With Election Day just behind us, it’s worth noting that Jews have been involved with American politics before there even was a United States — dating back to the very first American Jew elected to office, in 1774.
In December 1773, Francis Salvador, a 26 year-old British Sephardic Jew, immigrated to South Carolina. Francis had been raised in a Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London. His family was prosperous, charitable and community-minded: Francis and his uncle Joseph led efforts to settle poor Jewish families in America. Charleston, SC had become a prime destination for Jewish settlers, and Francis’ family had bought 200,000 acres of land in the Carolina colony’s western frontier, known as “Jew’s Land.” Francis kept 7,000 acres for himself, intending to work the land and bring his wife and four children to America once he was settled. Instead, Francis became swept up in the quest for independence from Britain, befriending leading Southern revolutionaries including John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney and Henry Laurens, whose son John Laurens has been immortalized in the musical Hamilton.
At the time, under English law, no member of the Jewish faith could even vote, let alone hold office. Yet as a landowner who had established himself among prominent leaders, Francis was easily elected as a delegate to South Carolina’s Provincial Congress in 1774, less than a year after his arrival in America. No colonists objected to his election, making Francis not only the first Jew elected to public office in all 13 colonies, but the first in any English colony in the world.
Francis was among the Congress’ most active members, taking on the task of composing South Carolina’s state Constitution and bill of rights. He was also chosen to lead efforts to convince local Tories to reject the King and join the patriots in the Revolution. Re-elected in 1775, he encouraged Continental Congress delegates to vote for independence.
In 1776 the British, as a diversionary tactic, convinced Native Americans to attack towns across South Carolina. Like Paul Revere, Francis sounded the alarm on horseback, then joined the Continental Army to fight. But two loyalists purposely led his unit into a Cherokee and Tory ambush, and on July 31, 1776, Francis Salvador was shot; he was then scalped before dying of his wounds. Francis’ death marked another, more tragic, milestone in American Jewish history: the first Jew to die in the American Revolutionary war.
Raised in a world of religious persecution, Francis Salvador’s contributions helped the signers of the U.S. Constitution understand the importance of religious liberty. His contributions to the United States were first publicly celebrated in 1950 as part of the 200th anniversary of Charleston’s Jewish community. The City of Charleston erected a memorial to him that reads:
Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat;
An Englishman, he cast his lot with the Americans;
True to his ancient faith, he gave his life;
For new hopes of human liberty and understanding.
For more, visit http://www.revolutionary-war.net/francis-salvador.html