Abraham Alexander

King Street between Market and Fulton streets

A religious leader and patriot

Abraham Alexander (1743–1816) was born in London, a son of Rabbi Joseph and Judith Raphael Alexander. Thought to have first come to Charleston in 1766, the year he became hazan A cantor or prayer leader in a synagogue. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when there were few ordained rabbis in the United States, congregations often were led by hazanim, who were commonly referred to as “Reverend.” of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, he might have been here earlier. (And he must have returned to London at least once while hazan, for his son Abraham Alexander, Jr., was born there in 1771.) In 1775, the congregation was torn by a dispute between Sephardic members and the many Ashkenazim who had more recently joined. Factionalism seems to have subsided during the American Revolution, but broke out again in 1783, with those following the Sephardic tradition creating their own congregation. Alexander resigned as hazan of KKBE the next year.

Alexander’s secular life in Charleston was as eventful as his religious one. Serving as hazan without pay, he supported himself as a scrivener (clerk). As a lieutenant in Sumter’s Brigade (part of Wade Hampton’s Regiment of Light Dragoons), he defended Charleston during the British siege (March 1780–May 1780), but remained in the city during the British occupation, which lasted from May 1780 to December 1780. In 1784, Alexander took Ann Sarah (née Huguenin) Irby, a widowed gentile, as his second wife. He worked as a clerk in the state treasury. City directories list him as a shopkeeper as well. His store on King Street may well have been managed by his wife, who had been granted the status of feme soleA married woman who had the legal right to manage her own commercial affairs. Otherwise, women in this era were the virtual property of their husbands. (sole trader) in 1791. This gave her the legal right to conduct business independent of her husband. Ann’s conversion to Judaism seems to have been accepted by the Alexander family, for she lived with his son and daughter-in-law after his death, but when she died in 1835, her request to be buried in the Jewish cemetery was denied by KKBE’s leaders.

Abraham Alexander was one of four Jewish founders (among a total of eleven) of the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Order of Scottish Rite Masonry. A “Calligraphist of the first order,” he was elected as the Society’s Grand Secretary General.

Abraham Alexander, Sr. (1743–1816)

Abraham Alexander, Sr. (1743–1816)

Portrait attributed to Lawrence Sully (1769–1804), ca. 1795. Image Courtesy of the Image Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.