What Lincoln Meant to America’s Jews
by Eileen Lavine
“The history of the Jews in America would have been quite different without Abraham Lincoln,” says Jonathan Sarna, co-author of a new book out this month, Lincoln and the Jews: A History (St. Martin’s Press), highlighting the relationship between American Jews and the sixteenth president. “My focus is not just on Lincoln’s friends—and he had a number of them—but on the role he played in ensuring that Jews would be equal and his importance in shaping the place of Jews in American history.”
In an interview with Moment, Sarna explains that the history of the Jews in America would have been quite different without Lincoln. “A different president might not have changed the chaplaincy to permit Jews to serve. In another instance, Lincoln sided with two Jews against the Secretary of War, treating them as human beings.”
And Lincoln had strong personal ties to Jews—in fact, he called Abraham Jonas, the first Jew he knew well, “one of my most valued friends.”
Sarna is the Joseph H. and Bella R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the author of the 2004 book American Judaism: A History, and 2012’s When Grant Expelled the Jews. His co-author is Benjamin Shapell, founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, which accumulated many of the rare handwritten letters and images documenting Lincoln’s relations with Jews, and that are reproduced in the book.
Complementing the Sarna-Shapell book is the 2014 book, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry: A Documentary History by Gary Phillip Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and a Professor of the American Jewish experience at Hebrew Union College (Southern Illinois Press). Zola’s book is a scholarly discussion of Lincoln in Jewish memory, annotating the hundreds of eulogies and memorials by Jews after Lincoln’s death and in the years since. Zola points to these documents as “the beginning of a process that might best be called the Judaization of Abraham Lincoln,” as Jews took part in “memorializing and exalting Lincoln together with the rest of the American nation.”
“My book is more of a narrative,” Sarna explains, “telling Lincoln’s story through Jewish eyes.” As he describes in the book, from his early days in Illinois through his presidency, he connected with Jews, representing them legally, consulting with them, defending them, using a Jew as a secret agent, attending Jewish-themed plays, and in one striking action, revoking Grant’s ill-conceived expulsion of Jews from territory he controlled.
Lincoln’s contacts with Jews progressed as he grew to know more of them, starting from his early schooling where he learned about Jews from the Bible–which he often quoted–to his relations with Jewish lawyers and shopkeepers in Illinois. Abraham Jonas, Lincoln’s first close Jewish friend whose correspondence with Lincoln is reproduced in the book, was both a lawyer and political ally in Springfield and Quincy who campaigned actively for Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president.
Another intriguing character introduced by Sarna is Issachar Zacharie, a self-trained chiropodist (as podiatrists were called then) who tackled the foot problems of top Union generals and then treated Lincoln himself for foot problems–and even served as a spy and recruiter to encourage Jews in New Orleans to join the Union side. Sarna calls him “something of a mystery man,” and considering the correspondence with Lincoln included in the book, he adds: “I was deeply impressed that a man with access to power was able to use it to assist his fellow Jews. Also, Zacharie raised the status of podiatry as a profession. Foot problems were very serious then, shoes were quite primitive–there were no left and right shoes–and some thought Zacharie was a genius because he found a painless way to cure their problem feet.”
Sarna describes Lincoln’s encounters with an assortment of Jews–tailors, opticians, officers, rabbis–some of which he categorizes as “trivial,” but which together demonstrate how the president of the United States “insisted on treating Jews on the same basis as everybody else.” And this at a time when many surrounding Lincoln were strongly prejudiced against Jews. A double-page spread in the book, headed “The Anti-Semitic Generals,” displays letters from Generals Butler, McClellan and Grant that, Sarna says, “bear unhappy but vivid witness to the anti-Semitism of Lincoln’s military leaders.” Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was no better. Sarna quotes Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, who remarked that “toward Jews [Johnson] evidently felt a strong aversion.”
But as both books assert, Jews have long had a fascination with Lincoln, studying and quoting him, writing fiction and plays about him–the 2012 movie Lincoln was written and directed by Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, respectively–and a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, Victor David Brenner, designed the Lincoln penny. Lincoln’s influence was tremendous. In essence, Sarna concludes, “he promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and helped to transform Jews from outsiders in America to insiders.”