Speech on the Maryland “Jew Bill”, H.M. Brackenridge, 1819

Judge H.M. Brackenridge was one of several delegates to the Maryland House of Delegates who fought persuasively against an act which had prohibited Jews from holding public office. In 1819, in his speech in support of what came to be called the “Jew Bill,” Judge Brackenridge stated clearly and passionately the issues at stake, not only for Maryland, but for America. Nonetheless, the legislation that secured legal rights for Jews in Maryland was not finally passed until 1825.

Could I, for a moment, suppose it possible for the bill on your table, to lessen, in the slightest degree, by its passage, the attachment we all profess, for the religion in which we have been educated; or could I bring myself to believe, that even those innocent and harmless prejudices, which more or less influence the opinions of the most liberal, are treated with disrespect by bringing the subject before this house, I should be the last person to urge it on your consideration.

But, sir, I feel a firm conviction, that there is no room for any such apprehensions. The known public and private worth, (if I may be allowed thus to express myself in this place,) as well as the firm and fixed religious principles of the gentleman, with whom the bill was originated, and who has supported it in a manner so becoming the enlightened American statesman, and the tolerant Christian, must necessarily repel the suspicion of any but the most generous, disinterested, and philanthropic motives. In the theological view he has just taken of this interesting subject, he has most satisfactorily proved to my mind, that there is nothing in the religious faith which we profess, that enjoins us, to hold to the arbitrary test engrafted as a principle on the constitution of this state, at this day, when it is converted into a stain, by the progressive wisdom of the political world. To the test of that wisdom, I will, nevertheless, endeavor to bring the question now before the house.

I will endeavor to show, that the objectionable provision in our own [Maryland] constitution, is at variance with all the sound, and well established political creed of the present enlightened age. For this, I will refer to the opinions publicly avowed, and successfully maintained, by every distinguished statesman, not only of America, but throughout the civilized world. In addition to this, I will show, that the principles for which I this day contend, have received the unequivocal sanction of the most enlightened and respectable political bodies of our country. The subject, although of a most fruitful nature, properly resolves itself into three questions.

1) Have the Jews a right to be placed on a footing with other citizens?

2) Is there any urgent reason of state policy, which requires that they should be made an exception?

3) Is there anything incompatible with the respect we owe to the Christian religion, in allowing them a participation in civil offices and employments?

In ascending to first principles, (and in examining institutions supposed to be founded upon them, we must often do so,) I find that we have duties to perform to our Creator, as well as to society, but which are so distinct in their nature, that unless their corresponding obligations be clearly understood, we shall in vain attempt to lay the foundation of a solid and satisfactory argument. It is unquestionably the right of society to compel every one who enjoys its protection, to conform to its ordinances and laws. It is its right so to restrain his actions, as to conduce to the general happiness and prosperity. But I contend, that after having exercised this control over his actions, the temporal power has reached its limit; and when it dares to pass that limit; it opens the way to oppression, persecution, and cruelty, such as the history of the world has furnished but too many melancholy examples–not for our imitation, but abhorrence.

…Religion, therefore, merely as such, is a matter entirely between man and his God. If my position, then, be correct, it will follow, that it must be left to every citizen, as he is to stand or fall by his own merits, or demerits, to entertain that belief, or offer that worship, which in his conscience he thinks most acceptable; and should any of his fellowcitizens desire to release him from what he conceives to be the bondage of error, let it be by an appeal to the reason, and not by a resort to coercion–a coercion which can only affect outward actions, and serve to exhibit power on the one side, and feebleness on the other. He that is thus convinced, will be of the same opinion still. The human frame may be bound in chains; it may be imprisoned and enslaved; it may yield to the dagger of the assassin, or the murderer’s bowl; but the immortal mind soars beyond the reach of earthly violence. Upon the selfevident truths which I have spoken, (and on no others can they safely rest,) are built the RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE, so little understood, or at least respected, in most countries, not so well, I confess it with regret, in Maryland, as they ought to be, but perfectly so in the Constitution of the United States; an instrument for which we are indebted as a nation, to the high estimation of enlightened men, and which has conferred on our country, the reputation of being the land of freedom and toleration.

…An odious exclusion from any of the benefits common to the rest of my fellow-citizens, is a persecution, differing only in degree, but of a nature equally unjustifiable with that, whose instruments are chains and torture. In our land of equal rights and equal pretensions to the dignity and emolument of office, to be subjected to a degrading exception, is by no means a nominal punishment.

Sir, in the sentiments which I have uttered on this occasion, I have done nothing more than repeat what has already been so often and so much better expressed, by the enlightened statesmen of our country. There is hardly a distinguished American who has not in some mode or other, given to these ideas his decided approbation. They are deeply engraven on the tablets of those political doctrines which are considered as eternal and immutable. They are among the first lessons inculcated on our youthful minds; they are interwoven in the texture of our political constitutions; and so deeply are we impressed with their truth, that every American who aspires to the character of liberality, as well as to a proper knowledge of the spirit of our institutions, we must subscribe to this proposition, as the test of the progress of his attainments—THAT RELIGION IS A MATTER BETWEEN MAN AND HIS GOD—THAT THE TEMPORAL ARM SHOULD BE INTERPOSED TO DIRECT THE ACTIONS OF MEN, AND NOT THEIR THOUGHTS.

…Were it necessary for the support of this bill, I would undertake to vindicate the Jewish character from its commonly imputed vices and defects. But the question before the house, has nothing to do with these considerations. I will ask those Christians who now hear me, candidly and dispassionately to examine their own minds, and to say how much of their opinions on the subject of the Jewish character, is the offspring of prejudice? Most of us have been taught from earliest infancy to look upon them as a depraved and wicked people. The books put into our hands, and even the immortal Shakespeare himself, have contributed to fix in our minds this unchristian hatred to a portion of our fellow men…Sir, I have had the honor of being acquainted with a number of American Jews, and do not hesitate to say, that I have found at least an equal proportion of estimable individuals, to that which might be expected in any other class of men. None, sir, appeared to me, more zealously attached to the interests and happiness of our common country; the more so, as it is the only one on earth, they can call by that endearing name. None have more gallantly espoused its cause, both in the late and revolutionary war; none feel a livelier sense of gratitude and affection for the mild and liberal institutions of this country, which not only allow them, publicly and freely, the enjoyment and exercise of their religion, but also, with the exception of the state of Maryland, have done away all those odious civil and political discriminations, by which they are elsewhere thrown into an inferior and degraded caste. In the city which I have the honor to represent, there are Jewish families, which, in point of estimation and worth, stand in the first rank of respectability—who are scarcely remarked as differing from their Christian brethren in their religious tenets, and whose children are educated in the same schools with our youth, AND, LIKE THEM, GLORY IN BEING AMERICANS AND FREEMEN.

Have we hitherto had any cause to repent of our liberality—rather of our justice? Sir, I abhor intolerance, whether it be political or religious; and yet, I can scarcely regard religious tolerance as a virtue. What! has weak and erring man, a right to give permission to his fellow mortal, to offer his adorations to the Supreme Being, after his own manner? Did I not feel myself somehow restrained from pursuing this subject, I would endeavor to demonstrate, that the idea of such permission, or toleration, is not better than impiety. But I content myself, with calling your attention to what has been the effect, in this country, at least, of leaving religion to be taught from the pulpit, or to be instilled by early education. Is there, let me ask, less genuine Christianity in America than in any other Christian country? For, if the interference of government be necessary to uphold it, such ought to be the natural consequence. Certainly we are not disposed to confess an inferiority in this particular. Sir, I believe there is MORE. And I am well convinced that if the success of true religion, were the only end in view, other nations would follow our example of universal toleration. I believe, that in no countries, are there more atheists and deists, than in those where but one mode of worship is sanctioned, or permitted.

In my opinion, it is the natural inclination of man, to seek support and refuge in religious feelings; and if he finds a religion which his judgment approves, or to which his selections attach him, he will cling to it, as his brightest hope. The man who cannot subscribe to all the doctrines and discipline of Catholicism, may still be a Protestant. The Protestant may be a Churchman, a Presbyterian, a Friend, or a Methodist. But the inquisition allows him no choice; he must either embrace that which is tendered him, or be nothing. No, sir, it does not enter into the duties of this body, to guard and preserve the religious faith of Maryland from schism, and innovation; otherwise, we have been grossly remiss in the performance of that duty. I do not recollect a single statute, or resolution, on the records of this house, for this purpose. Sir, the propagation of error, has never been prevented by force; but force has sometimes given permanence, to what would otherwise have been ephemeral.

…There is but one remaining objection to the passage of the bill, and this I will endeavor also to meet, and yet, it is not without reluctance.  It has been repeated, that the passage of the bill, is incompatible with the respect we owe to the Christian religion; that this a Christian land—that the Christian religion ought here to be, at least, legally avowed, and acknowledged; and that the respect which is due to that institution, may be weakened by abolishing the test. Sir, I can see no disrespect, offered to any system of religion, where the government simply declares, that every man may enjoy his own, provided he discharges his social duties; and that the only support of religion, should be derived from the zeal, affection and faith of those who profess it. Sir, I do firmly believe that it is an insult to the Christian religion, to suppose, that it needs the temporal arm for its support. It has flourished in despite of temporal power—by the interference of temporal power in its behalf, has its progress ever been retarded, or its principles perverted.

But, we are told, that this is a Christian land, and that we are Christians! I rejoice to hear it; and I hope we will prove ourselves worthy of the name, by acting on this, and on every other occasion, with Christian spirit. The great author of that sublime religion, teaches us charity and forbearance, to the errors and failings of our fellow men. To his followers, he promised no worldly benefits, but crowns of glory in heaven; for he emphatically declared, that his kingdom was not of this world. Far from inculcating unkindness and resentment, to those of the Jews who did not believe in him, he even forgave those among them, who were his persecutors, and enemies. Do we find any injunction bequeathed to his followers, to pursue those enemies with vengeance? No—his last words was a prayer for their forgiveness; and shall we dare to punish where he has been pleased to forgive?

But this is a Christian land! And let me inquire of the page of history, by what means it became so? Was it through the instrumentality of peace and good will to our fellow men?  Perhaps we may say with clear conscience, that we violated no principle of justice, or Christianity, in our dealings with the poor heathen, whom we found in possession of the soil. But if there is a beam in our own eye, at least we can see the mote in the eye of our Christian brethren of the south. Let us cast a glance towards the bloody Christian conquests of Cortes and Pizarro—they are now Christian lands, and by what means did they become so? I can fancy to myself the wretched Guatimozin, stretched on burning coals, his only crime that of being suspected of unrevealed treasures, and I hear him rebuke his less patient companion in misery, by the simple, but heroic question, Am I on a bed of roses? Who was the Christian on that occasion? No, sir, the soil we inhabit yields its fruit to the just and to the unjust; the sun which gives us life, sheds his glorious beams impartially on all. But the great majority of the dwellers in this land are Christians; therefore is it a Christian land!  For the same reason, it might be a Catholic, Episcopal, or Presbyterian land.

Our political compacts are not entered into as brethren of the Christian faith—but as men, as members of a civilized society. In looking back to our struggle for independence, I find that we engaged in that bloody conflict, for the RIGHTS OF MAN, and not for the purpose of enforcing or defending any particular religious creed. If the accidental circumstance, of our being for the greater part Christians, could justify us in proscribing other religions, the same reason would justify any one of the sects of Christianity, in persecuting the rest. But, sir, all persecution for the sake of opinions, is tyranny—and the first speck of it that may appear, should be eradicated, as the commencement of a deadly gangrene, whose ultimate tendency, is, to convert the body politic, into a corrupt and putrid mass.

Mr. Speaker, if I were required to assign a reason, why, in the course of events, it was permitted by Providence, that this continent should have become known to Europe, the first, and most striking according to my understanding, would be, that it was the will of heaven to open here, AN ASYLUM TO THE PERSECUTED OF EVERY NATION! We are placed here to officiate in that magnificent temple; to us is assigned the noble task of stretching forth the hand of charity, to all those unfortunate men, whom the political tempests of the world may have cast upon our shores.

We, as Americans, should feel a generous exultation, when we behold even the JEW, to whom the rest of the world is dark and cheerless, overjoyed to find a HOME in this Christian land, in finding here, one sunny spot at last! In perusing an elegant pamphlet, from the pen of an American Jew, and lately published in New York, I felt proud to find myself the citizen of a republic, whose benevolent conduct deserved such an eulogium. “Let us turn, then,” says he, “from Europe, and her errors of opinion, on points of faith, to contemplate a more noble prospect—OUR COUNTRY, the bright example of universal tolerance, or liberality, true religion, and good faith. In the formation and arrangement of our civil code, the sages and patriots, whose collected wisdom adopted them, closed the doors upon that great evil, which has shaken the world to its centre. They proclaimed freedom of conscience, and left the errors of the heart to be judged at the tribunal, whose rights should never have been usurped. Here no inquiry of privileges, no asperity of opinion, no invidious distinctions, exist; dignity is blended with equality; justice administered impartially; merit alone has a fixed value, and each man is stimulated by the same laudable ambition—and ambition of doing his duty, and meriting the good will of his fellow men. Until the Jews can recover their ancient rights and dominions, and take their rank among the governments of the earth, THIS IS THEIR CHOSEN COUNTRY; here they can rest with the persecuted from every clime, secure in their persons and property, protected from tyranny and oppression, and participating of equal rights and immunities.”

Sir, I have done. I trust I have satisfied every member of this house, of the positions I have undertaken to maintain. I hope we shall no longer persevere in withholding from the Jews, privileges to which they are constitutionally entitled, and which are not controlled by any paramount reason of state policy, arising from a regard to our own safety and welfare. We surely run into no danger, by following the example of the enlightened framers of the federal compact with the great Washington at their head. Let us boldly, then, adopt that course, the only one which can steer clear of error and inconsistency, and enable us to square our conduct by the immutable rules of justice. Let us sever at once, and for ever, the unnatural union between force and opinion–between temporal power and religious faith. Let us GIVE UNTO CAESAR, THOSE THINGS THAT ARE CAESAR’S, AND UNTO GOD, THOSE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S.

[From H.M. Brackenridge, “Speech on the Maryland ‘Jew Bill’,” Speeches on the Jew Bill in the House of Delegates of Maryland (Philadelphia, 1829), 59 ff.]