Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Jewish Businessman and Idaho Governor Moses Alexander [otd 11/13]

Moses Alexander.
Illustrated History
Idaho Governor Moses Alexander was born on November 13, 1853 in Obrigheim, Germany. In 1867, he emigrated to the U. S., where he lived with a sister in New York for a few months.

Moses then moved on to work with a cousin in Chillicothe, Missouri. He proved to have a talent for retail merchandizing, which he put to good use … advancing from clerk to partner at the age of twenty.

In 1891, Alexander moved to Idaho and opened a men’s clothing store in downtown Boise City. His operation prospered and, over the years that followed, Moses established a chain of stores across southern Idaho and in Oregon.

Within a few years he was a recognized leader in the community, having promoted and brought to completion the construction of the first Jewish synagogue in Boise. A rabbi from Salt Lake City officiated at the opening, and the Idaho Statesman reported (August 31, 1896) on “the very impressive ceremony of dedication of the temple Beth Israel.” Fittingly, they also held a bar Mitzvah ceremony for Moses’ son Nathan.

Despite his extensive business operations, Moses took time for public service. In Chillicothe, he had served on the City Council and twice as Mayor. He continued that interest in Boise. He was elected Mayor in 1897, chose to skip a term, and was elected again in 1901. Alexander was an active Mayor. The switch from a volunteer to professional fire department [blog, Jan 28] was made “on his watch,” and he led other civic improvements.

He ran for Idaho governor in 1908 but the nomination process was hotly contested and highly divisive for Idaho Democrats. The Republican nominee won. Health problems that dogged him later in life led him to decline a nomination for the next election.

He felt ready to go in 1914, easily won the Democratic Party nomination, and then out-polled an opponent plagued by scandal in the Republican Party. Moses thus became the first governor of any U. S. state who was also a practicing Jew*. He was reelected in 1916.

A strong temperance supporter, Alexander helped push through a state-level Prohibition law even before the entire country went officially “dry.” Idaho quickly experienced a clear foretaste of the unintended, bad consequences of Prohibition [blog, Oct 28], yet the governor never wavered in his position.

World War I (the “Great War”) provided the other favored cause during Alexander’s time as Governor. Despite – or perhaps because of – his German birth, Moses fervently supported the American war effort. Long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, anti-semitism was a powerful political force in Germany. No one has found evidence that this influenced Alexander’s attitude, but it can’t be ruled out.
Alexander’s Boise store, ca. 1925. Library of Congress.

Hampered by health issues, Alexander failed in another run for Governor in 1922. He died in January 1932.

Considerable archival material about Alexander’s career and family background is cataloged in The Moses Alexander Collection at the Idaho State Historical Society.

* Records show that Washington M. Barlett, whose mother was Jewish, served as Governor of California for nine months before his death in September 1887. Bartlett was not active in any religion while in California, and his funeral service was held at the Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco (San Francisco Bulletin, San Francisco, California, September 13, 1887).
References: [Brit], [Illust-State], [Hawley]
"Washington Bartlett," The Governors' Gallery, The California State Library.
Dylan J. McDonald (Ed.), The Moses Alexander Collection, Idaho State Historical Society (2002).

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