A Heady Brew: Magna Carta, Whiskey and Jewish History

Posted on June 15th, 2015 by

I know that everyone has today marked on their calendars as a birthday – probably not your birthday – but the birthday of Magna Carta.  It turns 800 years old today.  Now the reason it’s on my calendar is that for 11 years I was the steward of the only extant copy of Magna Carta in North America – the copy on display at the National Archives.

Magna Carta, 1297.   On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Magna Carta, 1297. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Next Sunday I will be offering a free tour of the National Archives at 2pm as part of our Schnapps with Pops program.  We are headed to the “Spirited Republic” exhibit – the latest changing exhibit at the National Archives and the inspiration for our JMM program.  But given this important birthday, we’ll also be taking a side trip to see Magna Carta.

On view at the National Archives

On view at the National Archives

Magna Carta on display at the National Archives is in fact just 718 years old.  It was not signed or sealed by King John but rather by his grandson King Edward I.  So what makes it special?  Well, Magna Carta (Archives trivia – never supposed to write “the” Magna Carta, because it is a Latin name and bears no article) was not a singular act.  John put his seal on Magna Carta under threat at Runnymede and from the time the ink dried, John and his successors looked for ways to annul, rescind and evade it.  In this long series of royal pledges and revocations – the 1297 Magna Carta stands out because Edward agreed to an additional clause that enrolled Magna Carta in the statutes of England, settling the question of whether this was the permanent law of the land.

And the Jewish connection?  Ask yourself “why did the kings keep issuing Magna Carta if they had little interest in conceding absolute royal power?”  The fundamental answer is that they needed money and agreeing to a power-sharing formula with the barons was a way to stimulate their assent to new taxes.  The original strategy of the Norman kings to finance their rule of their new Anglo-Saxon domain was to bring over Jewish merchants.  In addition to developing the English economy, Jews were trusted agents of the monarchy – since their very presence in the country was at the sufferance of the king, the Norman rulers could count on their loyalty.

This helps explain Clause 10 in the 1215 Magna Carta.  It is a clause which relieves the baronial families of having to pay interest to Jews after the death of a baron.  Limiting the financial dealings of England’s Jews was seen as part of curbing the powers of the king.

When we put Magna Carta back on display in 2011, several reporters asked me if the absence of Clause 10 in the 1297 Magna Carta was indicative of a change in attitude towards Jews.  The answer was unfortunately, “no”, the clause is missing from this Magna Carta, because Edward saw fit to expel all Jews from the country in 1290 and therefore could not agree to regulate a trade that – at least on paper – had ceased to exist.

"Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania", an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

“Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania”, an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

And what about the whiskey connection?  Well, “Spirited Republic” is dedicated to the story of the federal government and alcohol, and most of that story is about how the federal government would support itself.  The very first American insurrection, more than 60 years before the Civil War, is the Whiskey Rebellion – a pitched battle over the tax on alcohol.  In the post-Civil War era, as much as 40% of the federal government’s income rested on liquor excise taxes.  This is why the advocates of prohibition helped push through the 16th amendment establishing an income tax before advancing the 18th amendment banning the sale of alcohol.  The exhibit contains several documents from Jewish distillers before, during and after prohibition.

So I could frame the connections between Magna Carta, whiskey and Jewish history as being all about the struggle for human liberty… or we could agree that it is all about one of life’s two certainties – taxes.

See you on Sunday!

See you on Sunday!

If you are interested in taking Sunday’s tour, it is free but you must RSVP to Trillion (tattwood@jewishmuseummd.org) by Wednesday so that we can give the National Archives a final count on attendance.


Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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A Personal Reflection

Posted on October 11th, 2013 by

Tomorrow night is the member’s preview for Passages through the Fire:  Jews and the Civil War.  It is one of those times when exhaustion meets elation.  I wanted to take a moment to make an observation on how this exhibit has changed my perspective on this period of history and to thank a few of the people who made it possible.

Looking through my old e-mails I recently realized that I had been working nearly continuously on Civil War themed exhibits (first at the National Archives and now at JMM) for about five years.  I have to point out that this is longer than the war itself!

This has been an unexpected journey.  I don’t consider myself a Civil War aficianado.  I was never a reenactor.   Growing up in Chicago ,I wasn’t exactly surrounded by Civil War sites.  My first historical passions were cowboys and tales of the wild west (when the occasion is right, I might share a copy of the photo of me in my pajamas and my Davy Crockett “coonskin” cap).

Now I’m not saying I had no connection with Civil War history. I did own a copy of the 1961 How and Why Book of the Civil War.  Though I think that the book was a lot stronger on the “how” than on the “why”…not atypical of its time.  In that same year the National Archives produced a centennial exhibit that never mentioned the word “slavery.”

How and Why, 1961.

How and Why, 1961.

As a kid I also enjoyed climbing up to the dome of the Chicago Public Library to visit Grand Army of the Republic Hall – my favorite artifact was the century-old hard tack.

But I had no real passion for the topic.  When I finally did get to tour the battlefields, it seemed that every visitor center’s exhibit boiled down to two uniforms, three rifles and interminable details about troop movements.

I certainly felt no personal connection.  When people would speak of ancestors as Union or Confederate, my response was that mine were all “anti-Czar” at that time.  The Civil War, and all its horrors, were someone else’s struggle.

While working on my National Archives project, Discovering the Civil War, substantially raised my interest in the topic it really didn’t change my level of personal detachment.

The last six months have been different.  Looking at the war through a Jewish lens has really helped clarify the connection that all of us have to these events – even the folks who arrived 40 or 50 years later.  The “battles” of the Civil War weren’t just at Gettysburg, Antietam and Manassas but also on Baltimore Street.  This was a fight for hearts and minds as much as for territory.  Embedded into the conflicts of the early 1860s were struggles over acceptance and assimilation which profoundly shaped the American Jewish experience.  The Civil War is  part of my history because the social justice oriented, pluralistic Jewish community that I live in was built out of the events of those years.

As for my ancestors being far away in Poland and Lithuania… consider the following thought:  I recently looked up the front page of the New-York Daily Tribune for October 12, 1863 – 150 years to the day before our exhibit opening.  As it happens the headline article for that day was about the arrival of the Russian warship Alexander Nevsky at the port of Baltimore.  The article contained a resolution from the mayor and city council conveying “the high respect of the authorities and citizens of Baltimore for the sovereign and people of Russia” and thanking the Russians for abstaining from any effort to give aid to the “Rebels of the South”.  Over on the left column of the same day’s paper is a much smaller notice reading “the chief rabbi of Warsaw had been arrested”, followed by the curious comment “Continental news is unimportant”.  With a little more research I learned that Dov Ber Meisels, the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw had become involved in a Polish uprising in 1863.   Russian authorities imprisoned the rabbi as part of their effort to put down the rebellion.  Britain and several other Western nations were outraged by Russia’s suppression of the Poles and threatened to “de-recognize” Russia’s acquisition of the territory.  America, by contrast, was silent – after all, Russia’s neutrality in our Civil War was an important diplomatic objective.  Perhaps my ancestral shtetl was not as far from Gettysburg as I originally thought.


MarvinA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.





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