Lincoln and the Jews: A History

  • By Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell
  • Thomas Dunne Books
  • 272 pp.

A well-researched, heartening look at the president's embrace of an oft-maligned people.

The Great Emancipator was a Philo-Semite.

This is the most striking takeaway from Lincoln and the Jews, a remarkable book that combines accessible scholarship with illustrated primary documents to both show and tell the little-known story of the 16th president’s relationship with fellow countrymen of the Jewish faith.

Authors Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of Jewish-American history at Brandeis University, and Benjamin Shapell, whose private collection of letters, photographs, ephemera, and other documents dramatically enhances the volume, have combined to create what is surely the most complete chronicle of Lincoln’s high regard and defense of this historically much-maligned minority.

A two-page diagram of concentric circles shows the extent of Lincoln’s “Jewish connections.” They were as varied as Abraham Jonas, a close friend and political ally from Illinois, and Issachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s podiatrist and secret emissary to Louisiana who sought to lobby for the state’s return to the Union fold.

They included Lincoln’s optician, the printer of his executive stationery, and a photographer who twice took his portrait. Lincoln appointed Jewish postmasters, diplomats, civil servants, military officers, and, during the Civil War, the first Jewish chaplains.

Perhaps the president’s best-known act on behalf of justice for Jews was his swift repeal of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11, which barred Jews “as a class” from the military district under his command. The decree arose from allegations that some merchants were trading with the Confederates in Tennessee.

Meeting with a Jewish delegation in Washington after he’d revoked the order, Lincoln reportedly 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.”

“More than any previous president,” writes Sarna of Lincoln, “he befriended Jews, defended Jews, and promoted Jewish equality.”

This, despite the fact that Jews were political opponents as well as supporters, on both sides of the slavery question and, indeed, on both sides of the battle lines that divided the Blue and the Gray in deadly conflict.

On one occasion, Lincoln acceded to the plea of an accused rebel blockade runner to be released from prison. The captive Confederate, J.G. Cohen, was a nephew of Zacharie, Lincoln’s associate. On March 16, 1864, Lincoln instructed the secretary of the Navy, “Let this man take the oath [of loyalty to the Union] of Dec. 8 and be discharged.”

On another occasion, Lincoln allowed Charles Jonas, a Confederate officer and prisoner-of-war who was the son of his old friend Abe Jonas, to be paroled for three weeks “to visit his dying father.”

One especially poignant intervention occurred in the case of a Jewish soldier who had been sentenced to death for desertion, a growing problem in Union ranks. The young man’s mother was dying, and Lincoln was asked to allow him to see her one last time. Lincoln granted the request. The soldier returned to his unit and, according to Simon Wolf, a prominent Jewish Washington attorney who had pleaded his case, died heroically at the Battle of Cold Harbor.

These actions and associations occurred at a time when not only Grant but other Union generals — and even some prominent abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison — were unabashedly anti-Semitic. “I myself have a regard for the Jews,” Lincoln remarked to Henry Wentworth Monk, a self-proclaimed prophet of peace who visited the White House.

It may have been Lincoln’s inclusive nature to refer, in his brief but immortal Gettysburg Address, Sarna writes, to “this nation, under God,” a decidedly non-sectarian phrase. By contrast, Edward Everett, the featured orator at the battleground, invoked Christ five times in his two-hour speech.

But this hefty, illustrated book transcends the relationship between Lincoln and Jews to paint a portrait of a president at once reviled and beloved who, as enunciated by him in his second inaugural address, wished “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

The picture drawn by Sarna and bolstered by documents underscores the human qualities that made Lincoln both an extraordinary leader and an exceptional human being. Not to detract from Washington, the two Roosevelts, or other lauded presidents, but Lincoln was so humble, so principled, so compassionate, so lacking in guile, and so dedicated to justice for all that one wonders when, if ever, we will again see the likes of him assuming the highest office in the land.

After reading this book, I am tempted to declare: I am a Lincoln Republican.

Schooled in the Old Testament, Lincoln was given to quoting from it in his formal speeches and on other occasions.

On a carriage ride with his wife the morning before he was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre, Mary Todd Lincoln later recalled that Lincoln expressed a desire in retirement to travel to the Holy Land. Tragically, he never got his wish. But, fittingly, perhaps, in central Jerusalem, there is Lincoln Street, a crooked road named for the martyred American president.

Also fitting is that the engraver who designed the Lincoln penny on the 1909 centennial of his birth was Victor David Brenner, an Eastern-European Jewish immigrant.

Eugene L. Meyer is editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine and a member of the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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