Aaron Lopez (1731–1782), born Duarte Lopez, was a Portuguese Jewish slave merchant and philanthropist. Through his varied commercial ventures, he became the wealthiest person in Newport, Rhode Island, in British America. In 1761 and 1762, Lopez unsuccessfully sued the Colony of Rhode Island for citizenship.
Duarte Lopez was born in 1731 in Lisbon, Portugal. He belonged to a family of conversos who professed Catholicism while they continued to practice Judaism in secret. In 1750 Lopez married a woman named Anna, and within two years the couple had a daughter, Catherine.
Aaron's older brother José had left Portugal years earlier, reclaimed his Jewish identity, and taken the name Moses. Moses was naturalized in 1740 and granted a license by the General Assembly to make potash in 1753, and he became a successful merchant in Newport. In 1752 Duarte and his family moved to Newport, where they lived as Jews and became Aaron, Abigail, and Sarah.
One of Lopez's early business interests was the trade in spermaceti, a coveted wax extracted from whale oil that was used to make fine candles. Lopez built a candle-making factory in Newport in 1756. By 1760, a dozen competitors had built similar plants in New England. Whalers couldn't supply the factories with enough spermaceti to meet the demand, and the price of whale oil was climbing. In 1761, Lopez joined eight other merchants to form a trust to control the price and distribution of whale oil.
Lopez expanded his trade beyond the North American coastline and by 1757 had major interests in the West Indian trade. He also sent ships to Europe and the Canary Islands. Between 1761 and 1774, Lopez was involved in the slave trade. While The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews describes Lopez as "Newport's leading participant in the Black Holocaust", historian Eli Faber determined Lopez underwrote 21 slave ships during a period in which Newport sent a total of 347 slave ships to Africa, and Faber described Lopez's ventures in the slave trade as "an infinitesimal part" of the British slave trade. By the beginning of the American Revolution, Lopez owned or controlled 30 vessels.
By the early 1770s, Lopez had become the wealthiest person in Newport; his tax assessment was twice that of any other resident. The reason he was successful was that his business interests were so diverse. He manufactured spermaceti candles, ships, barrels, rum, and chocolate. He had business interests in the production of textiles, clothes, shoes, hats, and bottles. Ezra Stiles, the Congregational minister in Newport and future president of Yale College, described Lopez as "a merchant of the first eminence" and wrote that the "extent of [his] commerce probably [was] surpassed by no merchant in America".
In the mid-1770s, with growing tensions between Britain and its American colonies, Lopez's fortunes began to decline. The Continental Association enforced a boycott against trade with Britain. In October 1775, the British navy anchored outside Newport's harbor and the population began to evacuate the city. In early 1776 Lopez relocated to Portsmouth, Rhode Island; then to Providence, Boston, and finally to Leicester, Massachusetts. Historian Marilyn Kaplan describes Lopez's losses during the American Revolution as "monumental".
Lopez supported a number of charitable causes in Newport. He purchased books for the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. He contributed lumber to help build the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (which later relocated to Providence and eventually became Brown University), and he donated land to establish Leicester Academy in Leicester, Massachusetts.
During the American Revolution, Lopez harbored Jewish refugees in his Leicester home. Referring to those sheltered by Lopez, a friend wrote in jest that "your family at present are in a number only 99 and still there is room for one more".
In 1761, Lopez applied to the Rhode Island Superior Court to become a naturalized citizen. Under the British Naturalization Act of 1740, anyone who had resided in the colony for seven years could become a British citizen, regardless of religion. Although he met the conditions set by law, Lopez's request was denied. Another qualified Jew, Isaac Elizer, was also denied citizenship.
Lopez and Elizer appealed to the Rhode Island General Assembly. The lower house approved their request and required that the men return to the Superior Court to take an oath of allegiance, but the terms of their citizenship would be limited: Jews could become citizens of Rhode Island, but they would not be allowed to vote or serve in public office.
Lopez and Elizer fared worse in the upper house of the legislature. There they were told that Parliament had given the courts, not the legislature, jurisdiction over naturalization. If they wished to become citizens, Lopez and Elizer would have to appeal to the Superior Court.
The Superior Court heard the pair's appeal on March 11, 1762. Their application was denied a second time. The court reasoned that the 1740 act was intended to increase the population of the colony, and since the colony had grown crowded the law no longer applied. The court also noted that under a 1663 Rhode Island law, only Christians could become citizens. Lopez and Elizer could not become citizens of Rhode Island.
Determined to become a citizen, Lopez made inquiries to learn whether he could become naturalized in another colony. In April 1762 he moved temporarily to Swansea, Massachusetts. On October 15, 1762, Lopez became a citizen of Massachusetts and then returned to Newport. Historians believe Lopez was the first Jew to become a naturalized citizen of Massachusetts.
On May 28, 1782, while returning with his family from Leicester to Newport, Lopez drowned when his horse and carriage fell into a pond. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Newport.
- "Guide to the Papers of Aaron Lopez (1731–1782)". American Jewish Historical Society. 2004. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
- Feldberg, p. 12.
- Schappes, p. 573, citing Morris A. Gutstein, The Story of the Jews of Newport (New York: Block Publishing Co., 1936), pp. 55, 306.
- Kaplan, p. 13.
- Kaplan, p. 18.
- Kaplan, pp. 18–19.
- Schappes, p. 58.
- Kaplan, p. 19.
- Friedman, pp. 123–127.
- Faber, pp. 136–137, 143.
- Jacobs, et al., p. 294.
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- Pencak, p. 88.
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- Kaplan, p. 22.
- Pencak, p. 92.
- Pencak, p. 95.
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- Pencak, p. 100.
- Smith and Sarna, p. 3.
- No record of the decision has survived, so the court's rationale is unknown. Feldberg, p. 12.
- Feldberg, pp. 12-13.
- Feldberg, p. 13.
- According to Marcus and Saperstein, the law was enacted around 1699, not 1663 (p. 93).
- Marcus and Saperstein, pp. 92–93.
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- Pencak, p. 109.
- Jacobs, et al., p. 295.
- Marcus and Saperstein, p. 95.
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- Chyet, Stanley F. (1970). Lopez of Newport: Colonial American Merchant Prince. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-1407-4.
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- Schappes, Morris U. (1976) . "Merchant in Exile". In Morris U. Schappes. A Documentary History of the Jews of the United States 1654-1875. New York: Schocken Books. ISBN 0-8052-0488-1.