The 18th-Century Jewish Merchant Prince of Rhode Island

January 28, 2014 | By

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Aaron LopezAt his prime in the 18th century, Aaron Lopez was the wealthiest man in Newport, Rhode Island. He didn’t get that way by taking the moral high ground.

Born in 1731 to Portuguese converso Jews, Lopez practiced Catholicism openly and Judaism behind closed doors. Upon resettling in Newport in 1752, he headed a booming mercantile business. Not long after, he became a key supplier of munitions to American revolutionary forces, dabbled in whaling and, shamefully, participated in the slave trade.

Lopez was said to have had at least partial ownership of over 30 transoceanic ships and more than 100 coastal vessels. He was also a great promoter of positive interfaith relations, prohibiting ships from departing from his dock on either the Jewish or Christian Sabbaths.

In fact, the Lisbon-born businessman became such a mainstay of the Jewish community that he laid one of the cornerstones for the Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the country. Despite his prominence, Lopez’s appeals for citizenship were repeatedly denied.

Lopez died in 1782 by drowning in a pond while watering his horse; he left behind a wife and 15 children. A strange, almost mythical end for a complicated figure in American Jewish history.

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