Jonas Daniel Meijer
(Arnhem 15-9-1780 / Amsterdam 6-12-1834)
a forgotten genius
Categories: Statesmen - Lawyers.
Names of genealogical relevance mentioned in the article:
Jonas Daniel Meijer, Charles Daniel Asser, David Abraham Meijer, Benjamin Cohen, Marianne Cohen, Abraham Meijer Rintel, Hitsel Abraham Meijer, Meijer Abraham Meijer, Chaile Abraham Meijer, Jacob Ezechiel, Eve Meijer, Jeanette Ephraim Dresden, Ester Zadok Philips, Maria Anna Meijer, David Frederic Ernst Meijer, Joanna Ernestina Meijer, Jonas Cohen, Abraham David Meijer.
הציל מטים להרג לשבויי חרב
בישראל נודע כי לא כחש דתו
לאומים הגישו לו שי פרי אמונתו
חי – והבוקר אור – גווע! – ויהי ערב.
Meir, a man of law, pleads fair trial
Helps each lonely one, faint one and miserable one
Rescued those who almost were put to death by sword
Between his people he was known as keeping the law
Peoples gave him presents for his principles
Alive – and morning came- passed away! And evening came.
A name looms up from the past each time when we pass the square in his name in Amsterdam. After a day's poll in that neighborhood, it appears that practically nobody knows who the man is, after whom this square was called on October 2, 1873, almost 39 years after his death. However, he is the man who gave Dutch jurisdiction its human form. An honored man in his own time; an abused man in our national-Jewish history – Jonas Daniel Meijer
This is partly on account of the tone in which the historian Dr. J. Zwarts describes him in his book ‘ Hoofdstukken uit de geschiedenis der Joden in Nederland' (Chapters from the history of the Jews in the Netherlands, page 261 etc.): a dignified young man from aristocratic Jewish circles who privately was emancipated already. It is hard to say how far he handled Jewry in a liberal way. We do know that on Shabbat, May 28, 1808, he traveled by carriage to King Louis Napoleon in the ‘Loo-palace', to talk about the social situation of the Jews of Amsterdam, who suffered under the ‘despotic and short-sighted policy of their leaders'.
Though his stand was contradictory to the religious side, he has done whatever he could, together with the other Dutch-Jewish infant prodigy from that time, Charles Daniel Asser, to lift his fellow-believers, who mostly passed their days in bitter poverty. Both were born in 1780; Charles Daniel on February 15, in Amsterdam and Jonas Daniel on September 15, in Arnhem; both promoted at a very early age as lawyers: Jonas Daniel on November 12, 1796, Charles Daniel on July 3, 1799. Why both added the name Daniel to their name remains a riddle; maybe they wanted to honor one of their teachers with their private name?
Together with Jonas Daniel, Charles Daniel devoted himself to the bar of Amsterdam. They are the first two Jews who appeared as lawyers since the foundation of the Republic in 1795. They maintained a special friendship, and it is Charles who registered his friend's death in 1834 at the civil registry; he outlived him for only 12 years.
Although the Asser-family - advocates of the emancipation of the Jews – joined the separate Jewish community ‘ Adat Yeshurun' (1795), Jonas Daniel stayed loyal to the old community, now called ‘ Alte Gemeinde'. Later, in 1809, urged by King Louis Napoleon, he merged the two communities again.
The interest of the writer of this article for Jonas Daniel Meijer started when she visited the archive of Arnhem for the first time and in an open book on the table she read ‘Revolt Arnhem House David Abraham Meijer' 1). This David Abraham appeared to be the father of the lawyer Jonas Daniel Meijer and the house mentioned, bought on August 12, 1779 by his grandfather Benjamin Cohen 2) turned out to be the house where he was born. The house did outlive the revolt, but not the ravages of time. That is why between 1852 and 1853, on the same spot, the big synagogue of Arnhem could be built, a monumental building, which together with the close-by Eusebius-church still forms the heart of the town.
The only book which the author found about the life of the lawyer was ‘Life and work of Jonas Daniel Meijer', by Mr. N. de Beneditty, but there was little mentioning of his private life, so she decided to fill that gap, which resulted in a few articles in papers and journals and a small book in the AD series (no. 2155/ 27-2-1987). The magazine
“ Misjpoge” was the first to get the exact genealogical data about this Meijer-family.
Jonas Daniel was the eldest son of Marianne Cohen, a daughter of the famous tobacco-merchant, salesman and Jewish scholar from Amersfoort, Benjamin Cohen (July/August, 1725 – 10-2-1800) and David Abraham Meijer, from Hamburg, son of Abraham Meijer Rintel. On the matsevah (tombstone) of Jonas Daniel the name Rintel comes up again, because there he is called Jona David Rintel (on the map of Germany, a place by the name Rinteln is found , near the place Minden, also a surname of a Jewish tobacco-family, which is to be found in Nijkerk).
David and Marianne married on December 10, 1779. In the will, which was made at this marriage Hitsel Abraham is mentioned as the sister and Meijer Abraham Meijer is mentioned as the brother of David Abraham. It could be possible that David Abraham is the brother of the second wife of Benjamin Cohen, the widow Chaile Abraham Meijer (died in 5-6-1793 in Amsterdam and buried in Muiderberg) whom he married in 1766. Reviewing the years for the marriage-appendix 3), resulted in more clarity about the family-connection.
About the tobacco-family Cohen it is known, that they had connections with all the great personalities of European Jewry. In addition, this family was part of the beginning of Jewish communities in Amersfoort, Arnhem and Nijkerk. At a later age Benjamin Cohen, after moving to Amsterdam in 1786, acquired an important position in the Jewish community there. He also figured large in the politically turbulent fight of the patriots and the prince's favorites.
Marianne Cohen was a child of the cousin-marriage of her father, who got marriage-dispensation 4) to marry Eve, the daughter of his uncle Jacob Ezechiel from Arnhem. May this be the reason why the Jonas Daniel-branch has died out?
Besides Jonas Daniel, the Meijer-family consisted of Abraham David (Arnhem 8-10-1781-Amsterdam 17-3-1864) and Eve (Arnhem 15-10-1782 – Amsterdam 18-12-1850). In the spring of 1790 father David Abraham died, as appeared from the will, when it was opened. 5). He did not live to see how his eldest son was crowned with laurels, when he left the Latin school in Arnhem. In ‘ Maandelijksche Uittreksels of Boekzaal der geleerde Waereld; 153e deel, voor Juli 1791' (Monthly summaries of the Room of Books in the scientific World; part 153 for July 1791) the special talent of Jonas Daniel was already pointed out:
At the age of eleven he mastered the Latin language in such a way, that he could translate the classic authors without any preparation. He finished his studies in Greek, Hebrew, and German, arithmetic, algebra, mathematics, cosmography, geographic, logics, oration and general history ‘with credit'.
In a solemn public gathering, he delivered a lecture titled ‘The knowledge of the language marks the source and origin of all sciences'. This lecture held in Latin, was spiced with Hebrew words 6). He always remained interested in language, a proof among others of his interest in the language-project, which King Louis Napoleon started as a tool to teach the Dutch language to the Jews in the Netherlands, with the help of their familiar Tenach (Bible) – in imitation of the working-group around the scholar Moses Mendelsohn in Germany.
As a result of the abdication of the king the language-project failed, but it was
further developed by King William I later on ; though without cooperation of Jonas Daniel.
After the death of her husband in 1790, mother Marianne moved from Arnhem to Amsterdam, where she lived with her three children and her father Benjamin Cohen, on the New Heerengracht 103. Jonas Daniel now visited High school and he was introduced to science by the professors van Swinden and Wijttenbach. With professor H .E. Cras he studied law in the years 1793-1796. During his studies he maintained permanent connections with his fellow-students Arntzenius, Kemper, Graafland, Vollenhove and especially with Anton Reinhard Falck, who all became exceptional Dutchmen.
When he was hardly 16 years old he passed a proficiency test with a sound-reasoned
attack on the work of Thomas Payne, ‘On the rights of man'. Thomas Payne declared that ‘later generations cannot be held responsible for the fulfilling of publicly lawful connections, made by earlier generations'. Jonas Daniel dedicated this work to his grandfather Benjamin, because he took over the task of the father. When on November 15, 1796 he took an oath of loyalty, and so became a lawyer, he became the first Jew who was admitted to this profession; till then Jews could only practice law in lower courts of justice. He also became one of the youngest lawyers the Netherlands ever knew, but he would never, because of his Jewish identity, get the position a Hugo de Groot (10-4-1583 – 28-8-1645) or a Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck (31-10-1761 – 25-3-1825) had reached. Neither the rich Amsterdam salesmen-guild nor other customers of Christian homes knocked at his door. Because of that he had the time to qualify himself in the history of Law of other countries, leading to important publications, by which he acquired, in addition to international fame, also memberships at many European universities and academies.
He earned his first international fame with the entry to the contest by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin ‘can the moral appreciation of an act come into consideration at the determination and practice of a criminal law and in such case, how much'. He is the first lawyer who asked himself about the influence of the circumstances of life and the psychical condition of the culprit on the execution of a criminal offence. In this he was far ahead in time, because until then it was the habit to force the possible culprit to admit, by means of the rack (only abolished in 1796), et cetera. Unfortunately, his work could not be awarded. Due to the illness of his mother (she passed away on August 9, 1803), he was too late with sending it in. However, he got an honorable mention, and he printed the work himself in 1804 in Amsterdam.
From his own observations he knew how hunger can lead to the stealing of food and how unreasonable high the punishment for that offence can be. Most Christians considered his own fellow-believers as thieves-scum, and they did not have an eye for the dreadful misery in which most of them were obliged to live. Later he made a study about criminality amongst Jews in the archives of the court, this so as to refute the so-called criminal character. It appears that most were only guilty of petty thievery, but murder and manslaughter amongst them hardly occurred.
On May 4th, 1808 King Louis Napoleon- who was appointed by his brother, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as king of the Netherlands, founded the Royal Institute of Science, Literature and Fine Arts, and he appointed Jonas Daniel as one of its eleven members of the second rank, the division which was engaged in the national language and literature. Additionally, he was appointed as director of the Royal Newspaper. When on September 12, 1808 Louis Napoleon followed in the footsteps of his brother and brought to life the Main Council in the Netherlands, Jonas Daniel became president of this institute, which regulated all the affairs concerning the Jewish community; organizing social care, stopping the begging, arousing military service, developing industry and above all improving the education. In that period a Jewish catechism in Dutch was formed, known by the name ‘ Gronden des Geloofs' (Grounds to Faith) 9). Until 1815 he worked, together with Charles Asser and others from this institute, for the well-being of his fellow-believers, who generally hated the Main Council, because of the coercion it executed on them.
In thankfulness Jonas Daniel dedicated to the King the tribute with which he won the first prize and the membership of the Academy of Gard in Nimes, called, ‘The fixation of the basics of interest, the accidental causes of its changes and its relation to the moral',
which the king intended to be a gesture for him personally, but Jonas Daniel transformed
into a representation of all his fellow-citizens and –believers.
On July 25, 1809 he married Jeanette Ephraim Dresden (Amsterdam 10-3-1790 – Amsterdam 30-5-1863). At the time of the ceremony, only one of the four parents was still alive, Ester Zadok Philips ,the mother of Jeanette
The author remarks:
I found the gravestone of Jeanette at the Jewish cemetery Muiderberg in the row of the meritorious ones of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, right behind the old Rabbi-row. After intensive research in Jewish newspapers I did not find anything more but a small announcement about her passing away.
From the marriage were born in Amsterdam: Maria Anna (11-12-1811 – 7-12-1876), David Frederic Ernst(16-3-1817 – 4-5-1842), and Joanna Ernestina (4-6-1818 – 14-2-1886). The Meijer-family went to live at the Cloveniersburgwal no. 34, now no. 77.
The daughters remained unmarried, after their mother’s death they converted to the Lutheran faith and they lived together at the Binnen Amstel 270.
Annexation by France
The annexation of the Netherlands by France meant a revision of the judiciary. When on January 24, 1811 the Court of Justice was founded in Amsterdam, Jonas Daniel was one of the sixteen judges. He became the right hand of the President of the Court, Scholten van Oud-Haarlem and he safeguarded this institution from much commotion and disturbances.
In 1813 he published ‘Principes sur les questions transitoire’ – (Principles about passing questions), reviewing the relationship with all existing legislation and especially with the instructions of Napoleon’s code of law. “Even if he had not accomplished anything more but this one work, then on ground of that alone he should have earned a first place among the jurists of his time”, thus one of his biographers, P.Simons. On 9 May 1811 he became secretary of the general council of the ‘Zuiderzee’, and editor of the Political Daily of the Department of the Zuiderzee, which included Amsterdam as well. This daily was published in Dutch and in French and although Jonas Daniel did not interfere with the editing, and he wrote “mixed material” which was easily read, it provided him some enemies. After his death his fellow lawyer and - believer Levysson would say about this:10)
Meijer was too great in the eyes of some people; he shone as a star, while he darkened their light. He excelled in brightness, industriousness and care for the affairs appointed to him. He sometimes created from the most important juridical questions a point of purposeful consideration, of which he informed the public….
Ready to give help, advocate to all that was good and noble, and adviser to all who needed it. Everyone who wanted his assistance was welcome. He counted himself as a human being and regarded himself as obliged to serve all who was called a human.
Beyond the country’s boundaries many Scholarly Societies allotted him membership, like the Royal Academy of Brussels, the French Institute, the Society of Science in Batavia, the Academies of Science in Göttingen, Turin, London and other Learned and Literary Institutions. “ He was so very much convinced that he had earned so many honors, that he did not conceal them out of humble pride, but he mentioned them on the main pages of his works”, as was written by one of his biographers. 11)
Despite his extensive fame, he helped his fellow-believers wherever he could, so in spite of his work at the High Council, which they hated so much, he is mentioned at his death as support of the widows and father of the orphans.
A clear example was his help concerning the rescue of the orphans of the Dutch Jewish boys-orphanage, Megadleh Yetoumim from military service. On June 29, 1808 a public announcement appeared in the name of Napoleon Bonaparte:
In various places boys from “homes of God” and other institutions of welfare will be instructed for military service.
The royal pupils will be divided into four classes: The first class till 3 years; the second class from 3-7 years; the third class from 7-14 years and the fourth class above 14 years.
Already on November 4, 1811 6000 boys above the age of 15 years were about to be conscripted. The governors of Megadleh Yetoumim are confronted with this as well and after meetings of hourly length, they thought of ‘adon lechower rabbi Youneh ben lechower rabbi David Rintel, hamegouneh lawyer Jonas Daniel Meijer (Mister and friend rabbi Yonah son of friend rabbi David Rintel, named Mister Jonas Daniel Meijer), may his name be mentioned in favor’.
He succeeded in promoting the orphans to be theological students and in addition he provided them with a mother who needed to support them from their 15th age. Seven of the eight orphans came up to the expectations set by him and the eighth one would have been fit for military service, if he had not been so ill.
In gratefulness he and his wife were made members of honor of the orphanage, a gesture of appreciation that he, having had so many honors, was very thankful of. This could be concluded from the cheque-book of the orphanage, which was found in a forgotten corner in the archive of the Jewish community in The Hague.
King William I
On November 30, 1813 William Frederic, son of William V and Wilhelmina of Prussia lands in Scheveningen, after the French left. At that time he does not have actual power as yet. Therefore Jonas Daniel and 22 others formed the Municipal Transitional Council to prevent chaotic disorder; for the members themselves this was not devoid of mortal danger. A year later he was summoned by William Frederic, who by then had been crowned as King William I, to vote for the constitution of the United Netherlands, including Belgium as a part of it.
To revise the constitution entirely, a commission was called into being in 1815, consisting of 12 northern protestant representatives and 12 southern catholic ones. Although it led to a lot of protest, Jonas Daniel was appointed as neutral secretary. The king showed him his gratitude by honoring him, being one of the first, with the nomination as Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion. This happened after a conflict with the Secretary of State for Internal Affairs, Roell in 1814, about the appointment of Jonas Daniel as honorable of the ‘Dutch Jewish community of Amsterdam’, an affair, which almost compelled him to leave the country forever. He did not accept that honor, and for that he, who had offered his services to “foreign domination”, as Roell wrote him on the first of September of that year, he was blamed very much. He then replies in return how much unpleasantness he had endured regarding his activities for the religious community and in his letter to King William I he expresses his loyalty for the House of Orange by memorizing the services of his grandfather (Benjamin Cohen) and his father for the House of Orange and his own dedication in 1813 12).
In the end Jonas Daniel did carry out this function for a short while, until 1818. But as a lawyer in state-civilian affairs his glamour was gone, although he was mentioned by his colleges as a good patriot and an excellent lawyer. He was not chosen to take part in the creation of a new code of law and neither was he appointed registrar for the parliament of the States General, a position he had very much wanted, nor for the function of States-Council in special service. Were his French disposition and his being Jewish debit to all this ?
Withdrawal from public functions
In 1817 he withdrew from public functions and he got an honorable dismissal. That summer he stayed with his family in Cleve, where he wrote his recommendation to the government under the title “About the necessity of a provisional High Council in the Monarchy of the Netherlands’, which contrary to his other advices, was not accepted.13).
Back in Holland he returned to law-practice again, while now his largest and most important work was created ‘Esprit, origine et progress des institutions judiciares’ – (Spirit, origin and progress of judicial institutions) (1819-1823). This work describes the history of the judicial institutions of England, France, the Netherlands and Germany. It throws a new light on history, politics and legislation.
Of his Jewish-historical consciousness the “Reuchlin-affair” is evidence. When this family called upon him for his help to be promoted to the nobility, he did not want any financial reward, because “I settle a debt with my work for your family, as your fore-fathers succeeded in the end of the 15th century to prevent Jewish-theological documents from being burned”.
In May 1820 he was called to defend the claim ex-king Louis Napoleon imagined he could raise against the House of Orange regarding the ‘pavilion in Haarlem’.
The plea is a masterpiece of matched frankness, gratitude for favors received from and trust in the ex-king and love for the present monarch of Orange. He had thirty copies of this plea printed. The lawsuit was counted in those days as one of the most magnificent presentations in court, as if the days of Hortensius and Cicero had returned14).
In these years many sensational publications for the Academy of Science saw light, which his brother Abraham David had collected under the title: ‘Essays in learned societies’. They exist of literature, archeology, linguistics and history. As Jonas Daniel, besides being a lawyer, was a gifted author as well and as a member of the Royal Academy of Science, second-class, he was devoted to Dutch literature and linguistics and to the national History. Therefore King William asked him to take a seat as secretary in the commission of men of science, who had the task to compile an outline, which could serve as a base for the description of the country’s national history. To the man who had been pushed aside in such an undeserved way at the start of the monarchy of the Netherlands, this was an honor overdue, because only the most capable men in the field of literature were proposed for this.
But from 1827 his state of health was about to take its toll . He started suffering from a leg problem, just like his great-grandfather Jonas Cohen, who was so bed-ridden, that the Jewish community, gathered at his house to make minyan, at Sukkoth 1765. Much worse were the nervous disorders he started suffering from and which undermined his health even more and more. However, to his continuous attachment to his fellow-believers, bore witness the act on his deathbed, when he returned the invitation to attend the 50 year’s anniversary of the Society for General Benefit with the words “I am Jewish” 15).
In the past, he had risked his job as secretary of the commission for the revision of the Constitution by pointing out in writing that “the Society should serve general benefit, but it excludes me and my fellow-believers. No organization can afford to exclude 60.000 others and fellow-citizens, just because they have the Jewish faith. I would be pleased to have this changed”. Despite his big influence on the then Dutch society, nothing was done and quite a lot of protest was needed from Jewish quarters, before Jews were accepted as members.
On October 29, 1834 the king of France promoted him as knight of the Legion of Honor, but he would never wear the decorations belonging to this.
His study ‘the history of the novel and the romantic side of history’ he could not finish, nor the legal advice with which he was busy, because the death angel came to call him on December 6.
Son David followed in the footsteps of his famous father and studied law, but before he could finish these studies, he also died (1842) and the task to publish the works of Jonas Daniel fell upon Abraham David Meijer, with whom he had worked together closely for 35 years.
In 1842 “Consultations and The doctrines about judicial power” was published; in 1844 and 1846 above-mentioned ‘Essays’ followed.
Abraham David who earned a degree as Doctor in Law in Leiden on August 11, 1808, and who, besides assisting his brother, was very much occupied with lottery-affairs. He died unmarried (1864).
Beautiful is the text that palters with the Hebrew word for light (he’ir = me’ir) and in which Jonas Daniel Meijer is memorized:
Then G’d said: There will be light (=or) in the darkness and he called to Meir:
It is sure that you will shine your light (leha’ir) over the earth.
Additional note by the author:
She tried in vain to have a street or square named in Arnhem in honor of this famous Jewish Dutchman, as did amateur historians before her. In this she did not succeed. Finally the chairman of the Foundation for the Arnhem Synagogue succeeded in realizing some kind of remembrance of his name. A small shield with his name, almost not readable, was attached at the walls of the central big Eusebius church, in the vicinity of the synagogue, that was built on the spot of the house of the family, as told in the article.
She summarized her disappointing experience with the Arnhem dignitaries in a short poem, called Geen eer voor Arnhemse Jonas Daniel Meijer (no honor for Arnhem’s Jonas Daniel Meijer) which we add in the original Dutch (so as not to do injustice to it linguistically, it has not been translated):
Diep in het hart van de stad aan de Rijn
werd in voorbije eeuwen
een kind geboren
Het groeide op temidden van tumult
Men zeulde lijken door de straten
terwijl hij franse thema's leerde
en glasgerinkel begeleidde z'n latijn
De plek waarom men vocht
was eerst een kerkhof
toen een plein
voor z'n geboortehuis
Aan vluchten viel toen niet te denken
want alle poorten werden zwaar bewaakt
Met felle blik gewapend
over de wallen op en neer
verschoot haar kruid in nauwe stegen
Men dempte de grachten
men slechtte de wallen
en brak de poorten
tot de grond toe af
Tot ver over de rivier
waaierde de stad uit
in duizend pleinen en straten
Niet één ervan draagt zijn naam
For references to books and literature in Dutch, see the Dutch version of this article.
(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
For the Dutch version of this article see the website of the Netherlands Society for Jewish Genealogy":
Other works of and about J.D.Meijer, see Dutch version of this article:
Other used literature, see Dutch version of this article:
Original article in Dutch by:Nechamah Mayer-Hirsch
Translated and slightly revised:Yael Benlev, Trudi Asscher,Ben Noach
Jonas Daniel Meijer
Jonas Daniel Meijer
Jonas Daniel Meijer Square at Amsterdam