Chapter VI: Moses Michael Hays: “A Most Valuable Citizen” of Boston

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The Hays and Touro families were among the most important in New England in the colonial and early national periods. Moses Michael Hays was the leader of the two families. His contributions to Masonic history are still honored. His mentoring of the Touro brothers guided them to become two of America’s earliest and most generous philanthropists.

Moses Michael Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Dutch immigrants Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. Judah took Moses into his shipping and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left Moses the business and largest share of his assets. Judah left Moses something else as well: a firm grounding in his Jewish faith and responsibilities. Moses served New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel as second parnas (vice-president) in 1766 and parnas in 1767. Moses retained an attachment to Shearith Israel, appearing on donor lists intermittently throughout his life.

In 1766, Moses married Rachel Myers, younger sister of famed New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Hays continued his shipping business. “Various losses at sea and other inevitable misfortunes” landed Hays in debtor’s prison, but under a 1771 reform law, Hays liquidated his assets and was set free. He immediately reestablished himself in the trans-Atlantic trade.

Hays and his family left Newport for Boston ahead of the British occupation in 1776. There, he opened a shipping office and was among the first merchants to underwrite trade to the newly opened Far Eastern markets.  In 1784, Hays was a founder and the first depositor of the Massachusetts Bank, and with his close friend Paul Revere and fourteen other Boston businessmen, he formed several insurance companies.

Hays was instrumental in establishing the Masonic movement throughout New England. When Hays was accepted into the Massachusetts Lodge in November 1782, he was its only Jewish member, a signal that Hays had won entry into Boston society. In 1792 Hays was elected Grand Master of the Lodge and sponsored Paul Revere to serve as his Deputy.

The Hays family lived on Boston’s fashionable Middle (now Hanover) Street, in a large brick home with 15 rooms that they filled to capacity with their seven children. When his widowed sister Reyna Touro died in 1787, Moses and Rachel raised his young nephews Abraham and Judah and his niece Rebecca. Samuel May, author Louisa May Alcott’s grandfather, was a close childhood friend of the Hays and Touro children. He recalled “Uncle and Aunt Hays” for their pride in their Judaism:

If the children of my day were taught among other foolish things to dread, if not despise Jews, a very different lesson was impressed upon my young heart….[The Hays] house…was the abode of hospitality…He and his truly good wife were hospitable, not to the rich alone, but also to the poor….I witnessed their religious exercise, their fastings and their prayers…[As a result] I grew up without prejudice against Jews—or any other religionists.

Lacking a synagogue, the Hays family conducted regular worship services in their home.  The household library contained dozens of Hebrew books.  And the Jewish commandment to dispense charity directed much of what the Hays family did on behalf of Boston and its citizens. Moses Michael Hays provided financial support to beautify Boston Common, establish theaters and endow Harvard College. His children and nephews went on to lead distinguished lives. Son Judah Hays was the first professing Jew elected to Boston public office. Nephews Judah and Abraham Touro would go on to set new standards for American philanthropy.

Moses Michael Hays died in 1805. His obituaries in the secular press remembered him as “a most valuable citizen. . . . now secure in the bosom of his Father and our Father, of his God and our God.”

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6 Responses to Chapter VI: Moses Michael Hays: “A Most Valuable Citizen” of Boston

  1. Robert Wallach says:

    My ancestor Moses Abraham Wallach, who was Jewish, and arrived in Boston 1in 1777, received the following letter from the St. Andrews Masonic Lodge:

    Boston, Dec. 10, 1778
    Br. Wallach,
    The Lodge of St. Andrews has received your generous gift of Branches which are
    dispersed around their Room, as a token of your love, and esteem for the Society. ___
    __ their thanks for the mark of your attachment to the Fraternity, which will ever be held
    in greatful remembrance.
    By the desire of the Master
    Signed – James Cater, Sec.

    Did the Lodge address everyone as “Brother”, or is it an indication that he was a member? I have not been able to confirm he was a Mason or not.

    • Webmaster- AJHS New England says:

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comment. I did a search in the databases in for Moses Abraham Wallach and found the following in the database for Dexter’s Memoranda of the Town of Boston:

      “Moses Abraham, (Wallock, Wallach), D. 51 – came to Boston in 1778, a Prussian Jew, taken by a British frigate, and brought in to Boston – lodgings and a passage to some Dutch Island in the West Indies, was provided for him by St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons, £15; 18 being collected for him, he being a Mason. It is probable he remained here, – as his name appeared in the first Directory, 1789, and he commanded the Prussian Blues, a military company in Boston, in 1790, 1794. He md in Boston and had a family of — children – Richard, Mayor of Washington ¬—. Mrs Beck. [1c]”

      There is some question as to validity of some of John Haven Dexter’s entries and NEHGS suggests that it be used only as a secondary source. That could explain the discrepancy with the arrival dates. However, this information, along with the letter you have, does appear to confirm that he was a Mason. I hope this information helps!

      Stephanie Call
      Archivist, Manager of Digital Collections

  2. Ari Marcus says:

    I am a Jewish Massachusetts Mason, and was very interested to see this letter. On.y a fellow Freemason would be referred to as Brother in Masonic correspodence and context.

  3. David Jacobs says:

    As a past master of Moses Michael Hays Lodge of Freemasons in Needham, Massachusetts, my first stop in researching early Masonic subjects is the library of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets in Downtown Boston. If the Saint Andrew’s Lodge you reference was a Massachusetts Masonic Lodge, its early records would be in the library.

    My second stop would be the Museum of our National Heritage in Lexington, also an important Masonic organization with an extensive collection of early Masonic information.

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