This Day in Jewish History / A Man Who Wrote Henry Ford’s Apology for anti-Semitism Is Born

Louis Marshall, an American Jewish leader, also brought the plight of Russian Jews to Washington.

Wikimedia Commons/State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

December 14, 1856 is the birthday of Louis Marshall, an archetype of the 20th-century Jewish-American leader. While he never held elected office, Marshall represented the Jewish community to the U.S. government, American society and the world and who played an active role in shaping U.S. law and policy in the pivotal early decades of that century.

Marshall was born in Syracuse, New York to Zilli and Jacob Marshall. His mother, the former Zilli Strauss, immigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany in 1848. His father, who had emigrated from Bavaria the previous year, eked out a living from his hide, fur and leather business. Louis was the eldest of six children.

Marshall graduated from Syracuse High School in 1874, after attending not only public school but also German and Hebrew schools. After apprenticing with a Syracuse law firm for two years he studied at Columbia University’s law school for one year. While most sources say he was graduated from Columbia, Marshall himself noted that he “never received a degree because two years actual attendance was required.”

He joined the Syracuse law firm of William C. Ruger in 1878 and became a partner in 1885, after joining the New York State Bar Association. It was during this time that he gained a national reputation not only as a trial lawyer but also as an advocate for the Jewish community. In 1891, he met with President Benjamin Harrison to press for U.S. intervention on behalf of persecuted Russian Jews. He argued more than 150 cases before the New York State Court of Appeals before he was 40.

In 1894 he was invited to join the prestigious New York City firm of Guggenheimer and Untermyer, which added Marshall’s name to its own. Marshall joined the ultimate New York German-Jewish religious institution, Temple Emanu-El, and went on to serve as president of the Reform synagogue. Recognizing the rising numbers of more traditional Jews among America’s rapidly expanding Jewish population, he played a key role in reviving the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He served as chairman of the board from 1904 until his death in 1927, helping to establish JTS as the academic institution of the Conservative movement.

For the sake of the Russian Jews

Marshall felt a sense of noblesse oblige vis-a-vis his coreligionists from Russia and Eastern Europe. By becoming publisher of the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishe Welt, in the words of historian Jacob Marcus, “he hoped to elevate the East European Jews politically, morally, religiously and culturally.” It was also a means to oppose the socialism and anarchism espoused by other Yiddish papers.

The persecution of Russian Jews remained a concern when, in 1919, as a representative of organized American Jewry, Marshall attended the Paris Peace Conference. He succeeded in having the new states that emerged from the Russian empire incorporate into their constitutions clauses guaranteeing the rights of their Jewish citizens.

Though not a political Zionist, he lent his support to the Zionist movement after the publication of the Balfour Declaration, and helped to create the Jewish Agency.

Marshall also took on the influential and very public anti-Semitism of Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent newspaper. When, in 1927, Ford sought to back down from his positions after becoming involved in an ugly libel suit, it was Marshall who drafted the automobile manufacturer’s letter of apology.

Marshall’s rights advocacy extended beyond his fellow Jews: He was an active member of the board of the NAACP, he worked for the rights of American Americans and in 1925 he successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court a challenge to an Oregon law prohibiting Catholics from sending their children to parochial schools.

Finally, Marshall was a lover of the outdoors, and he was key in framing conservation legislation and establishing giant nature preserves in his home state. It was a passion he would pass on to the four children that he and his wife, the Florence Lowenstein, raised.

Marshall died on September 11, 1929 in Zurich, where he was attending the 16th World Zionist Congress.