George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

Why these iconic US statesmen are praised with great zeal by Jews in America and beyond.

‘WASHINGTON at Valley Forge’ (c. 1911) by Edward P. Moran (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WASHINGTON at Valley Forge’ (c. 1911) by Edward P. Moran
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
President’s Day in the US, on February 19 this year, honors the first and 16th presidents. Both have birthdays this month and both contributed significantly to the status of Jews in America.
Washington’s new world: Jews are equals When the US Constitution was ratified in 1788, a large parade was held in Philadelphia. Americans of all faiths were present. Curiously, there was a table offering kosher food for the Jewish participants.
Based on this, we can assume that Haym Solomon, a Polish- born American Jewish businessman and political financial broker, and other leading Jews took part in the parade and completed that day at a table with the delights of kosher food.
When Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University was in Jerusalem during his sabbatical this past year, he gave a lecture describing how he and others worked diligently to bring to light a letter penned by George Washington and sent to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.
Sarna quoted a part of the letter in which America’s first president offered his own guarantee that the government “gives to bigotry no sanction” and “to persecution no assistance.”
The US, Sarna added, was the first country to grant Jews full rights of citizenship.
In his acclaimed book American Judaism, Sarna writes, “The place of Judaism in the new nation was defined in the Washington- Newport correspondence.” He continues, “Redolent with biblical and liturgical language, the address noted past discrimination against Jews, praised the new government for ‘generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship’ and thanked God ‘for all of the blessings of civil and religious liberty’ that Jews now enjoyed under the American Constitution.”
Religious liberty was a major concern at that time and the letter assured that it would be granted. Sarna emphasizes that by “echoing the language of the prophet Micah,” Washington hinted that “America might itself prove something of a Promised Land for Jews, a place where they would merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Lincoln: Yes to Jewish chaplains...
Several years ago Sarna’s Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, which he wrote with Ben Shapell, revealed several eye-opening historical facts. No one had ever realized how many ties there were between the 16th president of the US, Abraham Lincoln, and the Jewish community. The book, replete with wonderful reproductions of Lincoln’s letters to Jews, has just been translated into Hebrew.
During my years in Delaware, I was excited to see Lincoln’s original signature in the Delaware Historical Archives. Also found there were original signatures of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay on a document authorizing a military appointment for a Jew in Delaware.
The document in question included Lincoln’s signature for the commission of Henry B. Nones to be an officer in Delaware’s “Cutter Force,” which later become the Coast Guard. In the state’s historical archives, I found Nones’s picture. He looks very distinguished, in full uniform. I also located his grave in the city’s main cemetery. Nones’s grandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran who had nine children. He was awarded a special silver cup for helping break away from England.
The cup is now on display at the University of Pennsylvania in the collection of Dee and Arnold Kaplan.
Since we did not celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in Georgia, where I lived when I was younger (none of the southern states did), our historical studies of the Civil War period were somewhat shortened. We did not spend too much time on a conflagration that engulfed the South and led to its utter defeat. My curiosity about this iconic figure led me to encyclopedias and other historical works. I knew nothing about connections between Jews and Lincoln.
When I entered the US army in 1965 as a Jewish chaplain, I was unaware of what Lincoln had done to ensure that there would be a Jewish chaplaincy. As we all know, politicians love to add their own provisions to large bills that are about to be passed. In 1861, a bill on some other matter contained a law that forbade Jews and Catholics from being chaplains in the Yankee army. Surprisingly, the Confederacy was more favorable toward Jews and gave approval since the beginning of the Civil War for “rebel” rabbis to be chaplains in its armies. However, the “Union” law banning Jewish chaplains was worrisome to Northern Jews.
What did they do? They began to organize, approaching large donors in the Republican Party. In New York alone, there were a number of wealthy Jewish supporters of Lincoln. The national organization of Jews, the Jewish Board of Deputies, had a letter composed and signed by the right person. Since Reverend Arnold Fischel had been turned down after he applied to be a chaplain, he was sent with the letter to see Lincoln in person. For about a month and a half he sat in the White House just outside Lincoln’s office. Finally, when allowed to see the president and tell him what the problem was, Fischel quickly learned that Lincoln was completely in the dark about the discriminatory law.
Lincoln immediately went to work with the Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Once it was realized that the president wanted the original chaplain bill overturned, his party members in Congress moved quickly and passed a new bill allowing Jews and Catholics to be chaplains. Lincoln signed that bill into law.
Jewish chaplains who serve and have served since 1862 in the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines have “Old Abe” to thank.
...and no to Judenrein territories Another key moment in American Jewish history involves US General Ulysses S. Grant. In December 1862, Grant issued an order for the Union army expelling the Jews from certain territories with which he dealt. Allegedly, Jews there were buying and selling in a criminal fashion and so Grant decided to crack down on them.
American Jews were loath to take this act expelling their brothers and sisters without a fight. One of the few national organizations in the US at the time was B’nai B’rith. While Jews from the Union States overwhelmed Lincoln’s office with letters of protest, one individual is well noted in American-Jewish history for his personal actions in this trying period.
Of the tense situation, Sarna writes: “Cesar Kaskel, of Paducah, Kentucky, who was one of the Jews expelled, rushed to Washington.” He contacted Congressman John A. Gurley of Cincinnati, Ohio, and together they went to Lincoln’s office in the White House. Sarna relates, “It turned out that the president knew nothing of the order, which he had never seen.”
Sarna then describes the president’s response.
“According to a revealing but unverifiable later tradition, Lincoln resorted to biblical imagery in his interview with Kaskel, a reminder of how many 19th-century Americans linked Jews to ancient Israel and America to the promised land.”
Lincoln reportedly asked Kaskel: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan? Kaskel responded, “Yes and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.” Lincoln said, “And this protection they shall have at once.”
This is a beautiful legendary story demonstrating Lincoln’s concern for the Jews of America. He rescinded Grant’s order via General Halleck, the overall commander of the army of the area where Grant served.
The resolution came swiftly. Halleck’s telegram to Grant dated January 4, 1863, read: “If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.”
Of the expulsion case, Lincoln is also reported to have said: “To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
These are some of the reasons that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who are honored on Presidents’ Day are praised with great zeal by Jewry in America and throughout the world.
A personal connection to two visionary leaders
Most Americans learn about George Washington at a very early age. As the famous story goes, Washington, confronted about a cherry tree that he chopped down, famously proclaimed, “I cannot tell a lie – I cut down the cherry tree.”
How poignant and instructive this admission is for children, who always seem to vacillate when confronted with wrongdoing.
“George Washington cut down the cherry tree.” Looking at that meaningful statement throughout the years, I felt it was based in biblical thought: One does not bear false witness, fabricate the truth.
While living in Wilmington, Delaware, before I made aliya, I was fortunate to have met a direct descendant of Phillip Moses Russell, the only Jew known to have been with Washington at Valley Forge, the military camp about 32 kilometers northwest of Philadelphia where Washington and his men in the American Continental Army spent the horrendously cold winter of 1777–8 during the American Revolutionary War.
Russell’s presence is documented in the records of the Colonial military forces at the Library of Congress. As a medic, he was surely busy during that terrible winter.
My role in all of this had another aspect to it. At the home of Russell’s direct descendant, I saw a miniature oval painting of Russell that she owned and proudly displayed. Done in color, he is wearing a uniform and has a crooked finger (from the Revolutionary War records, we know he was wounded). Most importantly, the painting features an American flag with the date under it – 1789.
Given its potential value, one needs to have it authenticated. A place where this can be done is called Winterthur, a famed home and museum in Delaware.
It contains 150 rooms where one can view original colonial furniture and art. The archives, located on the ground floor, feature electronic microscopes which are used for dating purposes.
When I brought the painting to Winterthur for more information, the curator said, “I cannot tell you that it was painted in 1789, but it was done in the final years of the 18th century.”
Not completely satisfied, I went to an authority on American oval miniatures who lived in Philadelphia. She kept it for several weeks, then called me to pick it up.
“I do not know who the artist was,” she said to me. “However, this oval miniature is from the end of the 18th century – beginning of 19th century.” It was first seen in public in 1976 at the bicentennial exhibit of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware. Thus, in Wilmington’s oldest building which dates back to the 18th century, Washington’s medic made his first appearance. Since then, the oval miniature of Russell has been featured in many historic exhibits. Yet it still remains in the hands of the descendant of the Valley Forge medic.
For me the only known document connecting Martha Washington, the president’s wife, with a Jew, was simple and to the point. On June 7 1790, Solomon Levy of New York wrote a receipt for “Lady Washington” indicating she had paid him “three pounds full” for 20 pounds of cotton.
I was fortunate enough to have my own link to Lincoln. When I was a Boy Scout in Atlanta, Georgia, our scoutmaster, Josiah V. Benator, decided to have an oratorical contest to see who could (from memory) recite the “Gettysburg Address.” I had a pretty good memory and won the contest. The prize was a two-week scholarship to our local Boy Scout camp. I think of it as a gift from Lincoln.