Ezekiel (Ezechiel) Hart, businessman, seigneur, militia officer, politician (born 15 May 1770 in Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada [Québec]; died 16 September 1843 in Trois-Rivières). A respected businessman and militia officer, Ezekiel Hart was the first Jewish person to be elected to public office in the British Empire. However, though he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1807 and again 1808, he was expelled both times due to the argument that, as a Jew, he was unable to take the (Christian) oath of office. His sons played an important role in the Emancipation Act of 1832, which gave full political and civil rights to Jewish citizens of Lower Canada — about 25 years before the United Kingdom itself.
The following entry has been adapted from an article written by Denis Vaugeois and published by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Early Years and Family
Ezekiel Hart was the second son of Aaron Hart and Dorothea Judah. Like his brothers Moses, Benjamin and Alexander (Asher), Ezekiel obtained part of his education in the United States. In 1792, Aaron Hart brought Ezekiel into his store on Rue du Platon in Trois-Rivières and involved him in his fur-trade activities. The following year, Ezekiel was in New York City, where he lived for a while at the home of a successful merchant, Ephraim Hart, and his wife Frances Noah. There he met Mrs. Hart’s niece, Frances Lazarus, whom he married in February 1794. The couple would have at least 10 children.
On 2 December 1796, Ezekiel and his brothers Moses and Benjamin went into partnership in Trois-Rivières. The three held equal shares in the firm of M. and E. Hart Company and, with the financial backing of their father, enjoyed a successful enterprise producing beer and potash.
Soon after his father’s death in 1800, Ezekiel withdrew from the company and sold everything to Moses. He subsequently followed in the footsteps of his father: he went into the import and export trade, kept a general store and acquired property. In addition to inheriting the seigneury of Bécancour from his father, he also bought a great deal of land, mainly in Trois-Rivières and Cap-de-la-Madeleine.
Ezekiel Hart also had a passion for politics. A document held at the American Jewish Historical Society Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts, indicates that Ezekiel likely stood for election to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1804. The document gives the results of an election in which Louis-Charles Foucher, John Lees, Pierre Vézina and a man named Hart (no first name given) were candidates. The names of the 138 voters and their votes are listed on four pages. On 6 August 1804, Foucher and Lees were elected to the House of Assembly for Trois-Rivières, which at that time was entitled to two members. As Foucher, Lees and Vézina are not on the voters’ list, and neither is Ezekiel, it is likely that he was the fourth candidate. This is substantiated by an address “to the Worthy and Independent Electors of the Town of Three-Rivers,” dated 22 June 1804 and bearing Ezekiel Hart’s name, which is also held at the Waltham Archives. “My interest is connected with yours,” the candidate declared, promising to carry out the duties of the office “to the utmost of my abilities, and that of the interest of this my native Place.”
In 1807, Hart won a by-election in Trois-Rivières, leading to an important political episode and controversy. In the vote, which was held to replace Lees, who had died that year, there were four candidates: Mathew Bell, Thomas Coffin, Pierre Vézina and Ezekiel Hart. Historian Benjamin Sulte relates that “judge Foucher, assemblyman [for Trois-Rivières], started off the affair with a rather long speech entirely partial to Coffin.” According to legal historian David Fraser, Foucher questioned Hart’s eligibility to sit in the Assembly as he could not take the Christian oath of office. At the first show of hands, Vézina had the fewest votes and immediately withdrew in favour of Coffin. Hart nonetheless took the lead, with 59 of 116 votes. Coffin, with 41, and Bell, with 16, in turn withdrew before the day was ended. It was Saturday, 11 April 1807. Hart, the successful candidate, was asked by the returning officer to sign certain documents but, in great embarrassment (according to Sulte), he requested that the signing be delayed until the Sabbath was over. When pressed, he simply signed, “Ezekiel Hart, 1807,” disregarding the customary (Christian) declaration “in the year of our Lord.”
As the legislative session in Québec City was coming to an end, Hart had to wait until a new one began on 29 January 1808 before he could be sworn in. Foucher and Hart, who had been opponents in the Trois-Rivières riding, now found themselves together at the Legislative Assembly, and both were in serious difficulties. The two men were regarded as politicians favouring the Château Clique, or the “English party,” and their right to sit in the Assembly was contested by the members of the Parti canadien, who were anxious to secure a stable majority for themselves. The Parti canadien therefore decided to expel both Foucher and Hart from the Assembly — Foucher, the judge, on the grounds that he could not pass laws and see to their enforcement, and Hart, the Jew, because he had not taken the prescribed oath. Following a lively debate, Hart was expelled from the assembly by a resolution. Paradoxically, Hart, who had been elected in a riding with mostly French Canadian and Catholic voters, was expelled by an Assembly controlled by a majority that was also French Canadian and Catholic. Yet some supporters of the “English party” also voted for his expulsion, including Attorney General Jonathan Sewell, who based his decision on interpretation of the law.
The resolution mentioned that Hart was of the Jewish religion and that he had “taken the Oath in the manner customary only for persons of that persuasion.” Hart had in fact put his hand on his head and substituted the word “Jewish” for “Christian.” In the debate, proponents of Hart’s expulsion emphasized that a Jew does not believe in the New Testament, which is an integral part of the Bible. In short, Hart had taken an oath that was deemed invalid. This reason, which some thought a pretext, was used to justify his expulsion.
Hart protested, in vain, and had to return home. In any event, the session was coming to an end. As four years had passed since the last general election, Governor Sir James Henry Craig dissolved the House on 27 April 1808.
1808 Election and Second Expulsion
In the following elections, Hart again received 59 votes. Judge Foucher was fourth with 32, while Joseph Badeaux obtained one more vote than Pierre Vézina. This time Hart took the oath “in the Christian manner.” Nevertheless, the debate resumed when the Legislative Assembly opened on 10 April 1809. On 19 April, after several votes, the assembly resolved that Hart was the same person who had already been expelled “as he professes the Jewish religion.” In the end, he was denied the right to his seat in the legislature because of his religion.
But Governor Craig, who was determined to bring the Parti canadien members under his control, dissolved the assembly on 15 May and announced new general elections. On 5 June, the Governor turned to London for directions about Hart’s eligibility for office, and on 7 September, the colonial secretary, Lord Castlereagh, confirmed that a Jew could not sit in the Assembly.
Did Ezekiel Hart Run for Office a Fourth Time?
Some historians have claimed that Hart stood as a candidate in the next election. A Mr. Hart did indeed come in fourth, with 32 votes, but according to the Quebec Gazette of 2 November 1809, this was Moses Hart. As for Ezekiel, judging from available documents, he was turning his attention to his business affairs at that time. It would be up to his sons to continue the political struggle. Samuel Bécancour, Aaron Ezekiel and Adolphus Mordecai Hart would have a strong influence on the 1831–32 legislation that gave Jews in Lower Canada full recognition of their rights as citizens.
Hart was admitted into the militia in June 1803 and served as a lieutenant in the 8th Battalion of Trois-Rivières, which was placed under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry in 1812. Hart may or may not have been at the Battle of Châteauguay during the War of 1812; at about that time he was posted to a unit that did not take part in the engagement, the 1st Battalion of Trois-Rivières militia, in which he became a captain in 1816. On 16 May 1830, he was promoted to colonel of the 1st Battalion of Saint-Maurice militia.
Like his father, Ezekiel Hart maintained good relations with his business associates, though he mixed more easily with the upper class. Famous travellers were known to stay at his home, which was well furnished and held an extensive library. When Hart died in 1843, he was accorded an impressive funeral. The stores in Trois-Rivières closed and the 81st Regiment of Foot paid him final honours. He was buried in the second Jewish cemetery in Trois-Rivières, which was located on land that he himself had donated.