Spotlight on President Lincoln’s Jewish Ties

August 7, 2015

4 min read

By: Jennifer Brody

At a time when America’s heroes are dwindling, filmmakers and historians are among those turning to Abraham Lincoln for inspiration.

Our 16th president inspired “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film examining how his political acumen helped him get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” imagines “The Great Emancipator” as a slayer of slaveholding Southern vampires.

But Lincoln’s relationship with Jews, a lesser-known story, is the inspiration for a groundbreaking exhibit, “With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews,” that opens Monday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. Based on the book “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, the exhibit opened at the New York Historical Society earlier this year.

“This is not the stories you’ve heard about Lincoln from textbooks. It opens up a whole new world of another aspect of Lincoln’s life,” said Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation.

Considering that Lincoln grew up at a time of anti-Semitism, many people may be surprised to learn that he was deeply committed to religious pluralism and had more Jewish friends and acquaintances than any president before him. In 1809, the year of Lincoln’s birth, barely 3,000 Jews lived in America. By 1865, the year of Lincoln’s assassination, that number had increased to 150,000.

The exhibit includes a series of letters between Lincoln and Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer from Quincy, Ill., who was instrumental in Lincoln’s political rise. In a friendship that spanned just more than two decades, Jonas was one of the first to support Lincoln’s candidacy for president and urged the Republican Party to woo political outsiders like the “liberal and freethinking Germans” and “Israelites.”

In 1861, Lincoln rewarded Jonas’s contributions with the plum political appointment of Postmaster of Quincy. But perhaps the greatest testament to their friendship was Lincoln’s handwritten order in May 1864 to allow one of Jonas’s sons, Charles, then a Confederate POW, “a parole of three weeks to visit his dying father.”

Lincoln’s fundamental sense of fairness distinguished him throughout his political career. Evidence of this trait appears in many of the documents, photographs, letters, bibles, and other artifacts assembled for the “With Firmness in the Right” exhibit. The items are drawn from a variety of sources, including the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the Chicago Historical Society, Brown University, and the Library of Congress. Some of them are being displayed publicly for the first time.

The exhibit includes a tracing of Lincoln’s own feet and highlights his close relationship with his eccentric foot doctor, the British-born Dr. Issachar Zacharie, who is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery. In 1863, The New York World reported that the doctor “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s confidence more than any other private individual.”

The president even sent Zacharie on peace and intelligence missions to the South during the Civil War. Lincoln had just appointed General Nathaniel P. Banks to replace the anti-Semitic Benjamin F. Butler in the Gulf. With Jewish connections in New Orleans, Zacharie was the ideal choice to help repair relations with the area’s 2,000 Jews. Lincoln urged Banks to make somewhat mysterious use of Zacharie’s skills, saying, “I think he might be of service to you, first in his peculiar profession, and, secondly, as a means of access to his countrymen, who are quite numerous in some of the localities you will probably visit.”

Lincoln made bold decisions that transformed Jews from outsiders to insiders in American society. One significant example is Lincoln’s overturning of Ulysses Grant’s General Orders No. 11 (December 1862) that expelled Jews “as a class” from Union-controlled territory (including parts of southern Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi). Born out of frustration with some Jewish cotton smugglers, Grant’s edict qualified as “the most blatant state-sanctioned act of anti-Semitism in American history,” according to the “Lincoln and the Jews” book.

Daniel Stowell, the Lincoln Presidential Library’s curator for the exhibit, agrees that Lincoln’s countermand of Grant’s order shows how the president stood up to anti-Semitic generals.

“Lincoln gave wide latitude to generals that were succeeding, and Grant was one of them,” Stowell said. “Lincoln would have had no trouble if Grant said, ‘Okay, all peddlers need to leave the area,’ but Lincoln was quoted as saying he did not like condemning a whole group because of a few sinners.”

In September 1862, Lincoln took another bold action, appointing Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia as the U.S. military’s first Jewish chaplain. The document formalizing that appointment is included in the Illinois exhibit. At that time, there were 7,000 Jews in the Union Army.

“Many Jews did feel like second-class citizens, especially in the decades prior to the Civil War, but Lincoln establishes this sense that all sorts of people should be treated as equals. The Emancipation Proclamation was all about that idea,” said Stowell.

Regarding renewed interest in Lincoln—the man and the politician—Sarna speculates that, at a time when many Americans are disaffected by the political process, Lincoln’s mastery of politics is admired.

“There may be a certain nostalgia toward a president who was ‘Honest Abe.’ It’s really extraordinary when you see the extent to which he was able to live his values and accomplish so many things,” said Sarna.

In the days after Lincoln’s assassination, rabbis compared the anti-slavery president to the greatest of biblical heroes from the patriarch Abraham to the prophet Moses. When some of our heroes today have disappointed us, it’s comforting to know we still have Lincoln.

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