Dynamic spokesman for American Jewry, advocate for Jewish immigration, proto-Zionist, journalist, playwright, politician, lawyer, judge and self-promoter, Mordecai Manuel Noah was not merely a tireless polymath, but, in the words of a biographical exhibition organized by Yeshiva University Museum in 1987, “the first American Jew.” Needless to say, there had been Jews in America for more than a century prior to Noah’s birth, but with Noah we see expressed more clearly than ever before the conflation of American and Jewish identities and a concord of beliefs.
The oldest child of Zipporah Phillips and German immigrant and Revolutionary War soldier Manuel Noah, Mordecai was born in Philadelphia. At ten his mother died, and Noah went to live with his grandfather, Jonas Phillips.
When he came of age, he moved down to Charleston where he studied law and began his long involvement in politics. In Charleston Noah produced his first articles—patriotic, often hawkish pieces, pushing for war with Britain.
Around this time Noah, aged twenty-six, petitioned Secretary of State Robert Smith for a consular post, explaining that this would “prove to foreign powers that our government is not regulated in the appointment of their officers by religious distinction, and on the score of policy I know of no measure which can so promptly lead members of the Hebrew Nation to emigrate to this country with their capitals, than to see of their persuasion appointed to an honorable office attended with the confidence of the people.” He also presented recommendations from such luminaries of American Jewry as Israel Baer Kursheedt and Reuben Etting. His audacity worked; Noah secured first himself a consulship first in Riga, then a transfer to Tunis.
The duration of his service, however, would prove rather short. While in Tunis Noah paid a substantial ransom for Americans enslaved by “Barbary” pirates, a practice supposedly ended after the First Barbary War in 1805. Piracy had increased on American merchant vessels after the War of 1812, and would, in fact, three years later result in a second American naval engagement with the North African regencies of the Ottoman Empire—the Second Barbary War. Noah’s handling of the situation was seen by many as a reversion to old and ignominious modes of diplomacy. However, another factor entered into his dismissal. “At the time of your appointment,” Noah quotes Secretary of State James Monroe in his 1819 memoir of his experiences abroad, Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15, “it was not known that the religion, which you profess would form any obstacle to the exercise of your consular functions.” Though letters of protest came from Jews and non-Jews alike, and though the Monroe papers show an eventual reconciliation between the two men, Noah’s future did not lie in the foreign service.
Upon his return to the United States, Noah settled in New York where he began editing Tammany Hall vehicle the National Advocate, owned by Noah’s uncle Naphtali Phillips. Noah’s voice as a passionate champion of American democracy in the face of European anti-liberalism of the post-Napoleonic era, truly emerged during these years in the New York press. “America,” he wrote, “shall rise in all the majesty of freedom and defy the world.” He soon left the Advocate for the New York Enquirer, which he too would soon leave for an editorship at New York Evening Star. Eventually he founded his own publication, Noah’s Weekly Messenger, which then merged with the Sunday Times, the latter carrying Noah’s name on the masthead until 1892, forty years after his death.
“I intend to get married,” Noah had written his readers, “when I have leisure.” It is not a surprise then that it took until he was forty-two years old, in 1827, that Noah had leisure enough. He married Rebecca Esther Jackson, seventeen. She was the daughter of Daniel Jackson, president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which with Noah too would become involved.
Even as Noah busied himself with family life, he continued writing at an ever-greater output. Apart from journalism, Noah also composed a half dozen plays, including The Siege of Tripoli; The Wandering Boys; She Would be a Soldier, or the Plains of Chippewa. A production of one of his plays, The Grecian Captive, starred his uncle Aaron Phillips.
Despite the fiasco of his earlier consulship, Noah did not give up on public service. He continued to hold appointments including sheriff of New York, surveyor of the ports of New York and judge in the Court of General Sessions.
The two ideas with which Noah is most closely associated both involved the fate of the Jews. The first was his proposal to create a Jewish colony of refuge on Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo. It was to be named Ararat, after the location of the biblical Noah’s landfall. After an elaborate opening ceremony with firing canons, massive attendance, the arrival of Seneca Chief Red Jacket by boat—Noah was convinced that Native Americans represented the lost tribes of Israel—and Noah himself elaborately robed and bejeweled, his plan failed to attract any pioneers.
Noah also proposed one of the earliest formulations of what would become political Zionism. He wrote numerous articles and lectured extensively calling for a return of the Jews to Palestine. In 1818 Noah spoke to congregation Shearith Israel:
Never were prospects for the restoration of the Jewish nation to their ancient rights and dominion more brilliant than they are at present. There are upwards of seven million Jews…throughout the world…possessing more wealth, activity, influence and talents, than any body of people of their number on earth….they will march in triumphant numbers, and possess themselves once more of Syria (Palestine), and take their rank among the governments of earth.
Though this was widely rejected at the time and did not generate much enthusiasm, history would certainly vindicate Noah’s notion of Jewish nationalism, and by century’s end enthusiasm for a Jewish home in Palestine was growing.