Lionel de Rothschild and Jewish Emancipation
In 1847 Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808-1879) stood as a Liberal candidate for the City of London. On the 8th of July in that year a meeting of Liberal electors endorsed him as a candidate along with Lord John Russell, James Pattison and Sir George Larpent. His principal concern was to integrate the theme of Jewish Emancipation into the broader Liberal agenda of civil and religious liberty. His determination was that the Liberals should adopt Jewish Emancipation as a cause.
In the ensuing poll he came third, with 6792 votes, only a few hundred behind the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who came first in the poll. On hearing of his success, his Uncle Salomon wrote from Vienna congratulating him for the wonderful achievement on behalf of the Jewish community at large. 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 introduced a Jewish Disabilities Bill, which would have overcome this problem. The Bill was passed in the Commons in February 1848. However, the Lords threw it out in both 1848 and 1849.Lionel was re-elected in 1849 winning by a two to one majority.
On 25 July 1850 there was a meeting of electors at the London Tavern which resolved that Lionel should take up his seat in the House. Lionel duly turned up the next day. The Clerk rose to tender the oath. Lionel demanded to swear on the Old Testament. There were howls of protest from the Tory benches. Lionel was called upon to withdraw, which he did. He reappeared on 29 July 1850 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. “I omit these words as not binding on my conscience”. In 1851, another Bill was thrown out by the Lords, and in 1852, Lionel was re-elected for London. In each year from 1853 to 1857, the Disabilities Bill was put to the Lords and defeated. In 1857 Lionel was re-elected, this time coming second in the Poll. This time, when the Bill was again defeated, he resigned from his seat but was returned at the subsequent bye-election.
Disraeli had now become the Prime Minister and was keen not have Conservative Peers block the Disabilities Bill in the Lords. He therefore arrived at a compromise whereby each House was allowed to decide for itself the formula which it used to administer the oath. The House of Lords therefore became an irrelevance to the issue and Lionel’s re-entry to the Commons followed without further protest. He finally took his seat in 1858 and remained in the House until 1874.
For more information about Lionel’s campaign see our online exhibition From Bank to Westminster.
The first Jewish Peer
Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild, ‘Natty’ (1840-1915) grew to be one of the elder statesmen of the City. Educated at Cambridge, he joined the circle of friends of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. Natty held honorary positions in virtually every institution of Anglo-Jewry, and showed a particular interest in housing in the East End of London, through the 4% Industrial Dwellings Company. Like his father, Lionel, Natty was an MP, gaining Aylesbury for the Liberals in 1865. A baronet in succession to his uncle Anthony from 1876, Natty became the first Jewish peer in 1885, retaining his own name in his new title - Lord Rothschild of Tring.
Other Rothschild MPs
Lionel's brother, Baron Mayer de Rothschild (1818-1874) became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1847, and in the same year, presented himself unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for Hythe in Kent, and had to wait until 1859 to be returned, uncontested, in the general election as the second Jewish MP, serving until his death in 1874.
The Aylesbury seat was held by members of the Rothschild family from 1865 when Natty was returned unopposed. From 1886 he backed the Liberal Unionists, finding Home Rule an unsupportable policy. On his elevation to the peerage in 1885, his Commons' seat was taken by his brother-in-law, Ferdinand de Rothschild who resided at Waddesdon Manor. Ferdinand's liberalism, unlike Natty's, embraced the emancipation of women.
In the 1899 by-election caused by Ferdinand's death, Natty's son, Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937) was elected for the Liberal & Liberal Unionists, unopposed. A Free Trader like his father, he served until 1910 when he retired from politics at the January 1910 general election. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1882-1942) then held the seat of Aylesbury for the Conservatives from 1910 until 1923.
James de Rothschild (1878-1957) was Conservative MP for the Isle of Ely from 1929 until 1945.