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Columbia’s Jewish Commencement

In 1800, Sampson Simson delivered a history lesson in Hebrew about the deep-rootedness of New York City’s Jews to the trustees of Columbia College

by
Michael Hoberman
May 15, 2024
Sampson Simson, between 1844 and 1860

Library of Congress

Sampson Simson, between 1844 and 1860

Library of Congress

Whether or not Sampson Simson felt out of his element, his commencement oration asked the audience to grant him that sort of leeway. “I am very young,” he said, quoting Elihu’s repudiation of Job’s comforters, “and you are very old, wherefore I was afraid & durst not show my opinion.” The date was June 21, 1800, and Simson, a 21-year-old Jew who had just completed his studies at Columbia College, stood at the rostrum of St. Paul’s Church, in lower Manhattan. Like Elihu, who had bitten his tongue before daring to weigh in on the subject of Job’s misfortunes, Simson had been waiting for the opportunity to speak on a subject of great importance. Here, in one of the nation’s most storied and elegant Christian landmarks, and before an almost entirely Anglican audience, he was poised to communicate a history lesson. The subject of his talk was the origin, genealogy, and national significance of New York Jews. The language in which he delivered it was Hebrew.

Samson Simpson’s 1800 Columbia commencement oration was the earliest public assertion of Jewish belonging and longevity in the nation’s largest city. A hundred and fifty years after their first arrival there, in their own language, the city’s Jews were proclaiming New York as the birthplace of American Jewry.

Simson had not written the speech himself, and the Hebrew words probably did not roll off his tongue. Gershom Mendes Seixas, his Hebrew teacher since boyhood and the hazan of Shearith Israel, the city’s only synagogue at that time, had prepared his script. The graduate probably understood enough Hebrew to appreciate the gist and comprehend the import of what he was saying, which was that being a guest at St. Paul’s did not equate to being a foreigner in the city. Sampson Simson’s German-born grandfather Joseph, 101 years old when he died in 1787, had come to North America in 1718. Rebecca Isaacks Simson, his grandmother, had been born in New Jersey near the turn of the 18th century. As Jacob Rader Marcus noted in 1968, Sampson Simson’s Columbia commencement oration comprised “the first evidence of communal self-awareness among American Jews.” After a century and a half of continuous presence in the city, New York Jews were finally taking stock of their history and telling their story, both to themselves and the wider world.

Gershom Mendes Seixas’ Portuguese-born father, Isaac, had first come to the city in the 1730s. His mother, Rachel Franks Levy, was the daughter of one of New York’s most prominent Jewish merchants, Moses Raphael Levy, who had been made a freeman in the city in 1695. In his own youth, Gershom Mendes Seixas had not only witnessed the pivotal events of 1776 but been an active participant in them. He had taken a firm stand in the cause of American independence, choosing to vacate the synagogue ahead of the British invasion of Manhattan to avoid being compelled to take a loyalty oath to King George III. According to family lore, he was among the dozen or so members of the New York clergy who attended George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. In the years following the achievement of American independence and nationhood, Seixas had been an outspoken advocate for republicanism.

The occasion for Sampson Simson’s oration was the commencement of Columbia College’s 1799/1800 academic year, an event that coincided with a trustees’ meeting. The ceremony had begun with a procession from the Columbia campus, which was located at the corner of Church and Barclay streets, to St. Paul’s, northward along Broadway by way of Robinson Street. Its participants included all of the varied constituencies typical at such an occasion—medical students, undergraduates, degree recipients, alumni, faculty members, trustees, and assorted dignitaries and “strangers of distinction.”

Most of the day’s featured speakers delivered their remarks in English, but a handful of the honorees, in accordance with what was then common practice at American colleges, had prepared formal addresses in the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The study of Hebrew in particular had a venerable history at the college. Only weeks ahead of the 1800 commencement, William Samuel Johnson, himself an amateur Hebraist and also the son of one of the foremost Hebrew scholars in America, had retired his post as Columbia’s president. As Shalom Goldman notes, it was “ironic” that Johnson had left Columbia before he had the chance to listen to the June 1800 commencement exercises, as “he might have been among the few” in attendance that day “to understand the Hebrew oration.” The subjects of the day’s other orations (there were 15 in total) varied widely. Samuel Harris, who hailed from Brooklyn, delivered a speech (contents unknown) “on negro slavery.” Robert S. Livingston, a Manhattanite, offered a timely “comparison between Julius Caesar and Napoleon.”

As communicative events, the orations written in the classical languages could only speak on a symbolic level to the majority of their audience members, who did not understand Greek or Latin, much less Hebrew.

Fortunately for the speaker and his teacher, the trustees and others in attendance would have grasped at least two of the salient details. First, Sampson Simson was known to be a Jew and the first member of his faith to be matriculated, and now graduated, at Columbia. Second, the matter-of-fact title of his speech imparted its content clearly enough: “Historical traits of the Jews, from their first settlement in North America.”

Simson’s oration began with an expression of thanks to God, who, as Seixas wrote, “hath called generations (into existence) from the beginning.” After passing through the requisite greetings to the audience, expressions of gratitude to his teachers and fellow students, and qualifications, the speaker announced his particular interest in his people’s history in New York. If he were a more erudite man and a more thoroughly trained religious scholar, he said, he might have given more attention to strictly religious matters. “The tongue of the learned the Lord hath not given unto me,” he noted, reminding his listeners that he was, after all, only 20 years old. In preparation for giving the speech, he said, he had asked himself: “In what manner shall I open my mouth before so great—so respectable an audience?” The answer—the entire oration’s “topic sentence,” if you will—stated the facts plainly. “Therefore,” the speaker says, “I have Chosen to inform you in a concise manner of what which my Ancestors and Predecessors have met in this country.” From this point on, all the way to the oration’s salutatory remarks, the primary subject of Simson’s remarks didn’t change.

Superficially, Simpson’s oration resonated with other histories of New York (the first of which was published in 1757 by the Loyalist leader William Smith Jr.). “At the time [that Jews first came],” the oration read, “this State was under the Dominion of Holland.” Where other New York historians, beginning with Smith, devoted deliberate attention to the turnover that occurred in 1664, when the English deposed Peter Stuyvesant and renamed the city New York, however, Seixas passed right over the subject of imperial history and naval rivalries. Instead, he highlighted the fact that Jews were on hand during both eras. From the perspective of the city’s Jewish population, the Dutch and English phases of the city’s history were of a piece. He focused instead on the history of Jewish arrivals.

Gershom Mendes Seixas, circa 1784
Gershom Mendes Seixas, circa 1784

Wikipedia

Like their biblical predecessors arriving for the first time in the land of Israel. New York’s earliest Jewish settlers had come there in hopes of improving the circumstances of their lives. Besides the fact that the Dutch and English settlers who had preceded them treated them kindly, one of the things that New York had going for it had been its geography. “The land being spacious [extensive],” the oration read, “they settled in this City,—near the sea coast [harbor] and entered into trade.” The Jews who came to New York weren’t interlopers. They had as much of a stake in the city’s future as its non-Jewish inhabitants did.

Seixas avoided naming names and seemed indifferent to the question of where in Europe the city’s first Jews had originated. In one telling instance, however, he relayed the story of a single family:

About one hundred fifty years past, an Israelite with his Wife and four Daughters Natives of the City of Amsterdam arrived here, they had not been settled a long while when the Man died, and the Woman was left with her four Daughters, they (the Daughters) married—After their Father’s death, and from them we have many respectable families settled throughout the United States of America.

None of the currently available genealogies of early New York Jews offer insight into who this native of Amsterdam and his daughters might have been. Resolving that mystery isn’t a prerequisite to our appreciation of the story’s powerful symbolism, however.

In referring to the father, mother, and four daughters as individuals, even though he refrained from naming them, Seixas departed from the larger pattern of the oration. Other parts of the speech referred to “my ancestors & predecessors” without identifying a single one of them. The oration referred to the Jews’ “European” origin, instead of mentioning their ties to Iberia, or Holland or England, let alone the extended sojourns in Brazil or the Caribbean that we know to have preceded their arrival in North America. Even Seixas’ geography favored abstraction over narrowness of scope: Instead of naming New York or the Hudson River or any other identifiable landscape feature, the oration told of Jews having come “to this City, near the sea-coast.”

Seixas interpreted the Jews’ arrival in New York in the 17th century through the wider lens of Jewish and biblical history. Hence, the oration’s intermittent allusions to biblical phrases and motifs, beginning with the quotation from Job. While the premature death of man with the four daughters did not allude to the Hebrew Bible, it projected an arresting image of new beginnings in the wake of tragic loss. Seixas’ language surrounding the widowhood of the Amsterdam native’s wife hinted strongly at just such an idea. In his formulation, the birth of the Jewish community in North America was an aftereffect of that loss. That the daughters’ families thrived “after their Father’s death” hinted at the notion that the Jews’ happiness and prosperity in New York had taken shape as a moment of succession and renewal following upon an era of deprivation. Their exodus from Europe had been both providential and epochal, and it marked a singularly blessed departure from a long-established pattern. Moreover, it had instigated a miraculous renewal of Jewish life on a promising shore.

Jews were not alone in harboring such sentiments. Seixas went out of his way to avoid theological entanglements with Christianity (he did not want to be proselytized), but his not wanting to discuss the Jewish religion with Christians didn’t mean that he didn’t wish to engage them on other subjects of potential mutual interest. Judging from Seixas’ other publicly facing works (particularly his sermons), he frequently sought and found ways to link his own Torah-centered Judaism to American republicanism. As David de Sola Pool, who served as Shearith Israel’s rabbi from 1921 to 1955, put it, “the theme which constantly recur[red] in [Seixas’] sermons is that of profound gratitude for the blessings which the United States outstandingly offered the Jews ... when emancipation from an imposed ghetto was still a dream in most countries of the world.” 

Fewer than 10 years after Sampson Simson delivered his Columbia commencement oration with its reference to the founding of New York’s Jewish community, clean slates and new beginnings were also on the minds of a spate of self-styled historians of New York. In 1809, for instance, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s entrance into New York Harbor and voyage up the river that would eventually bear his name, Samuel Miller, a Presbyterian minister and a stalwart of the newly formed New York Historical Society, delivered an anniversary speech titled “A Discourse Designed to Commemorate the Discovery of New York by Henry Hudson.” Having first described the voyages of Verrazzano, Cabot, and Hudson himself, Miller’s address proclaimed its wider celebratory agenda. His purpose had been “to trace the gradual advances of this colony, from small beginnings, to wealth, to power, and universal improvement.” Like Seixas, in other words, Miller looked back with wonder at what his “ancestors & predecessors” had managed to accomplish following upon their arrival in New York.

Simson’s oration equated the establishment of a Jewish community in New York with the birth of the American nation.

While the Jews who arrived in the city in the 1650s had undoubtedly needed to adjust to relatively primitive conditions, Seixas’ oration did not refer to them as having conquered the wilderness or triumphed over the natives. Instead, he described their efforts to establish and maintain a community of worshippers. “During the space of many years,” Seixas wrote, “the children of Israel had no fixed place of public worship in this city.” Instead, “on the Sabbaths & Festivals they used to assemble in a private house where they appropriated a room for the purpose of reading the law, & praying according to the prayers instituted for the day.” If any “historical traits of the Jews” applied here, they hinged on the tendency to find common cause and honor the commandments that they had carried with them from the Old World.

Seixas’ oration emphasized the Jews’ eagerness to make their own way within the wider framework of a growing city whose “European” residents had evidently been willing to accommodate their presence. It’s clear to us today that the Jews had been drawn to New York (and other seaboard locations) in order to advance their undertakings as trans-Atlantic merchants. For that matter, we also know that one of the primary motivations behind relative tolerance that Protestants of various denominations evinced for Jews in the New World was their sense that mobile Jewish capital could assist them in their own marketing endeavors. The speech that Seixas wrote for Simson, however, contained only the one brief reference to the Jews’ having “entered into trade” upon their arrival in New York. Like Samuel Miller and the other commemorators of early New York history whose orations and publications would emerge around the bicentennial of Hudson’s 1609 voyage, Seixas may have been thinking about the reputation that the city had by then acquired as a morally compromised arena in which economic competition threatened to overtake social grace.

On the heels of telling Simson’s listeners about the century and a half of Shearith Israel’s historical evolution from a group of scattered families to a geographically fixed congregation, Seixas launched into the address’s most impassioned portion—its treatment of the American Revolution and its legacy. Seixas referred to the “inhabitants of North America” having “broken the yoke of subjection” to Britain, echoing Isaiah in his effort to invoke the Americans’ rejection of royal authority. In choosing a republican government, Seixas wrote, in this instance borrowing phrasing from Deuteronomy 16:18, the patriots had decided “to have a head (a Chieftain) Judges and Officers from among [their] own people.” His disquisition on the revolution and its aftermath culminated in a passage in which he returned to the theme of mutuality that he had stressed in his description of the Jews’ cooperative efforts to form a community of their own. “The Jews throughout the union,” he wrote, “placed their lives in their hands palms and joined with their Friends the people to strengthen and assist them.”

The ultimate import of Sampson Simson’s oration was that it equated the establishment of a Jewish community in New York with the birth of the American nation. In the biblically allusive words of the oration’s stirring conclusion, “notwithstanding that the Jews came here one by one within the space of 150 years yet through the greatness of divine mercy, [they had] multiplied in the land, so as to be numbered among the citizens of America.” For Seixas and his pupil, New York, like the entire continent of North America, had been a launching point for a new era, both from a Jewish perspective and in the annals of world history.

New York was the one North American settlement that, from the late summer of 1776 until 1783, had been under continuous British occupation. It wasn’t just profoundly contested territory in the sense that the war’s bloodiest battle (the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on Aug. 27, 1776) and most intense fighting occurred within its precincts. As the staging ground from which each major British attack on American forces was initiated and the strategic focal point of British operations (assuming control of the corridor between New York Harbor and the upper Hudson Valley would have enabled the British to sever New England from the other American colonies), it was New York’s status that determined the war’s outcome. As the historian Barnet Schecter points out, “the battle for the city ... clarify[ied] the major turning points of the American Revolution.”

New York’s importance to Seixas and Simson had nothing to do with the size of its Jewish population, which until 1830 would remain smaller than that of Charleston, South Carolina. In the minds of the graduate and his mentor, the city mattered because it had been the birthplace of the United States. As Sampson Simson intoned his Hebrew oration to the assembled audience in St. Paul’s Church (which, incidentally, was one of the handful of the city’s buildings that predated the war but hadn’t been destroyed by it), he was standing on hallowed ground. New York City had been consecrated by events that, within a few short years of their having occurred, had attained scriptural significance.

Michael Hoberman is a Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and the author of Imagining Early American Jews, forthcoming in early 2026 from Oxford University Press.

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