This Day in Jewish History

1816: U.S. Recalls Jewish Consul From Tunisia

U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe said the reason was the discovery of Mordechai Manuel Noah's Jewish identity, but it was more about paying pirates too much.

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

On April 25, 1816, U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe wrote to Mordecai Manuel Noah, the American consul in Tunis, informing him that he was being recalled from his position because it had become known that he was a Jew. However, the real motivation for sacking Noah was his paying too much ransom for American hostages captured by pirates, and his religion became a cover story.

In his letter, Monroe explained to Noah that supposedly, when he had been appointed, in 1813, “it was not known that the religion which you profess would form any obstacle to the exercise of your consular functions. Recent information, however, on which entire reliance may be placed, proves that it would produce a very unfavorable effect.” As a consequence, President James Madison, wrote Monroe – who himself would succeed Madison in the position the following year – “has deemed it expedient to revoke your commission.”

Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), who was born in Philadelphia into a family of Sephardi descent, and spent much of his youth in Charleston, South Carolina, had a fascinating life that included work as a journalist-publisher, playwright, sheriff of New York and Jewish utopian. (More about him in a later column.)

He had never made any secret of his Jewish heritage, quite the contrary. When he began his professional career, it was as a diplomat in 1811. At that time, he appealed to the secretary of state to appoint him to represent the United States in a foreign posting because of his background. Noah believed that his being a Jew would actually be of advantage to the young republic on the international stage, as, he wrote to Monroe, it would "prove to foreign powers that our government is not regulated in the appointment of their officers by religious distinction."

And indeed, after turning down an offer to serve in a consular post in Riga, Latvia, Noah was appointed consul in Tunis in 1813. For many years, European and American ships had been plagued by raids by the Barbary pirates, operating out of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. The pirates seized not only the vessels’ cargos, but also their Christian crews, who were then sold into slavery around the Muslim world. Already under the presidency of George Washington (1789-1797), it had been the practice to send Jewish Americans to negotiate for the release of captive slaves, as they were believed to have more in common, historically and theologically, with Muslims (there were at the time, for example, more Jews living in Tunis than in the United States).

Mordecai Manuel Noah, who left for Tunis in May 1813, was authorized to spend up to $3,000 per person to ransom the American slaves held there. That sum, however, was far below what the standard ransom then was, and Noah was forced to up his offer. When he informed his employers that he had negotiated the liberation of six Americans from bondage for the price of $25,910, President Madison was appalled and decided to bring Noah back home, figuring that he could justify the move by pinning it on “the ascertained prejudice of the Turks against his Religion” – although there was no evidence of such a prejudice in this case.

For his part, Noah was shocked by the recall. When he returned to the United States, he wrote up a long report on his mission, called “Travels in England, France, Spain and the Barbary State.” In it, he expressed outrage at his treatment: “I thought I was a citizen of the United States, protected by the constitution in my religious, as well as in my civil, rights. My religion was known to the government at the time of my appointment, and it constituted one of the prominent causes why I was sent to Barbary. If, then, any ‘unfavorable’ events had been created by my religion, they should have been first ascertained, and not acting upon a supposition, upon imaginary consequences, have thus violated one of the most sacred and delicate rights of a citizen.”

Noah also engaged numerous other public figures, both Jews and non-Jews, to write letters to the White House, now occupied by James Monroe, trying to ascertain the real reasons for his dismissal. One of those letters, from Reform religious leader Isaac Harby, argued to the president that Jews “are by no means to be considered as a religious sect, tolerated by the government. They constitute a portion of the People. They are, in every respect, woven in and compacted with the citizens of the Republic.”

Eventually, an investigation by the U.S. attorney general cleared Noah of any malfeasance, he was reimbursed by the government for his expenses, and President Monroe did write to him, assuring him that his actions had not been motivated by anti-Semitism.