Lewis Charles Levin, the first Jew to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, died on March 14, 1860 – several years after being committed to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. He was perhaps the country’s shrillest voice of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant incitement.
Little is known of Levin’s early life: In the 1880s, a fire in his childhood home destroyed most of the existing information about him and his family. He was born on November 10, 1808, in Charleston, South Carolina, a town that at the time had one of the country’s largest Jewish populations. He graduated from South Carolina College (today the University of South Carolina) in 1824, after which he worked as a schoolteacher in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky. During this time, he was seriously wounded in a duel, and spent six months in prison for an unpaid debt.
Whatever cause Levin took on, he adopted without moderation or restraint. After his near-fatal duel, he became a passionate opponent of such armed contests. In 1839, he moved to Philadelphia. By now he was a trained lawyer, but he began to devote his energies to the cause of temperance. Levin saw alcoholism as being caused by poverty, and he therefore blamed it on “capitalists,” who became wealthy at the expense of working people. He was also opposed to other “licentious pleasures,” such as the theater.
From grave concern about alcohol, Levin moved on to focus on the threat of immigration. It was the era when victims of the potato famine in Ireland – Roman Catholics – were pouring into the United States. Levin believed that the pope wanted to appoint a Catholic monarch to rule America, and that the best way to fight the threat from Rome was to compel Catholic children reading the Bible in school to use the King James Version, rather than the official Catholic translation.
In 1844, Levin was arrested and slapped with a fine, after inciting an anti-Catholic riot in Philadelphia. The same year, he was elected to Congress for the first of three terms as the candidate of what became the Native American Party (also known as the Know-Nothings). His platform called for increasing to 21 years the period required to become a naturalized American citizen.
By all accounts, Levin was an impressive speaker. Alexander Kelly McClure, a Philadelphia journalist, described him as “one of the most brilliant and unscrupulous orators I have ever heard. He presented a fine appearance, graceful in every action, charming in rhetoric and utterly reckless in assertion.”
If a Congressional colleague dared to challenge him, Levin would accuse him of being a “paid agent of the Jesuits who hang around this hall.” The representative from Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional district even opposed a bill that would have mandated minimum-space requirements for steerage passengers on transatlantic vessels.
Levin was defeated in 1850 in a bid for a fourth term, but continued his work with the Know-Nothings, and attempted a run for the Senate in 1855, a campaign that led to his being investigated for attempting to bribe members of the state legislature (which then elected U.S. senators).
In 1856, while speaking at a rally at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall against Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont, Levin was pulled off the stage by Fremont supporters. Shortly after that, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which led to his being hospitalized in a Philadelphia mental institution. He died four years later. His wife tried to raise money for a monument for a grave, but someone in his circle stole the funds, and his grave was left without a marker.
In 1880, independent of one another, both Levin’s wife, Julia Gist, and his son, Lewis, converted to Roman Catholicism.
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