When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, a Jew could be elected to the presidency but not to a Maryland state office. The Maryland Constitution stated that “all persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty...No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State… and a declaration of belief in Christian religion.”
As a result, Jews who wished to remain true to their faith could not take the oath and therefore could not serve in public office, or as militia officers, or even as jurors. For Maryland’s Jews, especially members of the Cohen and Etting families who considered themselves a part of civic life, this clause served as a reminder that despite their success, they were not considered equal under the law. The families worked hard to remove this discriminatory language. As early as 1797, Solomon Etting petitioned the state legislature to change the constitution. Mendes’ brother, Jacob, took a leading role in this fight as well.
In 1824, Jacob Cohen prepared a petition to be presented to the state legislature on behalf of Maryland’s Jews which declared...“It is equal rights which they (Jews) petition; their voice is not raised in favor, but in opposition, to exclusive privilege; they ask an equality of rights with their fellow citizens.”
MD State Legislature VOTES and PROCEEDINGS December 13, 1797, Maryland State Archives
Listen to moments from Jacob Cohen's petition to the Maryland Legislature concerning the Jew Bill.
The Jew Bill
It wasn’t just the Jewish community that objected to the requirement of a Christian oath for holding office. State Delegate Thomas Kennedy, a representative from Hagerstown, took up the cause of Maryland's tiny Jewish community in 1818. When he started the fight, he had never actually met someone Jewish, but he believed fiercely in religious freedom.
With heavy opposition from the anti-immigrant wing of the Federalist Party, his bill failed year after year. Kennedy continued pressing for the so-called "Jew Bill" even at the risk of his political career. He was called a traitor to his faith, and in 1823 he was defeated for re-election by Benjamin Galloway running on a "Christian ticket." Two years later he was returned to office as an independent and helped secure enough votes for the passage of the Jew Bill in 1826.
Jew Bill Leaflet, 1819. JMM 1987.82.1.
In 1826, An Act for the Relief of Jews in Maryland, more commonly known as the Jew Bill, passed in the state legislature and the state’s constitution was changed to remove the discriminatory clause. The next year, both Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting were elected to Baltimore’s City Council.
1827 Jacob I. Cohen City Council Election handbill. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society
Maryland State House, Engraving in Columbian Magazine, 1799. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.