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  • Emmanuel Mehr

"A Kind and Benevolent Gentleman": Jacob I. Cohen Jr.'s Fight for Jewish Political Rights in Maryland

BHW 47: December 23, 2023

A broadside printed in orange ink that reads as follows: “COHEN’S Lottery & Exchange Office, No. 110, MARKET-STREET, BALTIMORE. Baltimore Hospital Lottery, SECOND CLASS, NOW DRAWING, CONTAINS THE FOLLOWING CAPITAL PRIZES. $30,000. $20,000. $20,000…”
Figure 1. Broadside issued by Cohen’s Lottery & Exchange Office to promote an upcoming lottery, 1813 [1].
 

In January 1826, the Maryland General Assembly passed “An Act to extend to the sect of people professing the Jewish religion, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by Christians,” which for the first time permitted Jewish people to hold public office in Maryland. [2] Known colloquially as “the Jew Bill,” it was followed by the election of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., and Solomon Etting to the Baltimore City Council in October 1826. [3] The struggle for this legislation dated to the late eighteenth century and was concentrated in Baltimore. In the early nineteenth century, the city’s Jewish population surged and Jewish Baltimorean leaders devoted great effort to passing the Jew Bill. [4] Foremost among them was local businessperson Jacob I. Cohen, Jr. His predecessor in this campaign was Solomon Etting, who first introduced the bill in 1797. [5] Cohen was twenty-five years younger than Etting and took over this campaign. Generations of historians argued the Jew Bill was designed to liberate the civil rights of all Jewish Marylanders. [6] This was challenged by historians Deborah R. Weiner and Eric L. Goldstein in their 2018 book. They argue, “the Jew Bill was designed specifically to clear the way for the already highly influential Etting and Cohen to take their places on the Baltimore City Council, rather than as a more general measure to extend civil rights to the larger population of Jews.” [7] As will be shown, this individualistic argument is quite convincing. It also raises broader implications not mentioned by Goldstein and Weiner. Specifically, it elevates the significance of Cohen’s life story. He orchestrated the bill’s passage by leveraging his prominence in Baltimore public life. The bill being designed to enable his rise to City Council does not take away from the significance of public office being opened to all Jewish Marylanders. How he achieved the Baltimorean public prominence he used to forge legislative change is therefore of substantial historical significance.


An examination of Cohen’s correspondence with prominent members of the Maryland Legislature in the lead-up to the Jew Bill’s passage supports Weiner and Goldstein’s argument that this was an individually motivated bill. For example, in December 1818, Cohen wrote to Baltimore resident and state legislator Ebenezer S. Thomas. He began by asserting he took notice of Thomas’s appointment to the committee considering the Jew Bill. Cohen immediately moved into utilizing his personal relationship with Thomas to solicit support for the bill. He wrote: “Having the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with you I am induced from the importance of the subject to address you.” Then he made clear how much Thomas’s support meant to him personally, putting weight behind the favor he was requesting from his acquaintance. He also remarked, “The subject of religion being the nearest and most vital to the soul of every sectarian it awakens every spark of feeling in support of those inalienable rights which the very nature of man forbids a transfer.” [8] Towards the end of the letter, he emphasized he would be paying close attention to who voted for or against the bill, implying he would leverage his connections to reward or punish accordingly. He asked that, “Whatever may be the fate of the proposed bill permit me to request, if not improper that the Ayes and Nays be taken and placed on record on the general question as well as on any previous one, which might involve such general question or be indicative of its final result.” [9] While Weiner and Goldstein do not cite this letter specifically to support their argument that this was an individually-motivated bill, it exemplifies their point.


Upon moving to Baltimore in 1808, at age nineteen, Cohen began to establish his presence in Baltimorean civic life by building a successful lottery business in the city. [10] As historian W. Ray Luce points out, “Baltimore, like many American cities, was engulfed by the lottery fever which swept the nation during the first half of the nineteenth century.” Cohen represented the opportunities presented by this popularity surge and opened the Cohen’s Lottery and Exchange Office in Baltimore in 1813 (Figure 1). [11] In the years that followed, this office became a leading purveyor of lottery tickets in Maryland, innovating and mastering advertising techniques in the process. [12] However, it was primarily Cohen’s role in Baltimore’s Washington Monument lotteries in the 1820s that enabled the transfer of his business capital into socio-political clout. He recognized that by demonstrating a commitment to the city’s normative narrative of American commemorative patriotism he could earn substantial public respect. Thus, he earned and enthusiastically committed to the position of secretary for the Baltimore Washington Monument’s board of managers in 1820. The board delegated to him all responsibility for lotteries funding the project. [13] This Baltimore Washington Monument story is explored in greater depth in our previous feature article on the subject.


The civic significance of Cohen’s public work advancing the memorialization of Revolutionary War hero George Washington was furthered by his own father being a Revolutionary War veteran. [14] He emphasized such Jewish military contributions to the United States to support his arguments in favor of the Jew Bill. Indeed, in his December 1818 letter to Thomas he stressed that, “In times of peril and war the Jews have borne the privations incident to such times and their best exertions have been given to their utmost, in defense of the common cause.” [15] Patriotic military contributions made clear American Jewish commitment to the present and futures of Baltimore, Maryland, and the United States. To further support this patriotic argument, he cited his family’s role in defending Baltimore’s bombardment by British forces in September 1814. Along with his brothers Mendes, Philip, and Benjamin, he joined the Baltimore Fencibles, a volunteer unit stationed at the fort later known as Fort McHenry. Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., himself was absent during the bombardment of the city as he was on leave aiding a dying relative. [16] Nevertheless, he made sure to cite his family’s extensive involvement in defending the city from British attack as further proving Jewish Marylander loyalty.


Cohen demonstrated remarkable business acumen by gradually expanding the activities of his lottery business to include functions later restricted to banks. This culminated in the direct conversion of the office into a formal bank in 1831. [17] The bank was named Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., and Brothers and rose to national success, opening additional branches in Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York. [18] Cohen and Bros became very reputable and represented some of the most high-profile clients in the United States, such as the Rothschild family. [19] The firm included “Exchange Office” in its name from the start, adding a currency function to its lottery corporate identity. Cohen astutely recognized that the wide variety of banknotes used by different banks around the country was an inconvenient and at times unpredictable obstacle for lottery ticket purchasers. His company built a reputation for reasonably and efficiently converting a wide variety of banknotes. [20] Gradually, the lottery activities of their business lessened as public enthusiasm waned and government regulations increased. [21] Recognizing this shift, Cohen moved to turn his business fully into a bank.


In addition to his own entrepreneurial ventures, Cohen also greatly contributed to Baltimore’s corporate and community life. This provided additional social capital for pushing through the Jew Bill. He was named president of the Baltimore Fire Insurance Company in 1849, a position he held until his death. Fires were a highly destructive threat in this period and he worked to protect Baltimore communities from this hazard. He also served executive roles with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company as well as the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Company. [22] As a founder and volunteer for the German Society of Maryland he established himself within local non-profit work as well. [23] These commitments to Baltimore corporations and community work combined with his patriotic military involvement to garner great public respect. His embrace of the most popular white Baltimorean community initiatives extended to a cause that has rightfully been since condemned: the colonizationist movement. Both Cohen and his eventual city council colleague Etting were members of the Maryland State Colonization Society, a Maryland subsidiary of the American Colonization Society. [24] Both of these racist groups refused to accept African American belonging in the United States. [25]


Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., leveraged his benevolent public reputation and extensive commitments to the normative causes of white Baltimoreans to garner sufficient support to push the Jew Bill through the Maryland Legislature in 1826. While his predecessor Solomon Etting first introduced the bill in 1797, it was Cohen who carried this struggle through its later years to its eventual legislative victory. Weiner and Goldstein led an important shift in the historiography of the Jew Bill with their compelling argument that it was a strategic measure specifically intended to enable the influential Cohen and Etting to hold public office. However, this must not take away from the civil liberties the passage of the Jew Bill granted to all Jewish Marylanders. By extension, all of Cohen’s business and civic activities in Baltimore should be understood as contributing to this Jewish liberation in Maryland public life. He needed the personal, professional, and community influence that he established to bolster his arguments for the Jew Bill. This was especially true since his framing of its general emancipatory nature glossed over the reality that it was modeled after his own self-interest. His success in earning and later legislatively leveraging the favor of the most influential white Baltimoreans is exemplified in his Sun obituary opening by describing him as a “venerable and well-known citizen.” Sun coverage of the funeral the next day continued this theme, eulogizing “one of the best of citizens—a kind and benevolent gentleman.” [26]

 

[1] Cohen’s Lottery and Exchange Office, “Broadside; Cohen, J. I., Jr.; Cohen's Lottery and Exchange Office; Baltimore, Maryland,” May 1, 1813, University of Pennsylvania Libraries, public domain, https://colenda.library.upenn.edu/catalog/81431-p35v4p

[2] Edward Eitches, “Maryland’s ‘Jew Bill,’” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 60, no. 3 (September 1970): 258, https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/013400/013489/pdf/ajhq_2.pdf.

[3] Peter Wiernik, History of the Jews in America: From the Period of the Discovery of the New World to the Present Time (New York: The Jewish Press, 1912), 127, https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.89045.

[4] Eitches, “Maryland’s ‘Jew Bill,’” 265-266.

[5] David Sorkin, “Is American Jewry Exceptional? Comparing Jewish Emancipation in Europe and America,” American Jewish History 96, no. 3 (September 2010): 192, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23887724.

[6] See for example: Aaron Baroway, “The Cohens of Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine 18, no. 4 (Winter 1923), 365, https://mdhs.msa.maryland.gov/pages/Viewer.aspx?speccol=5881&Series=1&Item=72; Wiernik, History of the Jews in America, 126-127; Milton E. Altfeld, The Jew’s Struggle for Religious and Civil Liberty in Maryland (Baltimore: M. Curlander, 1924), 37, https://archive.org/details/jewsstruggleforr00altf.

[7] Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner, On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 46, Kindle edition.

[8] Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., “Jacob I. Cohen to Ebenzer S. Thomas, December 16, 1818,” in The Jews of the United States, 1790-1840: A Documentary History, eds. Joseph L. Blau and Salo W. Baron, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 33-34, https://archive.org/details/lccn_64-10108_z5r9.

[9] Cohen, Jr., Jacob I. Cohen to Ebenzer S. Thomas, December 16, 1818, 36.

[10] Altfeld, The Jew’s Struggle for Religious and Civil Liberty, 47.

[11] W. Ray Luce, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore: From Lotteries to Banking,” Maryland Historical Magazine 68, no. 2 (Summer 1973): 288-289, https://mdhs.msa.maryland.gov/pages/Viewer.aspx?speccol=5881&Series=1&Item=271.

[12] Luce, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore,” 292.

[13] Goldstein and Weiner, On Middle Ground, 34-35.

[14] Altfeld, The Jew’s Struggle for Religious and Civil Liberty, 47.

[15] Cohen, Jr., Jacob I. Cohen to Ebenzer S. Thomas, December 16, 1818, 36.

[16] Goldstein and Weiner, On Middle Ground, 39-40.

[17] Baroway, “The Cohens of Maryland,” 365.

[18] Luce, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore,” 289.

[19] Isaac M. Fein, The Making of An American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971), 22, https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/001800/001818/pdf/fein22-25.pdf.

[20] Luce, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore,” 289.

[21] Luce, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore,” 304.

[22] “Death of Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., Esq.,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), April 8, 1869, 1, www.newspapers.com/image/371396833/.

[23] Fein, The Making of An American Jewish Community, 23.

[24] Goldstein and Weiner, On Middle Ground, 36.

[25] Andrew Keith Diemer, “Black Nativism: African American Politics, Nationalism and Citizenship in Baltimore and Philadelphia, 1817 to 1863,” (PhD diss., Temple University, 2011), 136-137, https://scholarshare.temple.edu/bitstream/handle/20.500.12613/1097/Diemer_temple_0225E_10758.pdf.

[26] “Death of Jacob I. Cohen, Jr.,” 1; “Funeral of the late Jacob I. Cohen, Jr.,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), April 9, 1869, 1, https://www.newspapers.com/image/371397007/.

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