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Lewis Levin Wasn’t Nice

The first Jewish member of Congress was a virulent nativist and anti-immigration troll who ended his life in an insane asylum. He was also acclaimed as the most brilliant orator of his age.

Zachary M. Schrag
October 23, 2018
Image: Library of Congress
H. Bucholzer, 'Riot in Philadelphia,' 1844.Image: Library of Congress
Image: Library of Congress
H. Bucholzer, 'Riot in Philadelphia,' 1844.Image: Library of Congress

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in July 1844, and a man is kneeling on the steps of a Catholic church, facing down a mob. All year, he has been warning that Irish Catholic immigration will be the ruin of the United States. He shouldn’t be surprised that some teenagers and young men interpreted his message as an instruction to destroy those immigrants’ churches. Yet the man thinks otherwise, or so he claims. “I am pledged to defend this church,” he tells them, “and I will do it at the peril of my life.” The men and boys with the battering ram respect him enough not to push past and destroy the church’s front door. Instead, they move a few yards to his left and batter down a brick wall, thus gaining access to an alley and the church’s side door and windows. As they tear into the church, the man on the step wails. “I am ruined!” he shouts. “I am sacrificed! And you sacrifice me!”

But they have not sacrificed him. Just over three months later, the man on the steps will win a three-way race to represent Pennsylvania’s First District in the United States House of Representatives, probably with the help of the votes of some of the men with the battering ram. His name is Lewis Charles Levin, and he is, arguably, the first Jew to be elected to Congress.

Levin was a rabble-rouser, conspiracy theorist, bigot, and shanda fur di goyim. In an age of resurgent nativism and fake news, he is all too familiar. Yet he is also mysterious. As a newspaper editor and congressman, Levin spoke and wrote countless thousands of words against demon rum and the Catholic menace. But he offered hardly any account of his private life, leaving historians to wonder about both the facts of his biography and the sincerity of his tirades. Where did a nice Jewish boy learn so much hate?


Levin was born on Nov. 10, 1808, in Charleston, South Carolina, to parents who had immigrated from England. Charleston was then home to about 700 Jews, which was enough to make it the largest community of Jews in the United States.

Over the next 30 years, Levin pursued at least three careers in at least five states, maybe more. He spent two years in Columbia, South Carolina, attending college and running a dry goods store. He next became a schoolmaster, starting one school in Cincinnati, and then, a year later, another one in Woodville, Mississippi. He next moved to Vicksburg, then Nashville, then Baltimore, probably with sojourns in Kentucky and Louisiana as well. Along the way he learned enough law to call himself “L. C. Levin, Esq.,” though what legal training he received, and even what bars admitted him, remain obscure.

He was good looking, for some tastes. Henry Stuart Foote, who later became a U.S. senator and governor of Mississippi, was impressed by the young man he encountered in Vicksburg in 1832. He later recalled “a man of exceedingly handsome person … his bright eyes positively almost seemed when he chanced to be a little excited, to be ready to fall from their sockets.” That’s consistent with the one portrait of Levin, which shows the sitter resting his head on his hand, his bright eyes looking dreamily upwards. Like so much about Levin, the portrait is a mystery. Formerly attributed to Rembrandt Peale, it is now listed as having been painted by the Peale Family in 1834. If the painting still survives, it is in private hands and has not been seen in public since 1933.

In any case, most descriptions of Levin refer not to his appearance, but to his eloquence. Foote compared Levin to the greatest Shakespeareans of the age: William Macready, Edwin Forrest, and Edwin Booth. Alexander Stephens, later the vice president of the Confederacy, went even further. Asked by a visiting Frenchman to name “the most eloquent among American orators,” Stephens replied, “I have been so fortunate as to hear, perhaps, the greatest of the public men of my own time. I have listened to the masterly speeches of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, and many others; but for genuine eloquence, for the spontaneous outburst of what may be called the native oratory, Louis C. Levin, a member of Congress from Philadelphia, had no peer.” One newspaper described “his usual strain of brilliancy and power” on behalf a client who, though convicted of theft, escaped the more serious charge of murder. Whether Levin’s oratory carried a worthy message was another matter. As Foote conceded, Levin “spoke in public with great fluency, but without much display of argumentative power.”

Throughout his career, Levin picked fights. When he opened his Woodville school, Levin advertised it by disparaging other schools in terms that would make any charter school founder proud. “The method pursued in most Academies,” he warned, “is to overload the memory with an enormous collection of facts and principles.” By contrast, his Woodville Academy would “render study interesting to the pupil.” “He should form his own conclusions, on whatever he may read, study, or observe, without being whipt into the face of any man’s isolated conceptions.”

Levin was also physically aggressive. Foote explained Levin’s move from Woodville to Vicksburg as the result of a duel he had fought after giving a Fourth of July oration, which another man claimed to have written. Other accounts embellish the story to say that Levin’s accuser was his partner in the Woodville school, Alfred Bynum; that the two fought with rifles; that Bynum seriously wounded Levin, and that Levin’s second in the affair of honor was none other than Jefferson Davis. Foote confirms none of this, though he did note that Levin’s “very impulsive nature got him into several serious personal quarrels, from which I had much trouble in rescuing him.” In 1834, he was indicted for attempted murder in Philadelphia, and in 1836, he may have drawn a Bowie knife and stabbed lawyer Henry Stump. Even as a congressman, he brawled.

One of the greatest enigmas about Levin is his religious identity. He seems never to have hidden the fact that, as Foote put it, he was “a South Carolinian by birth; by descent an Israelite.” Throughout his life he stayed in touch with his Charleston kin, who remained part of that city’s Jewish community. Yet in January 1833, he stood before the Reverend George Weller, a prominent Nashville Episcopal priest, to be married to Ann Hays. Ann Christian Hays. One year and three days after the wedding, Ann was dead. Eleven months later, Levin remarried, again to a gentile, this time Julia Ann McCubbin Gist, a young Baltimore widow with a baby daughter, Thomasina. Again, a Protestant clergyman officiated.

At a time when American Jews were few and often scattered, intermarriage was fairly common, comprising more than one in four marriages involving Jews. Still, the constitution of Charleston’s Beth Elohim stated that “any person or persons being married contrary to the Mosaical Law, or renouncing his or their religion, shall themselves and their issue, never be recog­nized members of this Congregation.” By marrying outside the faith, Levin likely distanced himself from the Jewish community.

Whether he formally converted to Christianity is another question. If he did, it could well have taken place during the pupal stage of Levin’s early 30s, following his marriage to Julia and the birth of their daughter, Louisa, in 1840. The details of those years are frustratingly obscure. We don’t know why he moved, or when, whether or where his family worshipped, whether he practiced law, or indeed whether he held any kind of job. He disappears from the Baltimore city directory, and does not appear in Philadelphia’s until 1842, by which point he is listed not as an attorney, but as an editor.

Where did a nice Jewish boy learn so much hate?

We do know he drank. His enemies later depicted Levin’s early years in Philadelphia in gruesome terms: “His form, bloated with drink, was covered with tattered habiliments, every rag of which spoke eloquently to the passenger of want and constant inebriety. His swollen cheeks and sunken eyes were voiceful of dissipation. The night wind shuddered as it bore his maudlin song upon its wings, trilled from a handcart upon which some good Samaritan was conveying him home from a debauch, to keep him from being devoured by the swine while reposing in the filth-conduits of the streets of our city.”

Levin himself later told audiences that around 1841, he could have been found “in an obscure tavern … enslaved and fettered, bound hand and foot by the power of Alcohol.” Yet even this could have been an exaggeration, coming as it did when it was common for “reformed drunkards” to embellish their stories of degradation in order to magnify the wonders of their recovery after pledging abstinence. We can be more certain that Levin went broke. In March 1841, Philadelphia newspapers announced his application for state bankruptcy protection, listing his address as the county prison. The following year, Levin applied for federal bankruptcy as well.

Then he picked himself up, or was picked up by others. He later described himself in that “obscure tavern,” hearing the voice that will save his life. “Faint whispers reach his ear, and wandering rays of light visit his eyes. See! he stirs! He begins to recollect where he is, and where he should be; he begins to feel his inherent strength, he will surely rise from his dungeon floor; he will surely break the bolts of his prison-house, and make good his way back to the hearts of men! Yes! thank God, he is free, he is here, he stands before you! He no longer bends his neck and hugs his gilded chain—he has cast off the damning yoke, and with his pledge against future bondage, he stands a freeman in the light of Heaven!”

Not merely free, he began to thrive, turning his sobriety into a fourth career as a temperance reformer. He found a gig as editor of the Temperance Advocate and Literary Repository, a biweekly temperance newspaper. In the evenings, he gave public lectures, using those brilliant oratorical skills to entertain and, he hoped, reform listeners in Philadelphia and several other cities which he toured. On July 4, 1842, in Westchester, New York, he gave the oration to 4,000 people, though the heat forced him to abbreviate his remarks. “We never heard him speak better, and with more power than he did on this occasion,” noted a temperance reporter. “His eloquence, when used against the prejudice, bigotry and opposition, which temperance meets, is enough to melt the stoutest heart and convince the most stubborn hearer, of the facts which he proclaims. His sarcasm, when brought into play, is of the most withering and blasting description.”

Levin’s metamorphosis from drunken slave to sober freeman may have changed his religion as well. Levin’s later editorials speak of “the Son of God” and the “Saviour” and advocate for “Christian Republican Government.” Moreover, his most frequent companion on stage was the Reverend John Chambers, who had been raised Presbyterian, though he led his congregation out of the Presbyterian church out of doctrinal differences. (In this he followed the lead of John Mason Duncan, who had officiated at Levin’s second marriage. Perhaps Duncan introduced the two, or perhaps Chambers found Levin while scouring Philadelphia taverns for souls to save.) A critic plausibly claimed that Levin converted to Protestantism under the direction of Chambers, and that “those who converted him from Judaism to Christianity and from constant bestial inebriation to sobriety placed a newspaper press under his control.” That too is plausible. A converted Jew was a rare prize, so Christian sponsors often helped their converts’ careers, and the temperance movement which Levin joined was led by evangelical Protestant clergy and laymen. Whatever his formal membership, following his sobriety, Levin surrounded himself with Protestants and spoke and wrote as they did.

In 1843, his allies installed him as editor of Philadelphia’s Daily Sun. Philadelphia was already awash in penny dailies, so it hardly needed another source of news. Rather, investors likely expected the Sun to offer the same court reporting, shipping news, foreign dispatches, and patent medicine advertisements as its competitors, but with a fresh editorial twist. Some expected Levin to keep temperance as his major theme, but he soon found a new cause.


Lewis Levin did not invent anti-Catholicism. By the time he started denouncing Catholics regularly in 1843, he could draw on three centuries’ worth of Protestant calumny. Protestant victories in England’s civil wars and its wars against Catholic Spain and France convinced many Britons, and British colonists in America, that Protestantism was a necessary component of both patriotism and British liberty. Some of this sentiment survived the American Revolution, despite the new nation’s dependence on French and Spanish aid to achieve its independence, and the adoption of a constitution that abolished religious tests for office and forbad the establishment of a national religion. Both British and American Protestants denounced Catholics as subjects of a foreign monarch: the pope. Their warnings became particularly shrill after 1829, when the British Parliament granted Catholics the right to hold office.

Whether in Britain, Upper Canada, or the United States, not all Catholics were Irish, and not all Irish were Catholics. But as Irishmen crossed the waters in ever increasing numbers, they became the face of Catholicism in all three lands. In Philadelphia, Irish-born clergy led the Catholic diocese and the ever-larger number of churches springing up around the city and surrounding districts. They might worship alongside native-born or immigrant Catholics of English, French, or German descent, but bigots like Levin barely noticed the distinction.

Levin’s chief target was Daniel O’Connell, the Irish patriot who had championed Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom and, having achieved that goal, called for repeal of the Act of Union that had placed Ireland under the jurisdiction of the Parliament in Westminster. Proclaiming loyalty to the queen, O’Connell demanded not full independence from Britain, but rather a restoration of the Irish Parliament and a measure of autonomy within the British Empire. Many Americans—not all of them Irish or Catholic—understood O’Connell’s Repeal movement as an echo of their forefathers’ own demands for self-government, and they formed Repeal associations to raise funds for the effort.

Levin, by contrast, saw a dark conspiracy. “The ‘Repeal question,’” he warned in November 1843, “was only agitated in Ireland, as an engine by which to reach the United States—pollute our ballot boxes—disrupt our Union—light the flame of civil war in the States—and combine the Irish Catholic vote, for the purpose of extending the Romish denomination of his Holiness the Pope. This now appears to us, to be the genuine character of Irish Repeal; a torch of discord flung among the American people, to subjugate our Independence; to establish the supremacy of the Papal Church, in our Government; to control our elections—contaminate our people—subvert free principles—and by tyrannous coercion force Heresy to bow the knee to Idols.”

Since Repeal was widely popular among Irish immigrants to Philadelphia, Levin soon concluded that these immigrants were themselves a threat to American democracy, whether as knowing conspirators or unwitting dupes of O’Connell. He joined a growing nativist movement whose stated goal was not to restrict immigration directly, but rather to deny citizenship and suffrage to immigrants until they had resided at least 21 years in the United States. Anything short of that, he warned, risked polluting the ballot box with the votes of men too accustomed to European monarchy to do anything but vote at the instruction of others, especially Catholic priests.

We can’t know how much Levin’s denunciation of Repeal and Catholicism represented his sincere beliefs, and how much was an opportunistic embrace of a cause that promised fame, power, and perhaps wealth. In New York City, like-minded nativists had formed a new party, the American Republicans, to challenge the existing Whigs and Democrats. Both there and in Philadelphia, American Republicans fused nativism and anti-Catholicism. “Although I do not war against the Catholic Church,” claimed one, “it is anti-democratic. Ask any Irishman who he has to obey, and he will tell you the priest. Well, the priest must obey the bishop, and the bishop the archbishop, and the archbishop the old Pope of Rome on his seven hilled city.” When an American Republican won election as New York’s mayor in April 1844, Levin exulted. “Nobly have the people of New York met the crisis,” he wrote. “They organized their strength on the true principle of opposition to foreign interference in the American ballot-boxes; proclaimed by O’Connell to be the great desideratum of the Romish Church; and they have triumphed.”

Officially, Levin’s Sun remained politically independent, but Levin spoke at some of the nativist rallies that were popping up throughout Philadelphia and its adjacent districts, which were later incorporated into the Philadelphia we know today. He was so popular that the American Republicans of New Market Ward could not find a hall large enough to shelter everyone who wanted to hear him, so they booked a room in neighboring Moyamensing instead.


On Monday, May 6, 1844, Levin was scheduled to speak at another nativist rally, this one in the Third Ward of Kensington, which housed the county’s largest concentration of Irish Catholic immigrants. As might have been predicted, the rally—held in a vacant lot—attracted a large number of hecklers, some of whom had shut down the nativists’ first effort at a rally the previous Friday. They also protested the Monday meeting, with one of them going so far as to dump a wagonload of dirt in front of the nativist stage. But everything proceeded tolerably peacefully for over an hour.

Levin was just about to start his speech when he was interrupted by one of those chance events that can shape history: A sudden and powerful storm blew in, threatening to drench the nativists. Improvising, they dashed to the nearest shelter, a covered market less than a hundred yards away. There, they tried to resume. Levin climbed on a hogshead and began to declaim. “Fellow citizens!” he cried. “We have reached an important crisis!” Those were the only words he managed that day.

Knowingly or not, the nativists had invaded a market that Kensington’s Irish Catholics considered their exclusive turf, having used it as the headquarters of a violent weavers’ strike the previous year. “This ground don’t belong to them,” muttered one worker as the nativists arrived. “This is ours.” As Levin tried to speak, Protestants and Catholics, some from the neighborhood, some from outside, began to quarrel. Eyewitnesses would disagree about who threw the first punch and fired the first gun, but the brawl spiraled into a full-fledged riot that lasted three days. By the end, at least nine people were dead from gunfire, and two Catholic churches lay in ashes.

An illustrated sheet-music cover glorifying the nativist cause, produced shortly after the bloody anti-Catholic riots in Kensington, Philadelphia, of May 1844. (Image: Library of Congress)
An illustrated sheet-music cover glorifying the nativist cause, produced shortly after the bloody anti-Catholic riots in Kensington, Philadelphia, of May 1844. (Image: Library of Congress)

Levin kept his own hands clean. When the violence first erupted, he fled to the safety of downtown Philadelphia, leaving younger men to do the fighting. And on paper, he deplored the violence, especially the arson. “Burn no churches, even if your fathers were murdered before your eyes,” he begged. “Give a more rational and effectual direction to your feelings, by making the ballot-box speak in tones of thunder against the aggravating wrongs you have endured.”

The nativists’ violent rhetoric certainly alarmed Philadelphia’s Catholics. Following the destruction of the two churches in May, companies of the Pennsylvania militia had guarded the city’s surviving Catholic institutions, but they could not stay on duty forever. St. Philip de Neri’s Church seemed particularly vulnerable, since it served Southwark, a heavily nativist district. The church’s pastor, with the help of his brother, recruited Catholic volunteers and assembled an arsenal, a mix of state-issued muskets, privately purchased firearms, and improvised weapons, like pikes made of bayonets mounted on brush handles.

On Friday, July 5, the church’s Protestant neighbors realized what was happening, and they demanded to search the building for weapons. Fearful of a third church burning, the county sheriff allowed them in, then called for military aid. On Saturday evening, a mixed force of soldiers and civilians arrested around two dozen members of a crowd and confined them in the church basement. By the morning of Sunday, July 7, the church was held by members of three militia companies, including the Montgomery Hibernia Greens, composed mostly of Irish Catholic immigrants. The presence of Catholic troops occupying a Catholic church and holding Protestant prisoners awoke every anti-Catholic nightmare, and by midday of that Sunday, Protestants had stolen cannon with which to bombard the church.

Thomas Grover, a leading Southwark nativist, decided that Levin was the man to calm things down. Speaking to the Greens’ commander through a shattered church door, Levin negotiated what he thought was a reasonable deal. The Greens would march out, and the crowd would not molest them. Furthermore, Levin promised, “I will die on the threshold to protect the church.” Will you do the same, he asked the crowd? “We will!”

Levin’s deal fell apart within minutes. By the time the troops reached the nearest intersection, they were being stoned by men who hadn’t heard the terms of the deal, or at least hadn’t assented. Eventually, the Greens fired in self-defense, though they did not hit anyone.

Meanwhile, other members of the crowd renewed the attack on the church. Levin again called for peace. “Let our enemies tantalize us!” he cried. “Let them try how far they can go to disunite and disturb the American Republican party—let them set every snare they can to try us—but let us beware, let us sustain our characters as Americans and return to them good for evil!” When that failed, and men appeared with the battering ram, Levin dropped to his knees, only to see the mob flow around him. He followed them inside and watched helplessly as they ransacked the church, though Grover was able to extinguish the efforts at arson. After four hours of exertion, an exhausted Levin went home, believing that the only power that could save the church was a return of the militia, presumably in greater force. As if to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Sun ran an extra with the false report that the Greens had killed “two or three persons.” Eventually, nearly 200 troops marched into Southwark, sparking a battle between troops and nativists that lasted until dawn and left two soldiers and 11 civilians dead or dying, and many more wounded on both sides.


As the city calmed, Levin blamed the violence not on the mobs that had attacked the church, but on the officers who had stopped them. “The dreadful slaughter of human life,” he wrote, “was not the work of a mob of citizens, but of the military.” “At all times, military coercion is odious, and justly so to a free people, whose Institutions rule them by the force of opinion, the moral power of law, and not physical power—not the musket, the bayonet and the sabre. The military on such occasions, only exasperate—and become themselves the very mob they are sent to quell.” Not amused, the authorities arrested Levin for inciting riot and treason. Levin took it in stride. “Do not create mobs,” he told his supporters after making bail. “Leave that to the military.”

Nativists loved this defiance, and in September they nominated Levin for Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District, which included Southwark. In a three-way race against a Democrat and a Whig, Levin campaigned on his favorite issue, writing that “Roman Catholics or Americans must rule the land. There is no other question before the people.” Some Democratic critics resorted to anti-Semitism, charging that Levin, “apparently a convert from Hebraism to the Christian Church, gloried—as though still a Jew—in exciting quarrels between Christian sects, [and] rejoiced over the conflagration of Christian Altars.”

But nativists stayed loyal, and on Oct. 8, Levin won the seat. “From this point we start in a career of political triumph without any precedent in history,” he predicted. “Three years hence, we must elect a Governor, and four years hence, a President of the United States.” At the time of the election, the charges of riot and treason were still pending, and four days later, Levin was officially indicted. He shrugged off the indictment as evidence of yet another Catholic plot, and eventually prosecutors dropped the charges. In December 1845, he entered the 29th Congress, alongside five other nativists and such luminaries as Jefferson Davis, who had perhaps attended that duel back in Woodville.

Levin served three terms in the House, but he achieved little. He never came close to gaining enough votes for his signature issue: extending the naturalization period from five to 21 years. He was left pushing more symbolic but equally futile causes, like keeping immigrants out of a new army regiment, or opposing the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Papal States. But as the member of a tiny, third party in a two-party system, he lacked any real power. When reelected in 1846, he became the only nativist in Congress. And in 1848, he had to run as a fusion candidate with the Whig Party, something he had vowed never to do. Even then, the Whigs kept the best patronage jobs to themselves.

A Catholic writer described Levin’s failure in anti-Semitic terms. “Lewis C. Levin, who rode into notoriety upon the mad frenzy of a mob, which he himself created, still desecrates the Halls of Congress by his presence, a living, walking, talking monument of the evanescence of the party which he once represented, as well as of the disgraceful outrages which were committed during its existence and under its influence. … Like the accursed descendants of that race to whom he is allied, he roams over the floor of the House contemned by one party and rejected by the other, and only noticed on account of the privilege which he unworthily enjoys, of adding or subtracting from a majority of the votes.” Finally, in 1850, he was defeated by a Democrat, a militia officer who had defended St. Philip’s Church in May 1844.

After eight years in the public eye, Levin quickly faded into obscurity. He failed to build the American Republicans into a national party. In 1855, he failed to win election as a U.S. senator, despite—his critics charged—his efforts to bribe the state legislators who controlled the seat. He even lost control of Pennsylvania nativism to rivals who preferred to blend their politics with the rituals and secrecy of fraternal orders. By 1853, these groups dominated the nativist movement, leading to its new name: the Know-Nothings. In 1856, the Know-Nothings nominated former president Millard Fillmore for the presidency. Levin supported the idea, but he opposed an alliance with the nascent Republican Party. When he rented a hall to make his case, fusion proponents booed him offstage. As he was shoved out of the building, Levin waved his hat in farewell.

Two weeks later, a policeman escorted Levin to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. Friends hoped that the election had simply overexcited him, and that he would soon be restored to health. Indeed, he was able to leave the hospital and visit family in South Carolina. But on a second visit in 1859, “he became very dangerous and unmanageable,” and fellow passengers confined him to the train’s mail car for the return trip. On March 14, 1860, he died in the hospital.


In the decades following his death, Jews expressed some pride in Levin’s prominence, including him in such celebratory works as The Hebrews in America: A Series of Historical and Biographical Sketches (1888) and The Jews of Philadelphia: Their History From the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time; a Record of Events and Institutions, and of Leading Members of the Jewish Community in Every Sphere of Activity (1894). A Jew had been elected to Congress; beyond that, it was best not to ask questions.

Only in 1960 did John Forman, a Jewish historian trained at the University of Pennsylvania, offer a more scholarly appraisal, based on Levin’s two newspapers and his congressional speeches. Forman didn’t like what he read. “Like Adolf Hitler,” Forman concluded, “or, better still—to draw a comparison from the recent American past—like Joseph McCarthy, Levin is typical of the frothing emotional psychopath in political life, one who tries to carry people along a path of hate until his star begins to fade and his ‘medicine’ fails.”

The McCarthy comparison isn’t bad, given McCarthy’s obsession with a foreign-led conspiracy and his rapid rise and fall. But recent years have given us even closer comparisons to 19th-century rabble-rousers who warned of the immigrant menace. To create a conspiracy theory comparable to Levin’s rantings about Irish Catholicism, one could combine today’s Islamophobic fears of Sharia with economic and demographic panics about Latinx immigration. And to create a present-day Levin himself, one would blend a speaker, a journalist, and a politician: think Gavin McInnes, Tucker Carlson, and Steve King all rolled into one.

The Internet age has also given us a new word to describe Levin: troll. Like today’s trolls, Levin thrived on provocation. If an office boy at the Sun needed a favor from Levin, the best time to ask was “when he was in a good humor, having just pitched into foreigners to his own entire satisfaction.” One imagines Levin smirking at the pain his words would cause the Irish Catholics who read them. He may have been equally delighted when his words, spoken or printed, riled teenage boys and young men to violence. Though during the riots Levin did not throw a punch, fire a gun, or light a match, it would have been easy for young men to understand his words as a call to arms.

Writing in 1960, Forman speculated that “the mere fact that [Levin] was a Jew must have meant some kind of alienation for him.” Perhaps, but other American Jews of the age seem to have embraced American society far more easily than he. For instance, Nathaniel Levin of Charleston, Levin’s younger brother, prospered as a merchant and customs collector and won renown as a speaker, Freemason, and historian of his congregation. Conversely, some of Levin’s equally rabid nativist colleagues were born into established Protestant families. Levin’s Jewish birth neither made him a bigot, nor did it prevent it. To build a political career by rousing Americans to hate other Americans, you don’t need to be a Jew, a Christian, or a convert. You just need to be a schmuck.


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Zachary Schrag, professor of history at George Mason university, is the author ofThe Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, andEthical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2000. He is at work on a book about the Philadelphia nativist riots of 1844.