Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Overcoming eleven years of resistance from Conservatives and the Church of England, banker Lionel Nathan Rothschild’s admission as an elected Liberal member of the House of Commons was a symbol both of Jewish emancipation and of the increasingly archaic status of the British House of Lords.

Summary of Event

Prejudice against Jews was customary among nineteenth century European nobles and many commoners. In Great Britain, legal strictures reinforced these social attitudes by barring individual Jews, even those elected mostly by their Christian neighbors, from contributing to national governance. The established Christian Church of England vigorously defended these limitations on Jews, though Dissenting Protestant denominations tended to oppose such exclusions, which had nominally applied to Dissenters as well in the recent past. The central challenge to the unequal treatment of Jews arose after London voters chose Lionel Nathan Rothschild to represent them in 1847. It took eleven years before he would be formally accepted as a member of the House of Commons. Rothschild, Lionel Nathan Jews;in British Parliament[British Parliament] Disraeli, Benjamin Great Britain;Jewish population [kw]Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament (July 26, 1858) [kw]First Jewish Member of British Parliament, Rothschild Is (July 26, 1858) [kw]Jewish Member of British Parliament, Rothschild Is First (July 26, 1858) [kw]Member of British Parliament, Rothschild Is First Jewish (July 26, 1858) [kw]British Parliament, Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of (July 26, 1858) [kw]Parliament, Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British (July 26, 1858) Rothschild, Lionel Nathan Jews;in British Parliament[British Parliament] Disraeli, Benjamin Great Britain;Jewish population [g]Great Britain;July 26, 1858: Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament[3250] [c]Government and politics;July 26, 1858: Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament[3250] [c]Religion and theology;July 26, 1858: Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament[3250] [c]Social issues and reform;July 26, 1858: Rothschild Is First Jewish Member of British Parliament[3250] Russell, John Cooper, Anthony Ashley Wilberforce, Samuel Thackeray, William Makepeace Carlyle, Thomas

Rothschild was no ordinary man, whether Jew or Christian. After the death of his father, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, in 1836, Lionel became the head of the English branch of the most important banking family in Europe. In an era prior to efficient government-run national and international financial institutions, the Rothschild family bank played a key role. Through its loans to royal and republican administrations throughout the Continent, the Rothschild banking empire was indispensable both in arranging sales of government bonds and in financing key development projects, especially railroads throughout Europe.

As banker to Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen;and Lionel Nathan Rothschild[Rothschild] and her husband Prince Albert after 1845, Lionel ably fitted the family business to the global needs of an increasingly commercial Great Britain, helping the British government finance projects as diverse as the Crimean War and the Suez Canal. A generous private philanthropist, Lionel Rothschild often was seen publicly alongside members of the royal family in fundraising campaigns on behalf of relief efforts for the Great Irish Famine, even as he was less visibly the steady benefactor and advocate for oppressed Jewish communities in Syria, Syria;Jewish population Romania Romania;Jewish population , and Russia Russia;Jewish population .

A life of social involvement and business success, however, would not define the limits of Lionel Rothschild’s career. Assisted by Whig prime minister John Russell Russell, John in his campaign to stand for election to the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1847, the elected but still banned Rothschild became the center of a controversy over whether a practicing Jew should be allowed to take his seat alongside Christian peers. The House of Commons long had accepted in its chamber a converted Christian who had been born a Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, who also was a close friend of the Rothschilds. In 1835, moreover, a reform law initiated by Lord Russell had permitted lesser elected offices to be held by Jews. While this Declaration Act allowed David Salomons Salomons, David to become sheriff of London without swearing a Christian oath, parliamentary rules continued to insist that to enter the House of Commons, new member must swear loyalty to the Crown “upon the true faith of a Christian.”

Elected in 1847, 1849, 1852, and twice in 1857, Rothschild was in each instance obliged to retire from the chamber upon refusing to swear the oath. From the outset in the House of Commons, Whig and Liberal allies of Rothschild plus a tiny number of Conservatives (often including Disraeli) proposed legislative remedies through a series of revisions to the oath. These measures repeatedly won majority favor in the Commons, passing by 67 votes in 1847, by 25 in 1851, and by 123 in 1857. In each instance, however, the bills foundered in the appointed House of Lords. As British bicameralism then was more than merely symbolic, the reluctance of the Lords to change meant that the will of the people of London to have Rothschild represent them was repeatedly thwarted.

Benjamin Disraeli.

(Library of Congress)

Legislative quarrels over what became known in the popular press as the “Jew Bill” epitomized a deeper collision between egalitarianism and democracy on one hand (represented by the elected House of Commons) and the reactionary, antidemocratic traditions upheld by the House of Lords on the other. Diverse organs of progress, such as The Times of Times, The (London) London, and The Weekly Dispatch steadily editorialized in favor of Rothschild and his free trade platform, but scurrilous broadsheets such as The Satirist pandered to Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];in Great Britain[Great Britain] anti-Semitic Great Britain;anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] prejudices just as regularly. Crude in form, their unfounded charges that Rothschild’s riches had bribed London voters simply were a rougher edge of the cloth sewn into finer clothes in the writings of Thomas Carlyle Carlyle, Thomas and in parliamentary speeches by the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, Wilberforce, Samuel and by Anthony Ashley Cooper Cooper, Anthony Ashley (Lord Ashley until 1851 and the seventh earl of Shaftesbury thereafter).

In debate on the second reading of one of the bills, May 25, 1848, Wilberforce told the Lords: “If you destroy the groundwork of Christianity . . . in order to gratify for a time a handful of ambitious men you will destroy Christian England.” In 1849, the archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner Sumner, John Bird , publicly weighed in to oppose Rothschild, but the issue had begun to divide the elite. When The Times the next year covered joint work by Prince Albert and Rothschild to finance and promote a technology exhibition, it referred to Rothschild as a member of Parliament, even though he had not yet been seated in the Commons. The debate also divided literate British society: Notable critics of the Jew Bill included Charles Dickens; William Makepeace Thackeray Thackeray, William Makepeace ultimately was numbered among Rothschild’s supporters. For more than a decade, fear of religious equality guided the nation, and the Lords refused to alter the oath in a manner that could allow a Jew to affirm it.

Lord Palmerston Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Jews[Jews] , the Liberal prime minister and Lionel’s neighbor, in 1857 led a final initiative in the House of Commons to pass the bill. Disraeli and others on the Tory front bench broke ranks to vote with the government in approving the measure. A majority of 140 members joined to reject the ritual amendment to reinsert the phrase “the true faith of a Christian” into the oath. Despite the mounting division from their natural, Conservative allies in the elected house, the Lords, led by the third marquis of Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and Jews[Jews] , again rejected change, but by a narrow thirty-two-vote margin. A defiant Palmerston then appointed the recently reelected Rothschild to a select parliamentary committee on the matter, having discovered no law barring an elected member of Parliament from serving the House in this manner.

In summer, 1858, a bill offered in Lords by the earl of Lucan Lucan, third earl of proposed to permit each house of Parliament to determine the oath appropriate to it. On July 13 in the House of Lords and ten days later in the House of Commons, the measure passed to become law. As a result, with John Russell at his side and his hand on the Hebrew Bible, Lionel Nathan Rothschild swore an oath to his God on the floor of the House of Commons on July 26, 1858, as the first practicing Jew to become a recognized member of the British parliament and the first member of any faith to do so without reference to Christianity. Disraeli—then the leader of the House of Commons, as Palmerston’s Palmerston, Lord [p]Palmerston, Lord;and Jews[Jews] government had fallen from power in the interim over unrelated issues—was among the first to shake Rothschild’s hand.

Significance

Within two years, David Salomons Salomons, David and two other practicing Jews followed Rothschild into membership in the House of Commons. Narrowly, then, it can be said that Rothschild opened new doors for Jews. The event was of wider significance than that, however, in that the reactionary attitudes and antidemocratic powers of the House of Lords had been starkly revealed. In the course of a decade of public debate, “the cause of freedom” identified by The Times in 1849 in reference to Rothschild’s quest had won adherents throughout British society. As Thackeray Thackeray, William Makepeace would write in 1857, “justice and reason . . . back Jewish claims.” It would be another half century, but this seed planted and nourished by ideas of justice, reason, and freedom would ultimately contribute to the ending of the power of the House of Lords early in the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Richard. The English Rothschilds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Extensive examination of the Rothschilds’ financial empire; pays some attention to the politics of parliamentary change and Lionel’s role in that change.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, Niall. The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Provides the background to the story of Lionel Nathan Rothschild by detailing the rise of his family and the early years of his own life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The House of Rothschild: The World’s Banker, 1849-1998. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Includes extensive discussion of Lionel’s quest to enter Parliament and his relations with the family banking business elsewhere in Europe and with Benjamin Disraeli.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weintraub, Stanley. Charlotte and Lionel: A Rothschild Love Story. New York: Free Press, 2003. Innovative joint biography. Focuses on roles played by social interactions in the quest for influence, the desire for a parliamentary seat, and the promotion of the financial relationship between the Rothschilds and the British government.

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