“The Most Generous, Disinterested, and Philanthropic Motives”: Religion, Race, and the Maryland Jew Bill




Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History

Project Summary

My project explores the Maryland Jew Bill and its connection to American religious and racial politics. In 1818, Thomas Kennedy introduced a bill in the Maryland House of Delegates to allow Jews to hold office, serve on juries, and work as lawyers. From then until 1826, when “An Act for the relief of Jews in Maryland”—commonly known as “Jew Bill” by both its supporters and detractors—amended the state constitution to grant Jews full political rights, Maryland politics was convulsed by a debate over whether the state’s 150 Jews should have the same rights as the state’s Christians. In the preceding years, Maryland both abolished property requirements for voting and eliminated the voting rights of propertied free blacks. In a speech in favor of the Jew Bill, H. M. Brackenridge said that Kennedy had only “the most generous, disinterested, and philanthropic motives.” The supporters of the Jew Bill, however, were among the most committed to preserving white supremacy. Previous scholarship on the Jew Bill has not connected the expansion of Jewish rights with the simultaneous entrenchment of discrimination against free blacks. Recently, however, historians have connected the national push to end property qualifications and the rhetoric of religious freedom with the hardening of racial and gender divisions that excluded all but white men from the political sphere.


In my senior thesis, I reevaluate the Maryland Jew Bill in the context of this scholarship and argue that a coherent mentality that prioritized white male equality and religious freedom was responsible for the expansion of Jewish rights, the elimination of the property requirement, and the political exclusion of women and blacks. Many of the actors in the Jew Bill debate, such as Roger Taney, the author of Dred Scott v. Sandford, also influenced policy on race beyond the borders of the state. The changes in Maryland were part of broader national trends away from religious tests and property qualifications and toward increasingly racialized laws, and Maryland contributed, often decisively, to the direction of the nation’s racial politics.


During my research, I visited the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, and the Library of Congress in D.C. I read period newspapers that have not been digitized on microfilm; letters written about the Jew Bill; and a directory of every minister in Maryland from 1634 to 1990, which I used to approximate the religious demographics of each county in the early nineteenth century. During this project, I have learned how historical research is conducted, how to navigate an archive, how to create a coherent narrative from primary sources, and how to read microfilm.