Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography

Syracuse University Press  2013


Louis Marshall (1856-1929) should be a well-known name to Jewish Americans but he is not. He should be well-known because he played a pivotal role in the development of many of the major Jewish organizations begun in the early twentieth century. M. M. Silver has written a fascinating book, Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America, in which he vividly describes the many events that prompted him to characterize Marshall as “the premier figure in organized Jewish efforts in the United States in the twentieth century.”

Marshall was born in Syracuse, New York, where his German Jewish hard-working parents struggled to make a living in a variety of small businesses. He graduated from his local high school and then went on to Columbia University Law School. He practiced law in Syracuse but was recruited to join a prestigious New York City law firm by one his Columbia Law schoolmates.

It was in New York City that Marshall became a highly successful corporate attorney, philanthropist, and the protégé of Jacob Schiff, a wealthy German Jewish banker. He became an integral member of the “Uptown Jews,” a social circle consisting of highly successful German Jewish bankers, entrepreneurs, at­torneys, and philanthropists like him. Marshall was one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee, the “first organization in the history of United States to be formed by an ethno-religious group for defending its rights and those of its brethren overseas. “ He also played critical roles in the development of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Joint Distribution Committee, and Hebrew Union College. He assiduously fought for the rights of the early pioneer Zionists to re-create a Jewish national home. In 1914, he was part of the legal defense team in a notorious Atlanta, Georgia case where an innocent Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, was convicted of murdering and raping a fourteen year old girl. At Marshall’s funeral at Temple Emanuel in 1929 in Manhattan, 25,000 grieving mourners filled the streets.

Marshall was also a committed civil rights attorney who fought for the rights of Jewish immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans. He argued more cases before the Supreme Court than any other attorney of his time. At his death, a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) remarked that “no man has done more for the negro.” In his chapter “Jews and Birds” Silver carefully docu­ments the significant contributions Marshall and his son, Robert (Bob) Marshall made in shaping federal conservation legislation and protecting New York State parks, birds, and animals, especially in the Adirondack area. It was Marshall’s efforts that led to the development of the first forestry college in the country that ultimately became the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Marshall loved the mountains and the wildlife of the Adirondacks. He was the driving force in the formation of a “consortium” of his wealthy Jewish friends. He persuaded them to build “Knollwood camp” on the Lower Saranac Lake’s northeast shore in 1899. This was the period of what has been called the “Adiron­dack land rush” of 1895-1910 when wealthy Jews (and non-Jews) sought to build “camps” along the Saranac Lake. The consortium hired the same architect who built Alfred Vander­bilt’s Great Camp Sagamore on Raquette Lake. They commissioned him to design six identical, architecturally beautiful Victorian shingle homes for them. This six-family group included some of the wealthiest people in the United States, including Daniel Guggenheim (mining empire industrialist), and George Blumen­thal (art collector, international financier, philanthropist). These beautiful rustic homes on Saranac Lake meant they could avoid the “demeaning social exclusion” faced by Jews in the East Coast resort areas regardless of their wealth and accomplishments.

Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnic­ity in America is a fascinating Jewish social history. M.M. Silver is a modern Jewish history scholar at Max Stern College of Emek Yezreeel in Israel. He is the author of several books and articles in Hebrew and English including Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story. Appendixes, bibliogra­phy, glossary, index, notes, photos.

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