This Day in Jewish History

1762: Rhode Island Court Denies Citizenship to non-Protestants

Former converso Aaron Lopez made his fortune trading everything from spermaceti to slaves, but his religion made him unwanted in the colony.

Swampyank / Wikimedia Commons

On March 11, 1762, the Superior Court of Rhode Island rejected the appeal of two men, Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer, to be granted citizenship in the colony, on the grounds that they were not Christian.

Their appeal had been based on the fact that the British Naturalization Act of 1740 provided for Protestants who had resided in the American colonies a minimum of seven years to apply for citizenship there. Special provisions were also made for Jews and Quakers.

The court, however, said that the act had been passed at a time when the colonies were seeking new residents. Now, it said, Rhode Island was “so full of people that many of his Majesty’s good subjects born within the same have removed and resettled in Nova Scotia and other places,” hence its decision to turn down the request.

Aaron Lopez was born Duarte Lopez, in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1731, into a family of converso Jews that had never stopped secretly practicing their religion. He was the son of Diego Jose Lopez and his second wife.

In 1750, Duarte married Anna, and two years later, the couple sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, where Duarte’s older brother, Jose, had already settled and reclaimed his Jewish identity, changing his name to Moses. Duarte, Anna and their daughter, Catherine, followed in the same path, changing their names to Aaron, Abigail and Sarah, respectively.

With the help of his brother, who had become a trader in potash, Aaron set up his own business in Newport, initially trading in spermaceti, wax made from sperm whale oil and used in candles. In 1756, he opened a factory for spermaceti candles, to which he eventually added the manufacture of barrels, rum and even ships. He also traded in lumber, furniture, salt fish – and slaves, becoming a major player in supplying forced labor to the West Indies.

Whale oil merchant of 'the first eminence'

In 1761, Lopez, who at one point was Newport’s largest taxpayer, helped organize a trust of Newport businessmen to cooperate to their mutual benefit in the trade in whale oil, an increasingly rare commodity. Ezra Stiles, a Congregational minister and future president of Yale College described him as “a merchant of the first eminence,” probably “surpassed by no merchant in America."

That same year, Lopez applied for the first time to the Rhode Island Superior Court to be naturalized.

Rhode Island, it should be noted, had been founded in 1636 by Protestant dissident Roger Williams, who intended it to be open to people of all faiths, and no less important, to have a clear distinction between religion and state. The colony received a charter from British King Charles II in 1663 as a sanctuary for religious freedom.

Nonetheless, when Lopez, together with Elizer, also a Jewish immigrant, applied for citizenship, the court turned them down, on the grounds they were not Christians.

The two men then brought their case to the Rhode Island legislature. There they were given a partially positive answer, but sent back to the Superior Court for a final decision. That decision, in the negative, and again on the grounds they were not Christians, was delivered on March 11, 1762.

Reverend Styles was to comment on that decision: "I remark that Providence seems to make every Thing to work for Mortification to the Jews, & to prevent their incorporating into any Nation; that thus they may continue a distinct people."

Lopez was not to be deterred. Within weeks, and on the advice of a Boston lawyer, Samuel Fitch, he set up residence in Swansea, Massachusetts, and, in October 1762, was granted citizenship in that colony.

Isaac Elizer was naturalized in New York the following year.

Lopez then returned to Rhode Island, but during years leading up to the American Revolution, and during the war itself, his business suffered significantly, after the British blockaded Newport, and the colonies banned trade with the empire. He moved from Newport to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and then to Boston, ending up in Leicester, Massachusetts. There, during the war, he gave refuge to large numbers of displaced Jews.

As a philanthropist, he donated land for the establishment of the Leicester Academy, and also was a major donor to what became Touro Synagogue, in Newport.

On May 28, 1782, while returning after the war’s end from Leicester to Newport, Lopez stopped to water his horse at a pond in Smithfield, Rhode Island. He fell into the pond and drowned, in full view of his family. He was buried in the Touro cemetery in Newport.