On January 5, 1826, the General Assembly of Maryland passed a bill granting Jews the right to vote or to hold public office in the state.
The process leading to passage of the bill had been a long, arduous one, despite the fact that Maryland had been founded as a colony dedicated to religious tolerance, and coming 51 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 35 after passage of the Bill of the Rights, both of which professed a commitment to freedom of religion in the United States.
The grant for establishment of a colony in Maryland was given to Cecil Calvert in 1632. Cecil was the son of George Calvert (1579-1632), a convert to Roman Catholicism who not only wanted to establish a haven for his co-religionists, but also a man who imagined a separation of church and state in general. As a sign of tolerance and good will toward Protestants, in 1649, George’s descendants introduced what came to be called the “Toleration Act” in the colonial assembly. It guaranteed that no form of Christianity would be favored over another.
The bill went even further, however, stating that anyone who would "blaspheme God ... or deny our Savior Jesus Christ to be the son of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity ... shall be punished with death and confiscation or forfeiture of all his or her lands and goods…. ” Later the penalty was refined, so that death was meted out only to third-time offenders. For a first offense, the punishment was a boring of the tongue, and second offenders had a “B” (for blasphemy) branded on their foreheads.
Very quickly, Protestants began pouring into the colony, and Catholics became a minority subject to significant persecution.
Starting in 1797, a prominent Baltimore businessman named Solomon Etting petitioned the General Assembly on behalf of “a sect of people called Jews,” asking for them to “be placed upon the same footing with other good citizens.” His petition was referred to a committee, which deemed his request “reasonable,” but deferred action on it for what amounted to another five years.
Starting in 1802, the issue of full civil rights for Maryland’s Jews was brought before either Maryland’s House or Senate on five different occasions, and defeated each time. Beginning in 1819, the main champion of such a bill was Thomas Kennedy, a Scottish-born member of the House of Delegates who claimed never to have met a Jew (at the time, there were only an estimated 150 of them in the state), but who believed that one’s religion was a private matter and no concern of the state’s. He also defined as “absurd and ridiculous” the fact that, whereas, on the national level, a Maryland Jew could “hold a seat in Congress, command the armies of the United States, or even fill the presidential chair,” within the state, he could not be “a constable, a justice of the peace … or an ensign in the militia.”
Kennedy promised to work his entire life, if necessary, to achieve equality for the Jews. As it turned out, it took only until January 5, 1826 (Kennedy lived until 1832) for his goal to be achieved, when the House confirmed an enabling statute that repealed the clauses in the state constitution that required state office-holders to be Christians. It should be noted that the new law applied only to Jews, rather than being a blanket cancellation of discrimination based on religion, and it still required those seeking office to profess belief in “future state of rewards and punishments,” a condition that was dropped only in 1867.
In October, 1826, two Jewish residents of Baltimore, Solomon Etting and Jacob I. Cohen, were elected to that town’s city council, the first Jews to attain public office in Maryland.
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