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

  • Review
By – October 16, 2013

Louis Mar­shall (18561929) 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.

Read M. M. Sil­ver’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Ten Per­cent of Amer­i­can Jew­ry’s Top 100 List

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions