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Information Bureau: Bank to Westminster: Lionel de Rothschild's journey to parliament, 1847-1858

 

From the Frankfurt ghetto

In one generation covering the first third of the nineteenth century, the Rothschild family emerged from the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt to become figures on the international stage, known throughout the western world as leading international bankers and as - probably - the world's wealthiest family.
 

Nathan Rothschild founds a bank in the City of London

Lionel de Rothschild's father, Nathan Mayer Rothschild had left his father's developing business in Frankfurt and come to Manchester in 1798 to buy the cloth which was now being manufactured in the area more cheaply than anywhere else in Europe and to send it back to mainland Europe for sale. In 1806 he married Hannah Barent Cohen, the daughter of a wealthy London Jewish merchant, and began to move his business to London. He was now more a banker than a merchant and working increasingly effectively with his other brothers who, by the early 1820s were functioning as an international banking network, with bases in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Vienna and Naples.


Lionel takes over the business

Lionel was born in London in 1808. As a young man he served an apprenticeship in the banking houses of his father and his uncles. Even so, when his father died unexpectedly in 1836, Lionel found himself, at the age of 28, the heir to the most successful London bank of the age and a figure on the international stage.


Nathan and Jewish emancipation

Nathan had been passionate in his concern for Jewish issues and for minority rights in general. He had worked hard to achieve greater rights for Jews, particularly in the 1820s at the time when the fight for Catholic Emancipation was going on. He used such influence as he could with politicians to achieve similar freedoms - but to no avail.


Lionel stands for parliament

Lionel was moved by the same instincts as his father but was to choose a different path. Between 1830 and 1836 four bills to remove the barriers to Jews entering parliament had failed to become legislation: something more dramatic was needed. In 1847 Lionel was persuaded to stand as a candidate for the City of London.


Lionel's political manifesto

Since the early 1830s, the Liberals, for whom he stood, had been broadly supportive of religious liberty. His political platform embraced a list of issues, including a limited extension of the vote to a greater part of the population; bringing down taxes as far as possible; bringing down the duty on tea to help the poor; and free trade. He was in favour of liberty of conscience and civil and religious liberty, and was concerned about State involvement in education, particularly because this was usually expressed in favour of the Established Church.

His principal concern was to bring the issue of Jewish emancipation into the broader Liberal agenda of civil and religious liberty. He was determined that the Liberals should adopt Jewish Emancipation as a cause.


Lionel is elected to parliament for the City of London

In the 1847 election he came third, with 6792 votes, enough to earn him one of the City's seats in Parliament. He was, in fact, only a few hundred votes behind the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who was also standing for re-election.


The oath for Christians only

Throughout the campaign, people had been aware that Lionel, if he was elected, would face the problem of having to take an oath on the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments), on 'the true faith of a Christian'. Once Lionel had been elected, Russell, the Prime Minister, introduced a Jewish Disabilities Bill, which would have overcome this problem, softening the requirement for a Christian oath. The Bill was duly passed in the Commons in February 1848, only to be thrown out by the Lords, not once but twice in 1848 and then again in 1849.


Lionel resigns and stands again

Lionel determined to test the views of the voters of London. He resigned and stood again in 1849 in the resulting bye-election. He beat his opponent with a crushing majority, taking more than two thirds of the vote. But the problem of the oath remained unchanged.


Lionel tries to take his seat

On 25 July 1850 a meeting of electors at the London Tavern resolved that Lionel should take up his seat in the House. Lionel duly turned up the next day. The Clerk of the Commons rose to invite Lionel to take the oath. Lionel demanded to swear on the Old Testament only. There were howls of protest from the Tory benches and Lionel was called upon to withdraw, which he did.

He reappeared four days later and got right through the oath until the final clause where he had to swear 'upon the true faith of a Christian' at which point he had to withdraw, after declaring 'I omit these words as not binding on my conscience'.


The House of Lords refuses to change the oath

The stalemate continued for a further eight years. In 1851, another Jewish Disabilities Bill was thrown out by the Lords. The following year, Lionel was re-elected for London for the third time. In each year from 1853 to 1857, with the exception of 1855, the Bill was put to the Lords and defeated.

In 1857, Lionel went to the polls twice more. Re-elected, he resigned again when the Disabilities Bill was yet again defeated and was returned unopposed in the City. He had now had his election confirmed five times by the voters.


Another Jew is elected to parliament

Meanwhile, in 1851, another Jew had been elected to Parliament. David Salomons, already the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, was elected for Greenwich. He decided on a less conspicuous approach, entering the House one Friday unannounced. He was not spotted until the Monday afternoon when he was summarily ejected and subsequently prosecuted for not having followed House procedures. The voters of Greenwich subsequently rejected him at the next election, but the campaign was becoming more heated.


Disraeli solves the problem

1858 brought a change of government. Benjamin Disraeli, the Leader of the House of Commons, himself of Jewish birth athough converted to Christianity, and a great friend of the Rothschild family, was keen to avoid the position where his own Conservative Peers in the Lords should block the Jewish Disabilities Bill. The solution, the brainchild of the Earl of Lucan, was ingenious, neatly sidestepping the problem. A compromise was arrived at whereby each House of Parliament, Commons and Lords, was allowed to decide for itself the words which were used to administer the oath. The House of Lords agreed to this, weary of the battle and wary of their constitutional position if they were to be continually in opposition to the Commons.  The Lords became, therefore, an irrelevance to the issue and Lionel's re-entry to the Commons followed without further protest.


Lionel takes his seat

Lionel presented himself again in the House, declared his objection to the oath and withdrew. A vote on the new principle was taken immediately and was passed with little opposition. Lionel was summoned back in. He entered the Chamber flanked by Abel Smith and Lord John Russell, who had supported and encouraged him throughout his campaign. An eleven-year struggle thus ended with a simple ritual that nevertheless represented a major step forward in the long campaign for religious freedom and Jewish assimilation.

Lionel remained MP for the City of London for sixteen years. The year after he took his seat, he was joined in the Commons by his brother, Mayer, who was elected MP for Hythe in Kent.  In 1865 his son Nathaniel became MP for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire where the Rothschild family owned a number of properties.


Nathaniel de Rothschild becomes the first Jewish peer

The final irony of this situation was that in 1885, just six years after his death, it was Lionel's son, Nathaniel de Rothschild who became the first Jewish Peer to enter the House of Lords.  Unlike most newly created peers he chose to retain his own name in his new title, becoming Lord Rothschild of Tring. The climate had changed and the battles of the 1850s were largely won.


Timeline     Who was who     Guide to sources

  

 The 'Green Shield' house in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt where Lionel's father Nathan grew up.

A French newspaper cartoon of the four MPs elected for the City of London in 1847: Masterman, Lord John Russell, Pattison and de Rothschild.

 'A sign of the times': what the papers said, 1847.

The Jewish community in London give thanks for Lionel's electoral victory.

Lancelot Shadwell offers Lionel an Old Testament on which to swear his oath, 1847.

 Disraeli writes to Lionel about his work behind the scenes, 1847.

Notes of a meeting between the Prime Minister Lord John Russell and some City electors in which Russell suggests that Lionel resign and stand again [1848].

Louise de Rothschild, the wife of Lionel's brother Anthony, records her attendance at some of the parliamentary debates in her diary

 Lionel was attacked by opponents of free trade when he stood for election in 1849.

Lionel's attempt in 1850 to take his seat was recorded in the press and in Moses Montefiore's diary.

Thomas Macaulay declines to propose a motion in the House of Commons, 1853.

 A scene at the hustings.

The Earl of Shaftesbury declines to support the bill, 1856.

 Queen Victoria creates another supporter for Lionel in the House of Lords, 1857.

 Lionel writes to Charlotte, 1858.

Lionel Nathan de Rothschild introduced in the House of Commons on 26 July 1858 by Lord John Russell and Mr Abel Smith.  A painting by Henry Barraud, 1872. 

John Llewellyn Dillwyn, a fellow Liberal MP, records in his diary the passage of the Jewish Disabilities Bill - and being photographed for Barruad's painting.

 In 1885 Lionel's son Nathaniel became the first Jewish peer.