Friday, July 4, 2014

Jonas Phillips: Living in the Revolution

A few weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British blockade intercepted a communication from Jonas Phillips to a relative on the Dutch Island of St. Estatius. Because the letter was written in Yiddish, the British assumed it was a code. They were not wrong. If they had translated the letter, they would have found that it was actually a list of needed supplies written by a blockade runner.

The author of the letter was an ardent patriot. Born in Germany, Jonas Phillips (1736–1803) came to the American colonies in 1756 as a servant indentured to Moses Lindo, whom he had met in London. After completing his term of service in South Carolina, Phillips, now free, moved to Albany, NY, and then to New York City where he married Rebecca Mendez Machado. The first years of their life were difficult. Having failed in business, the devout Phillips was employed by the New York community as a shochet (ritual Jewish slaughterer). The Phillips had a quickly growing family (in total they had 21 children) and, after several years without a raise, he left the position and tried his hand at business again, this time with far better success.

While Phillips was an early supporter of the independence movement, he was also wise enough to know when to flee. When the British Troops came to New York, Phillips convinced the community to close the synagogue before he and many of the other prominent Jews of New York moved to Philadelphia. In 1778, he himself took up arms and joined the Philadelphia militia under Colonial William Bradford.

Following the war, Phillips remained in Philadelphia and was active in Congregation Mikveh Israel’s building campaign. He is noted for petitioning the government to abolish a religious oath acknowledging the Divinity of the New Testament as a requirement for holding public office, and, in 1793, he refused to testify in court on Saturday. Jonas Phillips passed away on January 29, 1803.

Among Phillips descendants were Commodore Uriah P. Levy and Mordecai Manuel Noah.

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