1803: A Trader and American Patriot Who Would Fox the British Dies

Jonas Phillips, belated Philadelphia militiaman, stymied the British by writing suggestions of how to break their blockade - in Yiddish.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Civil war scenes: The Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumbull.
Jonas Phillips, American patriot and observant Jew, joined the Philadelphia Militia and advocated running the British blockage.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On January 29, 1803, Jonas Phillips, early-American merchant, patriot, Jewish-rights activist and blockade runner, died.

Phillips is thought to have been born in 1735 in either Buseck or Frankfurt, Germany. His parents were Aaron Phaibush and the former Phila von Stein.

At the age of 15, Jonas, who grew up speaking Yiddish but had also studied English, moved to London. From there, in 1756, he set sail for Charleston, South Carolina, the colony that at the time had the largest Jewish population in America. He paid off the cost of his passage by going into service as an indentured servant for Moses Lindo, an indigo planter.

Three years later, Phillips was a freeman. He moved briefly to Albany, New York, before heading south to New York City, where he received an introduction to Rebecca Mendez Menchado (1746-1831), the young daughter of Portuguese-born Jews living in Reading, Pennsylvania. 

Record fecundity

Jonas and Rebecca married in 1762, and settled in New York. Over the next 29 years, they would have 21 children together, the majority of whom survived to adulthood. They also adopted two of their orphaned grandchildren. (Historian Aviva Ben-Ur says that Rebecca held a record for fertility among Revolutionary-era Jewish families.)

Phillips initially made a living as a merchant, but the restrictive trade arrangements imposed by the United Kingdom made business a challenge for colonists, and he went bankrupt in 1764. He then trained to be a shohet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer, and worked in that capacity for Shearith Israel synagogue until he had accumulated enough money to go back into business for himself. For the remainder of his life, he worked as a retailer, broker and auctioneer.

Jonas was also an active supporter of the colonists’ struggle for independence. In 1778, at the age of 43, he joined the Philadelphia Militia, as a private in the company of Capt. John Linton, which was under the command of Colonel William Bradford.

Cattle graze on what had been the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., which hosted the bloodiest one-day battle on U.S. soil.Credit: AP

Two years earlier, when British troops occupied New York, Phillips joined with Gershom Seixas, the rabbi of Shearith Israel, in persuading their fellow congregants that the synagogue should relocate to Philadelphia for the war’s duration.

There, they were hosted by the Mikveh Israel congregation, which had been founded as a burial society in 1735, but came into its own during the war, as refugees arrived not only from New York, but from other colonies under siege as well. Later Phillips, who remained in Philadelphia, became the synagogue's president, and oversaw the drive to finance construction of its first permanent home.

Psst. Run the blockade

On July 28, 1776, Phillips wrote to Gumpel Samson, a relation and business associate in the Netherlands. In his letter, to which he attached a copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed just three weeks earlier, Philips combined a strategic analysis of the situation (the British, he said, had a force of 25,000, compared with the 100,000 patriots of the Continental Army), with heavy hints that a lot of money was to be made (profits up to 400 percent, he wrote) by traders like themselves who dared to run the British naval blockade. He even sent Samson a list of items, mainly textiles, he was interested in importing.

Out of concern that his letter might be intercepted by the British, Phillips wrote in Yiddish. In fact, the letter was confiscated by British censors, but they were unable to identify the language, and concluded it was written in code.

In 1787, Phillips addressed a letter to the constitutional convention then taking place in his city. Describing himself as “one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia,” he urged the delegates to include a clause that would prohibit states from requiring holders of public office to swear their belief in the New Testament, as Pennsylvania had done, something that precluded Jews from taking such positions.

Indeed, Article VI of the Constitution finally prohibited religious tests for office-holders in any state.

Jonas Phillips died in Philadelphia, and was buried in New York, at the Shearith Israel cemetery. His wife Rebecca lived another 28 years, and was very active in philanthropic and humanitarian activities in the decades following her husband's death.