Free to Cheat: “Jewish Emancipation” and the Anglo-Jewish Cousinhood, Part 1

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

                           Charles Mackay, 1841[1]

Shortly after his election to Parliament in 1830, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), a famous historian and one of Britain’s leading men of letters, took up the cause of removing Jewish “civil disabilities” in Britain. In a succession of speeches, Macaulay was instrumental in pushing the case for permitting Jews to sit in the legislature, and his January 1831 article Civil Disabilities of the Jews had a “significant effect on public opinion.”[2] Professing Jews residing in Britain at that time were unable to take seats in the House of Commons, because prior to sitting in the legislature one was required to declare a Christian oath. In addition, Jews were “excluded from Crown office, from corporations, and from most of the professions, the entrance to which bristled with religious oaths, tests, and declarations.”[3] Even the 1753 Naturalization Act which had granted citizenship to foreign-born Jews had been repealed following widespread popular agitation, and a pervading atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust of Jews generally, and foreign Jews especially.[4] Ursula Henriques states that because of the resolute opposition of the British people to the involvement of Jews in British political life, since their readmission in the 17th century “the Jews had remained quiet.”[5]

However, buoyed by the granting of political emancipation to Protestant Dissenters and Catholics in 1828 and 1829, British Jews began to agitate for their own “emancipation,” and this agitation was augmented and spearheaded to a great extent by Thomas Macauley. Within thirty years the British elite had capitulated; not only had all Christian oaths been abandoned, but six unconverted Jews sat in the House of Commons. Within fifty years, Britain had sixteen Jewish Members of Parliament, and a Jewish Prime Minister who espoused a doctrine of Jewish racial superiority — Benjamin Disraeli; and under Disraeli Britain would pursue a foreign policy dictated to a large extent by what future Prime Minister William Gladstone called “Judaic sympathies.”[6] This foreign policy would include support for the Ottomans who were friendly to Jews and were massacring Christians in Bulgaria. And it would include waging of war on the Boers in a move highly beneficial to Jewish mining operations in South Africa.[7] How and why did such a dramatic change in circumstances occur? And how did the Anglo-Jewish elite repay Britain for its act of ‘justice’?

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Let us first return momentarily to Macaulay. An in-depth survey of his life reveals no Jewish ancestry and no clear links to Jews. Son of a Scottish colonial governor and abolitionist, Macaulay seems at first glance to be something of a weak-kneed liberal idealist, and in addition he appears to have had very little knowledge of Jewish history or culture. He saw the Jewish agitation for entry into government as being primarily a religious issue, and perceived Jews as being, in his own words, “victims of intolerance.”[8] Macaulay prided himself on his knowledge of Greek literature,[9] and yet we can but wish he’d spent more time on his Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato who condemned ” those who practise justice through timidity or stupidity,” and opined that “if justice is not good for the just man, moralists who recommend it as a virtue are perpetrating a fraud.”[10]

However, a complete reading of his 1831 article on Civil Disabilities of the Jews would leave us feeling slightly less antagonistic towards this would-be emancipator, and his article reveals much about the extent and nature of Jewish power and influence in Britain at that time. Macaulay, it seems, viewed emancipation as a means of ‘keeping the Jews in check.’ For example, he insisted that “Jews are not now excluded from political power. They possess it; and as long as they are allowed to accumulate property, they must possess it. The distinction which is sometimes made between civil privileges and political power, is a distinction without a difference. Privileges are power.”[11] Macaulay was also aware of the role of finance as the primary force of Jewish power in Britain. He asked: “What power in civilised society is so great as that of creditor over the debtor? If we take this away from the Jew, we take away from him the security of his property. If we leave it to him, we leave to him a power more despotic by far, than that of the King and all his cabinet.”[12] Macaulay further responds to Christian claims that “it would be impious to let a Jew sit in Parliament” by stating bluntly that “a Jew may make money, and money may make members of Parliament. … [T]he Jew may govern the money market, and the money market may govern the world. … The scrawl of the Jew on the back of a piece of paper may be worth more than the word of three kings, or the national faith of three new American republics.”[13]

Macaulay’s insights into the nature of Jewish power at that time, and his assertions that Jews had already accumulated political power without the aid of the statute books, are quite profound. Yet his reasoning — that permitting Jews into the legislature would somehow offset this power, or make it accountable — seems pitifully naive and poorly thought out. Nonetheless, I wish to take Macaulay’s article as a starting point. What was it in the nature of British Jewry at that time that so alarmed Macaulay, and provoked such a rash response on his part?

The Cousinhood.

We should first bring the Anglo-Jewish elite, referred to by Macaulay, into sharper focus. From the early 19th century until the First World War, English Jewry was ruled by a tightly connected oligarchy. Daniel Gutwein states that this Anglo-Jewish elite comprised some twenty inter-related Ashkenazi and Sephardic families including the houses of Goldsmith, Montagu, Nathan, Cohen, Isaacs, Abrahams, Samuel, and Montefiore.[14] At its head “stood the House of Rothschild.”[15] This network of families had an “exceptionally high degree of consanguinity,” leading to it being termed “The Cousinhood,” and among them “conversion and intermarriage [with non-Jews] was rare.”[16] Todd Endelmann attributes the lack of conversion to the fact that “conversion was not as useful, in general, to English Jews as it was to Jews in Central and Eastern Europe.”[17] The Cousinhood exercised control over the Jewish community through its leadership of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organization which would later become one of the chief engines of the move for Jewish emancipation.[18]

The other means through which the Cousinhood maintained control over English Jews was its practice of “systematized philanthropy.” The Cousinhood largely refrained from involvement in Jewish religious life but heavily devoted itself to founding and leading the Anglo-Jewish Association — “the principle arm of Anglo-Jewish political and education aid” to global Jewry.[19] Endelmann notes that these communal institutions “determined the tenor and the agenda of the public side of Jewish life in London.”[20]

To illustrate the extent of blood and financial ties of this network of families, let us consider the following: in 1870, the treasurer of the London Jewish Board of Guardians was Viennese-born Ferdinand de Rothschild (1838–1898). Ferdinand had married his cousin Elvina, who was a niece of the President of the London United Synagogue, Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810–1876). Meanwhile, the Board of Deputies was at that time headed by Moses Montefiore, whose wife, a daughter of Levi Barent Cohen, was related to Nathan Meyer Rothschild. Nathan Meyer Rothschild’s wife was also a daughter of Levi Barent Cohen, and thus Montefiore was uncle to the aforementioned Anthony de Rothschild. In addition, Anthony was married to a niece of Montefiore, the daughter of Abraham Montefiore and Henrietta Rothschild[21]…et cetera, et cetera. In financial terms, the houses of Rothschild and Montefiore had united in 1824 to form the Alliance Insurance Company, and most of the families were involved in each other’s stock-brokering and banking concerns. Endelmann notes that in these firms “new recruits were drawn exclusively from the ranks of the family.”[22]

Working tightly within this ethnic and familial network, the Cousinhood amassed huge fortunes, and in the years before World War I, despite comprising less than three tenths of 1% of the population, Jews constituted over 20% of non-landed British millionaires.[23] William Rubinstein notes that of these millionaires, all belonged to the Cousinhood.[24] It is worth noting that this wealth was derived exclusively from the fields of “banking, finance, the stock markets and bullion trading.”[25]

By virtue of this incredible level of wealth, the Cousinhood enjoyed a certain degree of political influence. Endelmann provides evidence that the group had “used its economic power to insinuate itself into the different sectors of the political establishment: the political parties, both Houses of Parliament, and even the government.”[26] Endelmann further states that the  Cousinhood’s influence was wielded in the pursuit of “ethnic sympathies, family tradition, and group self-interest,” and it was this influence that so alarmed Thomas Macaulay.[27]

The Move Into Parliament.

By the mid-1830s, English Jews led by the Cousinhood began to press for the removal of Christian oaths in Parliament and this for their ability to enter the legislature. Between 1830 and 1836 no fewer than four Bills were tabled for the removal of Jewish ‘disabilities,’ and all failed to win the support of elected officials. Frustrated that their influence was proving ineffectual, the Cousinhood decided to directly confront Parliament by putting Lionel de Rothschild up as a Liberal candidate for the City of London constituency, and funding him to an extent that almost ensured victory before the campaign even began. Although the Cousinhood had, as Endelmann noted, backed all parties when it was in their interests, they settled on the Liberals because they were broadly supportive of religious liberty. By framing Jewish interests in a religious context, de Rothschild sought to “bring the issue of Jewish emancipation into the broader Liberal agenda of civil and religious liberty, and he was determined that Liberals should adopt Jewish emancipation as a cause.”[28]

De Rothschild came third in the 1847 General Election but won enough votes to take a seat in Parliament. Lord John Russell, then Whig Prime Minister, immediately set about introducing a Jewish Disabilities Bill which would do away with the Christian oath. The Bill was passed in the House of Commons, but resistance proved strong, and it was thrown out by the Lords twice in 1848, and again in 1849. A remarkable but quite unsurprising detail about this time concerns the complicity of Benjamin Disraeli in lobbying members of the opposition party for support of the Bill. The quintessential ‘damp Jew’, Disraeli had been baptized a Christian at age twelve but never ceased to support Jewish ethnic interests, and became notorious for espousing a repugnant Jewish supremacism in his novels Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847). Although a member of the Tory party since 1837 — a party which was ostensibly dedicated to supporting Christianity in the form of the Established Church of England — correspondence in the official Rothschild Archive reveals that Disraeli was actively working “behind the scenes” to generate Tory support for the removal of the Christian oath.[29] Even taking into account Barbara Kaplan’s dubious and ill-evidenced claim that while Disraeli “lauded the Jewish people” (an understatement to say the least) he “claimed that Christianity was the superior religion,”[30] we can only conclude that in acting to undermine the Christian oath, for Disraeli Jewish ethnicity trumped any feeling he may have had towards Christianity. In a letter marked “Private”, Disraeli wrote to de Rothschild in December 1847:

My dear Lionel,

I find that 18 men, now Peers, voted against the Jews in the Commons 1833, & only 11 in their favor! I agree with you, therefore, that we must be cautious in publishing the lists of the divisions, & rather give a précis of them, calling attention only to what is in your favor….Writing to Lord John Manners today, I particularly mentioned the anxiety of the Court that the bill should pass, as this will be conveyed to the Duke of Rutland who is a great Courtier….My friend thinks that a good petition from King’s Lynn would nail Jocelyn’s vote for the second reading.

Ever yours faithfully


The diaries of Louise de Rothschild, sister-in-law to Lionel, further reveal that Disraeli had become a regular dining companion with members of the Cousinhood, and that during one evening with the Rothschilds in November 1847, Disraeli had argued that “we [my italics] must ask for our rights and privileges, not for concessions.”[31] This bravado proved ineffectual in the House of Lords, where hereditary, non-elected nobles continued to reject the Jewish Disabilities Bills for another decade. This obstruction was only ended in 1858, when a change in government allowed Disraeli himself to become Leader of the House of Commons, a position which allowed him to secure a measure “allowing each House to make its own rules about the form of oath” — thereby side-stepping the second chamber as well as established British democratic precedent altogether.[32] Lionel took his seat at the end of 1858, and was joined by his brother a year later. By 1865 his son also had a seat in the Commons, and numerous relatives began to follow. Just as in business, politics was a family affair.

Go to Part 2.

[1] C. Mackay, Extradordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (London: Bentley, 1841), p.xv.

[2] P. Mendes-Flohr (ed), The Jew in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.136.

[3] U. Henriques, “The Jewish Emancipation Controversy in Nineteenth-Century Britain” Past and Present (1968) 40 (1): 126-146 (p.126).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] R. Quinault, “Gladstone and Disraeli: A Reappraisal of their Relationship” History (2006) 91 (304): 557-576.

[7] C. Hirschfield, “The Anglo-Boer War and Jewish Culpability” Journal of Contemporary History (1980) 15 (4): 619-631 and A. Saab, “Disraeli, Judaism, and the Eastern Question,” The International History Review (1988) 10 (4): 559-578.

[8] M. Cross (ed) Selections from the Edinburgh Review (London: Longman, 1833), vol. 3 ,pp. 667-75.

[9]  W. Williams (1993). “Reading Greek Like a Man of the World: Macaulay and the Classical Languages” Greece and Rome, 40 (2) , pp 201-216

[10] P. Foot (ed) Theories of Ethics: Oxford Readings in Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p.99.

[11] T. Macaulay, “Civil Disabilities of the Jews” in M. Cross (ed) Selections from the Edinburgh Review (London: Longman, 1833), vol. 3, pp. 667-75.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] D. Gutwein, The Divided Elite: Politics and Anglo-Jewry, 1882-1917 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), p.5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] T. Endelmann, “Communal Solidarity and Family Loyalty Among the Jewish Elite of Victorian London,” Victorian Studies, 28 (3), pp.491-526, p.491 & 495.

[17] Ibid, p.514.

[18] Ibid, p.494.

[19] K. Macdonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (Lincoln: Writers Club Press, 2002), p.151 & T. Endelmann, “Communal Solidarity and Family Loyalty Among the Jewish Elite of Victorian London,” Victorian Studies, 28 (3), p. 495.

[20]Ibid, p.495.

[21] T. Endelmann, “Communal Solidarity and Family Loyalty Among the Jewish Elite of Victorian London,” Victorian Studies, 28 (3), p.496.

[22] T. Endelmann, “Communal Solidarity and Family Loyalty Among the Jewish Elite of Victorian London,” Victorian Studies, 28 (3), p.519.

[23] Ibid, p. 519.

[24] W. Rubinstein, “The Jewish Economic Elite in Britain, 1808-1909,” Jewish Historical Society of England. Available at:

[25] D. Gutwein, The Divided Elite: Economics, Politics, and Anglo-Jewry, 1882-1917, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), p.8.

[26] Quoted in Gutwein, The Divided Elite, p.8.

[27] Ibid, p.10.

[28] The Rothschild Archive: Available at:


[30] B. Kaplan “Disraeli on Jewish Disabilities: Another Look,” Central States Speech Journal, 30 (2), pp.156-163, (p.158).

[31] Lady de Rothschilds Diary:

[32] R. Blake, Disraeli (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1966), p.261.


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