Lincoln and the Jews

All you ever wanted to know, and even more, about the US president's relationship with the Jews.

Abraham Lincoln (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Abraham Lincoln
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
According to most surveys Americans revere Abraham Lincoln as one of America’s best presidents: only George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt rival him in the public’s affections. Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell maintain that Jews should share in that admiration and reverence. Having just read their new oversized and lavishly illustrated “Lincoln and the Jews,” I must agree.
An indication of Lincoln’s enduring popularity is the fact that well over 15,000 books have been devoted to America’s 16th president. One or two earlier monographs have dealt with Lincoln’s relationship with American Jews, but none can conceivably match the scholarly rigor and obsessive detail evident in the present volume. (What other study would contain a picture of Lincoln’s $2.50 check for the eyeglasses he ordered from his Jewish optician?)
Sarna is a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and is widely regarded as the leading figure in his field. Shapell maintains the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, a private educational organization that among other holdings contains thousands of Lincoln letters, documents, photographs, and arti - facts. Their book accompanies the traveling museum exhibition of “To See Jerusalem Before I Die – Lincoln and the Jews,” which will begin its tour at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, in August of this year, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, having debuted at the New York Historical Society in March.
Not only was Lincoln a most remarkable individual, he was remarkable for a man of his times and background in his attitude toward Jews. Born into rural poverty and largely self-educated, Lincoln declared himself a Christian, yet never joined any church, not even that of his parents. Lincoln, moreover, was tolerant and respectful of all faiths, and unlike vast numbers of his fellow countrymen, he did not countenance any notion of converting Jews.
Sarna believes that, until he was in his twenties, Lincoln knew no Jews other than the figures he encountered in the Bible, which he read incessantly. It was only when Lincoln settled in Quincy, Illinois, to practice law that he met Abraham Jonas, a fellow lawyer, businessman and a Jew who would have a profound role in Lincoln’s life.
Jonas campaigned for Lincoln during his unsuccessful run for the Senate, and evidently was the first to suggest that Lincoln seek the presidency. The two remained lifelong friends – and President Lincoln ultimately rewarded his trusted adviser and supporter with the lucrative job as postmaster of Quincy. After Jonas’s death Lincoln would do the same for Jonas’s widow – and this despite the fact that Jonas had sons who fought for the Confederacy.
Lincoln also appointed an unprecedented number of Jews to government, consular and military positions, recording many many times his high regard for Jews. Certainly his most notable public pro-Semitic action was his prompt overriding of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious “General Orders No. 11” that sought the expulsion of all Jews in Grant’s theater of operations. (Aimed at merchants suspected of illegally dealing in Confederate cotton, the edict actually resulted in some innocent Jewish families being forcefully removed from their homes.)
On numerous occasions Lincoln also intervened on behalf of Jewish soldiers suffering at the hands of anti-Semitic officers, including the especially nasty Gen. Benjamin Butler. Equally significant, it was Lincoln who, for the first time in American history, saw to it that Jews could serve as military chaplains. And of no small consequence was Lincoln’s opposition to a movement to amend the US Constitution that would “declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion.”
Lincoln did not, however, push for the establishment of an Army Chiropody Corps, this despite his high regard for his Jewish foot doctor. Issachar Zacharie, a man of murky background, most likely had no medical training and was regarded as a quack by Lincoln’s surgeon-general. But, by all accounts, Zacharie successfully treated the corns and bunions not only of Lincoln, but of Secretary of State William Seward, Sens. John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay (feet of clay?), Gens. George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Nathaniel P. Banks, and countless footsore Union troops.
Lincoln trusted and admired Zacharie so much that he sanctioned a spying mission to the Southern states, wherein Zacharie enlisted a number of fellow Jews for intelligence gathering. Zacharie was later instrumental in rounding up “the Jewish vote” for Lincoln’s reelection. Sarna reports that Jews generally looked favorably on Lincoln but were divided on many issues, including slavery. In his first election in 1860, Lincoln failed to win the majority of Jewish votes from New York City, the nation’s largest community of Jews then, as now. Lincoln did somewhat better there four years later.
Sarna also reports that Lincoln told his wife of his desire, after completing his second term in office, to visit Jerusalem. Ironically, Mary Todd Lincoln recalled this wish being expressed by her husband on the last day of his life, just hours before his assassination. That very night, the mortally wounded president would lie dying attended by several doctors, one of whom, Charles Liebermann, was Jewish.
The presence of Dr. Liebermann at the deathbed is only one of the countless fascinating factoids to be discovered in “Lincoln and the Jews.” I was particularly interested to learn that some 7,000 Jews served in the Union army during the Civil War, among them several brigadier generals and cavalry officers. (A few thousand Jews also fought for the Confederacy.) While leading his regiment at Gettysburg, Col. Edward Salamon had two horses shot from under him. One Jew, Sgt. Leopold Karpeles, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. On a less heroic note, Jews were among the many deserters of the Union army: Lincoln reprieved one Jewish deserter but allowed the execution of another.
Other factoids: Alfred Mordecai graduated first in his class at West Point and had a long and distinguished military career; Fort Myers, Florida, is named for Col. Abraham Charles Myers, the Quarter-Master General of the Union army; Edward Rosewater was the Jewish telegraphist who transmitted to the world the official text of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing three million slaves; Jewish leader Isaac Mayer Wise was “repulsed by Lincoln’s primitive manner”; Victor David Brenner, a Jewish engraver, designed the Lincoln penny.
Sarna relates all this in an eminently readable prose, and Shapell is to be commended for sharing so much of his impressive Lincoln collection with the public. Sarna notes that Jerusalemites he questioned had no idea why the Holy City should have a Rehov Lincoln (Link-o-linn in the local parlance) to commemorate the US president. This delightful and enlightening book should open their eyes.