s when Franklin Pierce stepped in. But let’s allow the annals of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the capital’s first synagogue, tell the story:

Fearful that the opportunity to hold property would be denied a Jewish congregation, the founders of the Hebrew Congregation submitted a petition to the 34th Congress on February 5, 1856 for an Act of Incorporation. On June 2, President Franklin Pierce signed "an Act for the benefit of the Hebrew Congregation in the City of Washington."

In other words, as POTUS&Ys  puts it: "Pierce has the unique distinction of being the only president whose name appears on the charter of a synagogue."

But soon, like the old joke that every Jew needs two synagogues—one that he belongs to and one that he wouldn’t set foot in—nearly half the members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation quit. Thus the annals tell us:

In 1863, the members purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and I Street for a permanent home. Inside the new building, ladies sat in the gallery and men sat on the main floor, but all notices were written in German and English, an organ was used, and a choir was formed. Prayers were read in English. Because of these Reform innovations, 35 of the 80 members resigned, including some of the founders.

After guaranteeing religious freedom for 80 Jews, Pierce’s career was never to attain such dizzying heights again. And despite the split, the Washington Hebrew Congregation went from strength to strength. Perhaps realizing it had hitched its star of David to a sinking ship, the temple would only attach its milestones to two-term presidents from rhen on.

When the congregation had outgrown its first building, President William McKinley was on hand to lay the cornerstone for its replacement in 1897. The cornerstone to the present building was laid in 1952 by Harry S. Truman. Ike was on hand for its dedication in 1955.

But these are later presidents, men who presided over the Golden Age of the Jews in America. Is there any question but that Franklin Pierce made that Golden Age possible??

2001 by David Holzel


Matthew Perry


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Home § Not Much About Franklin Pierce § A Man For All Time § Wrested From the Jaws of Triviality
Pierce At Any Cost §  Yankee Doodler? The Great Pierce Debate
Ballad of Franklin Pierce  § Franklin Pierce Quiz