On July 26, 1858, Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild took his seat in the British House of Commons – 11 years after the public first elected him to Parliament. In doing so, Rothschild, son of the founder of the English branch of the banking dynasty, became the first practicing Jew in Parliament, and did so without being required to take an oath declaring his “true faith as a Christian.”
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Lionel Nathan de Rothschild was born on November 22, 1808, the first son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, and his wife, Hanna Barent Cohen. Nathan had arrived in England from his native Frankfurt in 1798.
Lionel’s entrée into politics came after many years of experience in business, having succeeded his father as head of the London firm in 1836. He established a relief fund to help alleviate the Irish potato famine, in 1847; acted as an agent of the Russian government in London; and, in 1854, arranged a huge loan that allowed Britain to participate in the Crimean War. Much later in life, in 1875, it was Rothschild who financed Britain’s secret purchase of the Suez Canal Company from Egypt.
Baron Rothschild (he inherited the Habsburg title from his father but, unlike him, used it) was also deeply involved in Jewish communal institutions, and it was in the context of his commitment to advance Jewish emancipation in England that he ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 1847 – and, more to the point, that he persisted in his efforts to assume that seat over more than a decade.
After Catholics were relieved of all “disabilities,” as restrictions on the civil rights of one group or another were referred to, in 1829, the organized Jewish community began pushing for similar treatment. This included being permitted to hold local office, being admitted to university and being eligible for ennoblement.
By the time Lionel de Rothschild was elected to the Commons, a decade had passed since Benjamin Disraeli had done the same. But Disraeli had converted to Christianity, and had no problem taking the standard oath. And when David Salomons was elected in 1851, he insinuated his way into the House, modifying the oath on his own, and even participated in several votes before he was discovered and expelled.
To Rothschild, however, it was important to be seated as a practicing Jew. He rejected subterfuge and would not take the oath on a Christian Bible.
Over the next decade, he ran for and was elected to the same seat four additional times. During the same period, the House of Commons took up a Jewish disabilities bill on six different occasions.
In most cases, the Commons passed the bill, only to have it voted down by the far more conservative House of Lords. In this sense, the struggle to change the oath of office became, as historian Geoffrey Alderman has written, not only an effort “to bring about a disengagement between Church and State,” but also a struggle “to convince their Lordships that they had no business meddling in the affairs of the Lower House.”
‘So help me, Jehovah’
Finally, in 1858, under pressure from Disraeli – then the chancellor of the exchequer – the Lords agreed to a compromise that resulted in the Jews Relief Act, by which either house could, by resolution, vote to seat a Jew and relieve him of the requirement to take the Christian oath.
That made it possible for Rothschild, his head covered with top hat, to finally enter the Commons, replacing the forbidden words in the loyalty oath with the phrase “So help me, Jehovah.” The following year, Salomons too was elected (again), and permitted to take his seat.
Rothschild was reelected in 1859 and 1865, and again in 1869, after losing his seat in 1868. He left the House for good in 1874. During his four terms in office, it should be noted, he never addressed the body.
Lionel de Rothschild died on June 3, 1879, at 70. In 1885, his son Nathan was elevated to the peerage, making him the first Jew in the House of Lords.