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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 219

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This is the grave of Moses Alexander.

Born in 1853 in Bavaria, Alexander immigrated to the United States in 1867. He spent a year in New York before moving to Missouri to work at a cousin’s clothing store. He was very good at business and was also interested in Democratic politics. Although Jewish, a significant obstacle for the politically ambitious during these years, he had pioneering electoral success. He was elected to the city council in Chillicothe, Missouri in 1886 and then became mayor for two terms. After this, for reasons that I don’t quite know, he decided to move to Alaska, of all places. This was 1891, so it was pre-gold rush. But on the way to Alaska, he stopped in Boise, capital of the new state of Idaho. Realizing the significant investment opportunities there, he stayed. He again went into the clothing business and created a small empire of stores in the region. He also remained strongly committed to Judaism and led the effort to build Boise’s first synagogue, which today claims to be the oldest in continuous use west of the Mississippi River. I confess some surprise at that, largely because of St. Louis, which is also west of the river and has long had a large Jewish population. But that’s the claim anyway.

Alexander again entered Democratic politics, becoming mayor of Boise in 1897 for a two-year term. He didn’t run for reelection in 1899, but did run again and won again in 1901. As mayor, he pushed to professionalize the fire department and restrict gambling. Being a small state with few cities, as mayor of Boise, he was going to be considered to run for governor. After a hotly contested primary process that included the Idaho Supreme Court making the final decision, Alexander was the Democratic nominee in 1908. He lost and declined the nomination in 1910 as his health wasn’t great. But in 1914, he did run, on a platform of prohibition and small government. Great…. When he won, he was the first practicing Jewish governor in U.S. history. David Emanuel of Georgia and Washington Bartlett of California both had some Jewish background but were practicing Christians. Alexander won reelection in a very tight race in 1916 after he had successfully seen his state pass a prohibition measure. He remained a huge supporter of banning alcohol, despite the boom in bootlegged booze around the state. Alexander also was a major supporter of U.S. military actions in his second term, not only supporting U.S. intervention in World War I, but volunteering Idaho militia troops to Pershing’s campaign to catch Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. Less terribly, he also helped create Idaho’s workers comp program, but that was happening in nearly every state at this time and was hardly a radical proposal anyway.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s political success came in part by pandering to Christians about the problems of Jews. As reported in a 1915 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, in a speech of his before a Jewish gathering at Faneuil Hall in Boston, a gathering at least in part to honor his election, he said that Jews had an unfortunate tendency to see themselves as a “distinct religious nation” and that instead they should “become true citizens of the United States on a broad basis of Christian brotherhood.” Moreover, he suggested Jews were superstitious and backwards calling them “the most priest-ridden people in the world…they have no other literature but the prayerbook.” Not only is this terrible, but it’s also laughably untrue as I consult the gigantic tomes of Jewish literature and art in global history. To say the least, his fellow Jews at the gathering were not happy to hear their own pioneering governor insult their religion to their faces.

Alexander chose not to run for a third term in 1918. He did run in 1922, but was not popular at this point and finished third behind both the Republican and Progressive Party candidate. He remained active in Democratic Party politics the rest of his life. He died in 1932.

Moses Alexander is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho.

If you would like to see this series profile other pioneering Jewish political leaders, you can donate here to cover the travel expenses. Florida’s David Yulee could use some attention, not to mention Louis Brandeis of course. Hopefully, they won’t be Prohibitionists. I could also go see the vile high-ranking Confederate Judah Benjamin in Paris! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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