Marking the 160th Anniversary of Our Congressional Charter

On June 2, 1856, President Franklin Pierce signed into law “An Act for the Benefit of the Hebrew Congregation in the City of Washington.” Serving as the charter for Washington Hebrew Congregation, the act conferred all the “rights, privileges, and immunities heretofore granted by law to the Christian churches…to the Hebrew congregation of said city.”

This June, at our Annual Meeting, Washington Hebrew Congregation celebrated the 160th anniversary of the signing of our Congressional charter. To help mark this special occasion, William H. Davis, archivist at the U.S. National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives and WHC member, shared copies of original records from the National Archives, which document the efforts and actions that resulted in the creation of Washington Hebrew Congregation’s charter.

Washington Hebrew Congregation — the first Jewish religious institution in the nation’s capital — was founded in 1852. In 1856, WHC members petitioned Congress for a congressional charter because the laws of the District of Columbia did not contain provisions permitting Jewish religious organizations the right to “be constituted a congregation, having power to purchase and hold for their common use and religious exercise a place of worship or other real estate….”

Senator and presidential aspirant Lewis Cass of Michigan enthusiastically introduced the petition on February 5, 1856 in a moving speech that criticized prejudice against the “faith of the patriarchs and prophets of Israel.” The petition was referred to the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, Chairman of the committee, reported favorably on the petition and introduced Senate Bill 199.

Although an 1844 act had conferred powers and rights on religious bodies “without restriction as to sect,” the Congregation felt a charter was warranted to resolve any doubts about our right to build a house of worship and operate a congregation. Both houses of Congress and President Pierce agreed, and S. 199 became law.

The exhibit, featuring items from the National Archives, is on display at Temple through the summer.