Lewis Charles Levin

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Lewis Charles Levin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1845 – March 3, 1851
Preceded by Edward J. Morris
Succeeded by Thomas B. Florence
Personal details
Born (1808-11-10)November 10, 1808
Charleston, South Carolina, US
Died March 14, 1860(1860-03-14) (aged 51)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Political party Native American, Know-Nothing
Spouse(s) Ann Hays
Julia Gist
Children Louis
Profession Politician

Lewis Charles Levin (November 10, 1808 – March 14, 1860) was a Philadelphia politician, Know Nothing, and anti-Catholic social activist of the 1840s and 1850s. He served three terms in the United States Congress (U.S. House of Representatives, 1845–51), representing Pennsylvania's 1st District. Levin is considered to have been the first Jewish Congressman[1][2] although David Levy Yulee served as a territorial representative from Florida prior to Levin's entering Congress.

Lewis Charles Levin was born in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in 1828. He then briefly taught school in Woodville, Mississippi, but had to quit town after being wounded in a duel.[3] Levin then practiced law in Maryland and Kentucky.

Philadelphia Riots and Election to Congress[edit]

By 1838 Levin was in Philadelphia and giving public lectures on the evils of alcohol. He founded and edited a journal called the Temperance Advocate. In 1842 he staged an immense public "bonfire of booze" to draw attention to his campaign against taverns and for local control of liquor licensing.[4]

Levin's anti-alcohol crusade proved to be excellent preparation for his next cause, a campaign against Catholic political power, which he carried on in two papers, the Native American and The Daily Sun. Initially the main political issue was an 1843 public school ruling permitting Catholic children to be excused from Bible-reading class (because the Protestant King James Version was being used). Levin became the leader and chief spokesman for a start-up political movement calling itself the American Republican Party (later the Native American Party). Between May and July 1844 he gave speeches and led public demonstrations in Kensington and Southwark, leading to the looting and burning of several dozen houses, businesses and religious buildings. Levin and his colleague Samuel R. Kramer (publisher of the Native American) were arrested and fined for "exciting to riot and treason" in inciting locals to invade and burn several Catholic churches and a convent.[5]

Shortly after the 1844 Philadelphia riots, Levin ran for Congress and was elected on his party's platform, to wit: (1) to extend the period of naturalization to twenty-one years; (2) to elect only native born to all offices; (3) to reject foreign interference in all institutions, social, religious, and political.

Levin was returned to Congress in 1846 and 1848. He served as chairman of the United States House Committee on Engraving during the Thirtieth Congress, 1847-48. (As a side note, it was this Thirtieth Congress that saw a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln serve his one and only term in the House.)


Levin married Ann Hays of Kentucky.

After Hays died, and after he lost his fourth election for Congress, Levin moved to Philadelphia where he married his second wife, Julia Gist, a widow.[6]

Scandal, Insanity, and Death[edit]

After leaving Congress in 1851, Levin continued to campaign for the Native American or Know-Nothing movement, as it became known. He attempted to campaign for U.S. Senator, which prior to the 17th Amendment was a seat elected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote. Levin was accused of bribing members of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and was Subpoenaed by a state investigation in February 1855.[7] The findings were inconclusive but Levin never again held office.

Levin and other Nativists helped tilt the 1852 Presidential election toward Democrat Franklin Pierce and away from the Whigs' candidate, the popular Mexican War leader General Winfield Scott. There were Catholics in Scott's family and he was accused of Papist connections.[8] Levin was an organizing speaker of the first Know-Nothing Party convention in March 1855.[9] Though in notably failing health, he was a featured speaker at the American Order's rally that autumn in a New York City park.[10]

Levin was enraged and disgusted by the new Republican Party's nomination of John C. Frémont for President, at their convention in Philadelphia in June 1856. He wrote a lengthy diatribe against Frémont,[11] which he delivered at a rally in Philadelphia's National Hall (now Independence Hall) shortly after Millard Fillmore had been nominated by both the Know Nothings and the Whigs. However, Frémont partisans pulled him off the stand.[12][13] According to newspaper reports, Levin suffered a complete mental collapse and became so "deranged" that he was placed in the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane,[14] where he died of "Insanity" in March 1860.[15] Levin was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia. After his death, his second wife, Julia Gist, and son, Louis, converted to Catholicism, independently of each other.[16]


Lewis Levin's role in a nativist party is sometimes deemed a paradox, despite the fact he was native-born himself. His opposition was not to immigration as such but rather to Catholicism; he eagerly sought support from non-Catholic immigrants.[8] It is a mark of his skill that he was able to equate "nativism" with anti-Catholicism, and to do so in Philadelphia, where sectarian animosity had historically been minimal, and where native-born Catholics had lived side-by-side with Anglicans, Quakers, and others since the Colonial period.

Levin was one of the most popular public speakers of his era, often quoted and anthologized,[17] and painted by America's leading portraitist, Rembrandt Peale.[18][19] In 1905 a veteran Pennsylvania journalist and politician, Alexander Kelly McClure, recalled Levin as one of the shrewdest and most persuasive politicians of the period [9]:

A brilliant adventurer named Lewis C. Levin, a native of Charleston, S.C., and a peripatetic law practitioner, first in South Carolina, next in Maryland, next in Louisiana, next in Kentucky and finally in Pennsylvania, was the acknowledged leader of the Native American element that had erupted during the summer of 1844 in what is remembered as the disgraceful riots of that year in which Catholic churches and institutions were burnt by the mob... He was one of the most brilliant and unscrupulous orators I have ever heard. He presented a fine appearance, graceful in every action charming in rhetoric and utterly reckless in assertion. I have heard him both as a temperance and political orator, and I doubt whether during his day any person in either party of the State surpassed him on the hustings. He was elected by a good majority and was re-elected in 1846 and '48, thus serving six consecutive years as a representative from the city.

(Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania, 1905, pp. 84-85.)


  1. ^ First Jewish Congressman - Jewish Virtual Library
  2. ^ David Levy (later David Levy Yulee) entered Congress as Senator from the new state of Florida in 1845. Levy had previously served four years in Congress as a delegate from the Florida Territory.[1]
  3. ^ The Jews of Philadelphia, Henry Samuel Morais, 1894. It is elsewhere reported that Levin's second in the duel was Jefferson Davis [2], whose family owned plantations near Woodville.
  4. ^ "The Shuttle and the Cross," by David Montgomery, in the Journal of Social History, 1972.
  5. ^ The Pennsylvania Freeman, 1844
  6. ^ Lewis Charles Levin, Portrait of an American Demagogue, by John A. Forman, http://americanjewisharchives.org/journal/PDF/1960_12_02_00_forman.pdf
  7. ^ Reports of the Joint Committee of the Legislature of Pennsylvania in relation to alleged improper influences in the election of United States senator [3]
  8. ^ Michael Holt, "The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism [4]." 1973, Journal of American History.
  9. ^ Humphrey Desmond, The Know-Nothing Party: A Sketch [5]. 1903.
  10. ^ New York Times, October 18, 1855 [6]. The unnamed park is probably City Hall park.
  11. ^ The Union Safe!: The Contest Between Fillmore and Buchanan!: Frémont Crushed!, 1856.
  12. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1860/03/17/news/obituary.html
  13. ^ Philip Morrison Rice, "The Know-Nothing Party in Virginia, 1854-1856," Virginia Historical Society magazine, 1947.
  14. ^ New York Times, "Hon. Lewis C. Levin in the Insane Asylum," Sept. 27, 1856.[7]
  15. ^ Federal Census Mortality Schedule
  16. ^ Marcus, Jacob Rader, United States Jewry, 1776-1985, Volume 1, p. 283, Wayne State Univ. Press 1989
  17. ^ e.g., Granger's Index to Poetry and Recitations, 1904
  18. ^ Art Digest, 1931, dates the painting as 1834.
  19. ^ New York Times, Dec. 13, 1931: Wide Range of Art to Be Sold This Week. "Portrait of Lewis C. Levin" by Rembrandt Peale, among the lot.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • John A. Forman, "Lewis Charles Levin: Portrait of an American Demagogue," American Jewish Archives 12 (1960): 150-194.
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Edward J. Morris
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Thomas B. Florence