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Lewis Charles Levin (November 10, 1808-March 14, 1860) was a Philadelphia politician, prominent Know Nothing, and anti-Catholic social activist of the 1840s. He served three terms in Congress (U.S. House of Representatives, 1845-51), representing the Pennsylvania 1st District. Levin is considered to have been the first Jewish Congressman[1][2]

Lewis Charles Levin was born in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in 1828. He then briefly taught school in Woodville, Mississippi, but had to quit town after being wounded in a duel.[3] Levin then read and practiced law in Maryland and Kentucky.

Contents

Philadelphia Riots and Election to Congress

By 1838 Levin was in Philadelphia and giving public lectures on the evils of alcohol. He founded and edited a journal called the Temperance Advocate. In 1842 he staged an immense public "bonfire of booze" to draw attention to his campaign against taverns and for local control of liquor licensing.[4]

Levin's anti-alcohol crusade proved to be excellent preparation for his next cause, a campaign against Catholic political power, which he carried on in two papers, the Native American and The Daily Sun. Initially the main political issue was a 1843 public school ruling permitting Catholic children to be excused from Bible-reading class (because the Protestant King James Version was being used). Levin became the leader and chief spokesman for a start-up political movement calling itself the American Republican Party (later the American Nativist Party). Between May and July 1844 he gave speeches and led public demonstrations in Kensington and Southwark, leading to the looting and burning of several dozen houses, businesses and religious buildings. Levin and his colleague Samuel R. Kramer (publisher of the Native American) were arrested and fined for "exciting to riot and treason" in inciting locals to invade and burn several Catholic churches and a convent.[5]

Shortly after the 1844 Philadelphia riots, Levin ran for Congress and was elected on his party's platform, to wit: (1) to extend the period of naturalization to twenty-one years; (2) to elect only native born to all offices; (3) to reject foreign interference in all institutions, social, religious, and political.

Levin was returned to Congress in 1846 and 1848. He served as chairman of the United States House Committee on Engraving during the Thirtieth Congress, 1847-48. (As a side note, it was this Thirtieth Congress that saw a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln serve his one and only term in the House.)

Death and Legacy

Levin finally lost his seat in the 1850 election. He continued to campaign for Nativist and Know-Nothing causes until 1856, when he became so "deranged" that he was placed in the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane[6], where he died of "Insanity" in March 1860. [7] Levin was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia. After his death, his wife and child converted to the Catholic Church. [8]

Lewis Levin's role in a nativist party is sometimes deemed a paradox, despite the fact he was native-born himself. His opposition was not to immigration as such but rather to Catholicism; he eagerly sought support from non-Catholic immigrants.[6] It is a mark of his skill that he was able to equate "nativism" with anti-Catholicism, and to do so in Philadelphia, where sectarian animosity had historically been minimal, and where native-born Catholics had lived side-by-side with Anglicans, Quakers, and others since the Colonial period.

In 1905 a veteran Pennsylvania journalist and politician, Alexander Kelly McClure, recalled Levin as one of the shrewdest and most persuasive politicians of the period[7]:

A brilliant adventurer named Lewis C. Levin, a native of Charleston, S.C., and a peripatetic law practitioner, first in South Carolina, next in Maryland, next in Louisiana, next in Kentucky and finally in Pennsylvania, was the acknowledged leader of the Native American element that had erupted during the summer of 1844 in what is remembered as the disgraceful riots of that year in which Catholic churches and institutions were burnt by the mob... He was one of the most brilliant and unscrupulous orators I have ever heard. He presented a fine appearance, graceful in every action charming in rhetoric and utterly reckless in assertion. I have heard him both as a temperance and political orator, and I doubt whether during his day any person in either party of the State surpassed him on the hustings. He was elected by a good majority and was re-elected in 1846 and '48, thus serving six consecutive years as a representative from the city. (Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania, 1905, pp. 84-85.)

References

  1. ^ First Jewish Congressman - Jewish Virtual Library
  2. ^ David Levy (later David Levy Yulee) entered Congress as Senator from the new state of Florida in 1845. Levy had previously served four years in Congress as a delegate from Florida Territory.[1]
  3. ^ The Jews of Philadelphia, Henry Samuel Morais, 1894. It is elsewhere reported that Levin's second in the duel was Jefferson Davis[2], whose family owned plantations near Woodville.
  4. ^ "The Shuttle and the Cross," by David Montgomery, in the Journal of Social History, 1972.
  5. ^ The Pennsylvania Freeman, 1844 [3]
  6. ^ New York Times, "Hon. Lewis C. Levin in the Insane Asylum," Sept. 27, 1856.[4]
  7. ^ Federal Census Mortality Schedule. [5]
  8. ^ Marcus, Jacob Rader, United States Jewry, 1776-1985, Volume 1, p. 283, Wayne State Univ. Press 1989

External links

Preceded by
Edward J. Morris
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 1st congressional district

1845 - 1851
Succeeded by
Thomas B. Florence
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