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Lewis Charles Levin

Lewis Charles Levin (November 10, 1808 – March 14, 1860) was an American politician, Know Nothing, and anti-Catholic social activist of the 1840s and 1850s. He served three terms in the United States Congress (U.S. House of Representatives, 1845–51), representing Pennsylvania's 1st District. Levin is considered to have been the first Jewish Congressman,[1][2] although David Levy Yulee served as a territorial representative from Florida prior to Levin's entering Congress. As a social activist he espoused and fashioned hatred for foreigners and the Catholics into a coherent idea.[3][4][5][6][7][8] Levin become famous as a political orator and a mouthpiece of xenophobia.[9]

Lewis Charles Levin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1845 – March 3, 1851
Preceded byEdward J. Morris
Succeeded byThomas B. Florence
Personal details
Born(1808-11-10)November 10, 1808
Charleston, South Carolina, US
DiedMarch 14, 1860(1860-03-14) (aged 51)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Political partyKnow-Nothing
Spouse(s)Ann Hays
Julia Gist


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.[10] Levin then practiced law in Maryland and Kentucky.

Philadelphia riots and election to CongressEdit

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.[11]

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 an 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 Native American Party). On May 3, 1844, Levin attempted to give a speech in the center of the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Kensington. The locals ended up chasing all of the protesters out of the neighborhood. The following Monday, May 6, Levin returned with 3,000 protesters. The ensuing fighting led to dozens of people killed, hundreds injured, and hundreds more left homeless as most of the neighborhood homes were burned by rioters. In addition the Catholic Churches St. Michael and St. Augustine were demolished completely by fire.[12]

New riots broke out in Southwark in July of that same year when a group of protesters threatened to destroy St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in the Southwark District. This time Levin used his influence to prevent the mob from burning the Church. Following the July riots, Levin and his colleague Samuel R. Kramer (publisher of the Native American) were arrested for "exciting to riot and treason" in inciting locals to invade and burn several Catholic churches and a convent.[13] However, the case never went to trial.[14]

Shortly after the 1844 Philadelphia riots, Levin ran for Congress and was elected on his party's platform: (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.


Levin married Ann Christian Hays (b. 1812) of Virginia and Tennessee in January 1833. Ann was related by marriage to future Tennessee governor and US President James K. Polk (her uncle John Hays was married to Polk's younger sister Ophelia). Ann died a year later, in January 1834. Levin thereupon married a young widow named Julia Ann Gist, née Hammond (1814–1881) in Baltimore. Levin claimed to have met Julia while they were both shopping for tombstones for their late spouses.[15][16]

Lewis and Julia Levin had one child, a daughter called Louise or Louisa (1840–1919). (It is occasionally reported erroneously that there was a son named Louis.)[17][18] Louisa married a Brazilian diplomat named Carlos de Barros in Washington City in 1862, and later lived in South America, Philadelphia, and New York City. One of their sons and two grandsons were institutionalized in the 20th century for insanity.[16]

Levin's precise connection to his purported family in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina is unclear. It has been claimed that the family records in Charleston were destroyed during an earthquake and fire in 1886.[19][15] According to published family trees, Levin had a father, a brother, and two nephews also named Lewis C. Levin. However, these trees, and the published records of Jewish families listing the Levins, do not include the Lewis C. Levin who is the subject of this article—or, indeed, any member of the family born in or around 1808. One might speculate that Levin was a "natural" or illegitimate child and/or adoptee. According to some sources he was called Charles Lewis Levin when he taught school in Woodville, Mississippi in the late 1820s.[20] If this is the case, it would appear he transposed his forenames after his presumptive elder brother, Lewis C. Levin, Jr., died in 1829. (Lewis C. Levin, Sr. had died in 1817.)[16]

Scandal, insanity, and deathEdit

After leaving Congress in 1851, Levin continued to campaign for the Native American or Know-Nothing movement, as it became known. He attempted to campaign for U.S. Senator, which prior to the 17th Amendment was a seat elected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote. Levin was accused of bribing members of the Pennsylvania Assembly and was subpoenaed by a state investigation in February 1855.[21] The findings were inconclusive, but Levin never again held office.

Levin and other Nativists helped tilt the 1852 Presidential election toward Democrat Franklin Pierce and away from the Whigs' candidate, the popular Mexican–American War leader General Winfield Scott. There were Catholics in Scott's family, and he was accused of papist connections.[22] Levin was an organizing speaker of the first Know-Nothing Party convention in March 1855.[23] Though in notably failing health, he was a featured speaker at the American Order's rally that autumn in a New York City park.[24]

Levin was enraged and disgusted by the new Republican Party's nomination of John C. Frémont for President at the convention in Philadelphia in June 1856. He wrote a lengthy diatribe against Frémont,[25] which he delivered at a rally in Philadelphia's National Hall (now Independence Hall) shortly after Millard Fillmore had been nominated by both the Know Nothings and the Whigs. However, Frémont partisans pulled him off the stand.[14][26]

According to newspaper reports, Levin suffered a complete mental collapse and became so "deranged" that he was placed in the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane.[27]

Newspapers report him being committed on a later occasion in June 1859, after a visit to a brother in Columbia, South Carolina. Levin is said to have become "dangerous and unmanageable" on the train to Richmond, whereupon friends and railway workers subdued him and detained him in the mail car.[28] The nature of his madness is unclear, but one newspaper, expanding on a wire-service story, speculated, "His insanity is supposed to have been brought about by an immoderate use of opium."[29] He was returned to the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane and died there of "Insanity" in March 1860.[30] Levin was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia.


Lewis Levin's role in a nativist party is sometimes deemed a paradox, despite the fact he was native-born himself (albeit first-generation). His opposition was not to immigration as such but rather to Catholicism; he eagerly sought support from non-Catholic immigrants.[7] 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.

For that matter Levin himself did not seem to have any personal sectarian animus, which suggests that his anti-Catholic activism was merely rhetorical and opportunistic. The explorer and soldier John Gregory Bourke (1846–1896), whose devoutly Catholic family were friends and neighbors of Levin's in 1840s and 1850s Philadelphia, recalled Levin fondly and wrote that the Bourke and Levin families were close for many years.[31]

Similarly, Charles Nordhoff worked for Lewis Levin when he was a boy, around 1845, and recalled Levin as a kind, generous employer. A "printer's devil" for Levin's Daily Sun newspaper, Nordhoff really wanted to be a cabin boy on a US Navy ship going to China. Levin first warned the lad that he'd end up as a "dirty, drunken old sailor," but relented at last, and intervened with Philadelphia Navy Yard commander, Commodore Jesse Elliot to get the boy a billet. Nordhoff's maritime and writing career was thereby launched.[32]

Levin was one of the most popular public speakers of his era, often quoted and anthologized,[33] and painted by America's leading portraitist, Rembrandt Peale.[34][35] 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 [8]:

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.

In a book about the fraught history of religious freedom in the United States, the writer Steven Waldman recalled Levin and his role in the nativist anti-Catholic agitation in the 1840s and 1850s. Referring to Levin's ostensible status as the first Jew elected to Congress, Waldman cited him for "proving that being part of a persecuted group does not necessarily bring sensitivity to the plight of other religious minorities."[36]

See alsoEdit


  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 the Florida Territory.[1]
  3. ^ "1860: First Jewish Member of House of Representatives Dies in Hospital for Insane". Haaretz. 2014-03-14.
  4. ^ Chancey, Mark A.; Meyers, Carol; Meyers, Eric M. (2014-07-21). The Bible in the Public Square: Its Enduring Influence in American Life. ISBN 9781589839823.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Sarna, Jonathan D.; Mendelsohn, Adam D. (2010-05-28). Jews and the Civil War: A Reader. ISBN 9780814708590.
  10. ^ The Jews of Philadelphia, Henry Samuel Morais, 1894. It is elsewhere reported that Levin's second in the duel was Jefferson Davis "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-04-24.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), whose family owned plantations near Woodville.
  11. ^ "The Shuttle and the Cross," by David Montgomery, in the Journal of Social History, 1972.
  12. ^ "Unlearned History: Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844". 2015-09-05.
  13. ^ The Pennsylvania Freeman, 1844 Archived 2008-05-09 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ a b "Obituary". The New York Times. 1860-03-17.
  15. ^ a b John A. Forman, “Lewis Charles Levin: Portrait of an American Demagogue”, American Jewish Archives. The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, OH, (October 1960): 150–94
  16. ^ a b c, Levin family trees.
  17. ^ Ha'aretz Online, March 14, 2014.
  18. ^ Marcus, Jacob Rader, United States Jewry, 1776–1985, Volume 1, p. 283, Wayne State Univ. Press 1989
  19. ^ Dictionary of American Biography Online link.
  20. ^ Turitz and Turitz, Jews in Early Mississippi. 1983.
  21. ^ Reports of the Joint Committee of the Legislature of Pennsylvania in relation to alleged improper influences in the election of United States senator [2]
  22. ^ Michael Holt, "The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism [3]." 1973, Journal of American History.
  23. ^ Humphrey J. Desmond, The Know-Nothing Party: A Sketch [4]. 1903.
  24. ^ New York Times, October 18, 1855 [5]. The unnamed park is probably City Hall park.
  25. ^ The Union Safe!: The Contest Between Fillmore and Buchanan!: Frémont Crushed!, 1856.
  26. ^ Philip Morrison Rice, "The Know-Nothing Party in Virginia, 1854–1856," Virginia Historical Society magazine, 1947.
  27. ^ New York Times, "Hon. Lewis C. Levin in the Insane Asylum," Sept. 27, 1856.[6]
  28. ^ New York Evening Post, and other papers, c. June 29, 1859.
  29. ^ Utica Daily Observer, June 29, 1859
  30. ^ Federal Census Mortality Schedule
  31. ^ "Bourke on the Southwest," New Mexico Historical Review, January 1933, p. 25. Online:
  32. ^ Charles Nordhoff, Man-of-War Life: A Boy's Experience in the U.S. Navy, During a Voyage Around the World, in a Ship of the Line. 1856. Nordhoff told this story in other speeches and books throughout his life.
  33. ^ e.g., Granger's Index to Poetry and Recitations, 1904
  34. ^ Art Digest, 1931, dates the painting as 1834.
  35. ^ New York Times, Dec. 13, 1931: Wide Range of Art to Be Sold This Week. "Portrait of Lewis C. Levin" by Rembrandt Peale, among the lot.
  36. ^ Waldman, Steven (2019). Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. New York: HarperOne. p. 72. ISBN 9780062743145.

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • John A. Forman, "Lewis Charles Levin: Portrait of an American Demagogue," American Jewish Archives 12 (1960): 150–194.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Edward J. Morris
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Thomas B. Florence