Abraham Lincoln and the Jews don’t exactly go together in the popular imagination like bagels and lox. While Lincoln has been championed as a Moses leading African Americans out of slavery, the 16th president’s ties to the Tribe have not been well examined or even clearly acknowledged.
The fact that some aspect of Lincoln’s life has gone unstudied is striking. Lincoln is the closest we have to a U.S.-sanctioned saint in a country with a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. It’s safe to say that no other politician has won American adoration or scholarship the way Lincoln has.
One would think, therefore, it is impossible to uncover an unexplored aspect of Lincoln’s life as we approach the morose anniversary of his April 15, 1865, assassination. But Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell have proved that’s not the case with their new book, Lincoln and the Jews: A History.
I must admit, I approached the book and its accompanying exhibit, Lincoln and the Jews, at the New York Historical Society with a heavy dose of skepticism. Was Lincoln’s relationship with Jews substantial enough to merit such an examination, or would it feel contrived so close to such an important date?
Jews were certainly a presence in Lincoln’s America. More than 70 years before Lincoln took office, President George Washington formally addressed Jewish Americans in his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport in 1790. But it’s hard to imagine a man born in frontier Kentucky and brought up in Lincoln’s circumstances would have many exchanges with the Jews of early and mid-19th-century America.
I was completely wrong, not only in my perception of Lincoln but also in my understanding of the Jewish community in his day. Through examining Lincoln’s surprising number of interactions with Jewish politicians, soldiers, doctors, and neighbors, Sarna and Shapell uncover a robust history that is as much about the development of America’s Jewish community as it is about the beloved president.
Lincoln and the Jews is meticulous in its research and scope. Sarna is one, if not the most, preeminent scholars on American Jewish history (he serves as the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University), and Shapell established the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, which has worked with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Museum, and many other historic institutions.
What makes it such a delight to flip through the pages of Lincoln and the Jews is the plethora of beautiful and remarkably clear manuscripts, photographs, portraits, and letters. A section on Jewish soldiers includes photographs of a number of the “Israelite” men who served the Union Army. There’s also an image of the Confederate $2 bill with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, marking it as the first piece of American currency with a Jew on it.
Also on display at the New York Historical Society are letters revealing Lincoln’s consideration for Jewish Americans at a time when the U.S. was, to put it mildly, deeply anti-Semitic. Sarna and Shapell go to great lengths to dissect Lincoln’s political and personal exchanges with the Jewish community, of which there was a surprisingly large amount for a man from Kentucky who likely did not meet a single Jew until he was an adult.
The story of Lincoln’s attitude starts at the very beginning, with his upbringing in a Calvinist family. Although Lincoln never formally joined a church, the Baptist Calvinist one his parents belonged to was one of the few Christian organizations of its day that did not actively encourage the conversion of Jews.
This religious background may have formed the foundation for Lincoln’s unusual lack of anti-Semitism, which was reflected in his career as president. Lincoln was highly open to the military’s appointment of Jewish officers, including Alfred Mordecai Jr. (who eventually retired as a general) and Capt. Ephraim M. Joel.
A letter on Executive Mansion stationery by Lincoln recommends that C.M. Levy be made assistant quartermaster because he had “not yet appointed a Hebrew.” The Nov. 4, 1862, document indicates that Lincoln was not only remarkably unprejudiced against Jews for a man of his day, but actually cared enough about them to desire their representation in the military.
Lincoln was also likely influenced by his close relationships with individual Jews during his adult life, including his time in the White House. Arguably, the most significant Jew in Lincoln’s life—and maybe one of the most significant people in life overall—was Abraham Jonas. The two Abe’s served together in the Illinois state legislature, and Jonas worked tirelessly behind the scenes of Lincoln’s presidential campaign. In a Feb. 4, 1860 letter to Jonas, Lincoln refers to him “as one of my most valued friends,” an endearment which, Sarna and Shapell note, Lincoln never appears to repeat in his other known correspondences.
Issachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s podiatrist (known as a “chiropodist” in the 19th century), did more than care for Honest Abe’s feet. His section in the New York Historical Society exhibit earned the (inadvertently) humorous title “Issachar Zacharie: Foot Doctor, Emissary, and Political Operative,” which was also completely accurate. Zacharie was popular among the political and military elite. His client list included John C. Calhoun, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, and William Seward, among others. Zacharie, who had connections to the Jewish community in New Orleans, was dispatched by Lincoln to the city to collect information on enemy troops while also under instruction to “mingle freely with its people of all classes, especially your countrymen; to ascertain and report as far as possible that nature of its opinions,” according to a Jan. 1, 1863 letter from Gen. Nathaniel Banks.
According to Sarna and Shapell, Lincoln’s decision to send Zacharie to New Orleans was a concerted effort to mend fences with the Jewish community after his own Union generals had gone out of their way to alienate the roughly 2,000 Jewish residents that inhabited the city. Gen. Banks, the man Lincoln wrote to about Zacharie, had succeeded General Benjamin F. Butler as what was then called the commander of the Department of the Gulf. Butler was openly anti-Semitic and regularly jailed and insulted Jews.
Butler was hardly Lincoln’s sole anti-Semitic general during the Civil War. In December 1862, future President Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which explicitly expelled Jews “as a class” from territory under his command. The “Jew order,” as Grant later referred to it, wreaked havoc in certain regions, such as in Paducah, Kentucky, where “Women and children were expelled to, and in the confusion… one baby was almost forgotten, and two dying women had to be left behind in the care of neighbors,” write Sarna and Shapell.
In certain parts of the South, Jews actually held significant political esteem and power, so Jewish hearts and minds were not necessarily an easy win for the Union. In Louisiana alone, Judah P. Benjamin–who, as previously mentioned, became the Confederates’ secretary of state–was a senator. The state’s lieutenant governor and speaker of the state legislature were also Jews. Lincoln’s efforts to reach out to Jews in New Orleans was not–or not only–a reflection of his concern for Jews; it was also strategic.
Of all the details in Lincoln and the Jews, what may surprise modern readers the most is how many Jewish leaders supported slavery. Although American Jews today are considered one of the most socially progressive demographics in America and were extremely active in the civil-rights movement, the mid-19th century Jewish community was split on abolitionism. The book includes a number of excerpts from rabbis and prominent Jewish figures who did not support the abolitionist movement. Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun was a “celebrity rabbi” of his day, according to Sarna and Shapell, and he very much opposed Lincoln’s 1860 election to the presidency and the antislavery movement. “How dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin?” he asked in a sermon chastising anti-slavery advocate Henry Ward Beecher.
However, abolitionists had their own virulent strain of anti-Semitism. Rev. Theodore Parker, who was very active in the antislavery movement, effectively promoted the blood libel, saying Jews “did sometimes kill a Christian baby at the Passover or anniversary of Haman’s famous day.” Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced a Jewish opponent as “a lineal descendant of the monsters who nailed Jesus to the cross.”
To the credit of Saran and Shapell, their book and analysis complicates any black-and-white understanding of American Jewish history or the community’s connection to Lincoln..
Yet, when news of Lincoln’s assassination spread on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, many synagogues rushed to mourn the fallen president. It was noted in a Jewish publication at the time that at Shearith Israel synagogue in New York, congregants offered up the Sephardic Jewish prayer for the dead, marking “the first time in the history of Judaism in America that these prayers have been said in a Jewish house of worship for other than professing the Jewish faith. “Lincoln was one of the most controversial politicians of his day, and the split in the Jewish community reflected this. How Lincoln felt about the Jews in turn, is just another reminder of the singularity of this icon.