Lincoln and the Jews: A History

St. Martin's Press  2015


2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War: a landmark event in American history that ended slavery, settled the debate over national sovereignty and states’ rights, cost the lives of over six hundred thousand soldiers, and shaped the nation’s political, social, and economic development. And, as shown in Lincoln and the Jews, it was also important in the history of America’s Jews. Historian Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, partner with an engrossing study of the relationship between America’s sixteenth President and the burgeoning Jewish community comprising of nearly 150,000 persons by 1860, including politicians and businessmen with whom Lincoln interacted.

This important new book is a fortuitous collaboration between co-authors Sarna and Shapell. Sarna holds a particular interest in the Civil War era, and his 2012 book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is a jewel of historical revisionism. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation's collection of nineteenth century ephemera offer new insights into Lincoln's relationships with the Jews; to them belongs the credit for the hundreds of interesting photographs and manuscripts scattered throughout the book. The result is a volume which will appeal to serious readers as well as to cursory viewers.

Lincoln admired Jews. As a lawyer he had Jewish clients; as a politician he defended Jews; as a theater-goer he enjoyed plays with Jewish themes; as a consumer he patronized stores owned by Jews; as an orator he frequently quoted from the Hebrew Bible; and as president he pardoned Jewish merchants convicted of a variety of real and fictitious crimes, appointed Jews to office—including the first Jewish chaplains to the military—rebuffed attempts to declare Christianity the country’s official religion, and immediately repealed General Orders No. 11 of December, 1862—General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous edict expelling Jews from the territory under Union control. Lincoln’s relationships with Jews, Sarna noted, “went further and deeper than those of any previous American president.”

American Jews, in turn, have venerated this most important, iconic, and tragic figure in American history, and there is even a street in Jerusalem named for him. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called him “the greatest man that ever sprung from mortal loins.” This presumably made Lincoln greater than Abraham or Moses. “Lincoln,” Wise continued, was, in fact, a Jew, “bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage.” Rabbi Benjamin Szold was unwilling to go so far, preferring to believe rather that Lincoln was simply “mind of our mind and soul of our soul.” Whatever be the case, America’s Jews were correct in seeing Lincoln as a friend. Jews, wrote Sarna, have “studied Lincoln, quoted Lincoln, fictionalized Lincoln, dramatized Lincoln, painted Lincoln, sculpted Lincoln, wrote about Lincoln, preached about Lincoln, sang about Lincoln, and even [. . .] designed the Lincoln image for the penny in 1909, on the occasion of the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.” Lincoln and the Jews clearly illustrates why.

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Read Elise Cooper's interview with Jonathan D. Sarna here.

Discussion Questions

1. What risks did Lincoln run into taking such a strong and poignant stand in favor of Jewish people?

2. Even in today’s military environment, what lessons should leaders gain from the way the president chastised General U.S. Grant for his horrific treatment of Jews in uniform, aka “General Orders No. 11?”

3. Who was Edward S. Salomon and what role did he play for Lincoln and the president’s efforts to bring an end to the Civil War?

4. Who was Dr. Issacher Zacharie and how were his efforts during the Civil War crucial to Lincoln?

5. From what we’ve seen in the book what brought the president to a position in his life where he was so supportive of Jewish people?

6. With America’s Jewish population surging to more than 150,000 around Lincoln’s time, what steps did the president take to make Jews feel more a part of the American way of life?

7. With the Civil War all around the president, what can we glean about the Jewish involvement concerning the war?

8. In reading the correspondence in the book between Lincoln and his Jewish friends and colleagues, who was the most influential Jewish friend Lincoln had?

9. Discuss the level of coverage and independent thought the president displayed in admiring and befriending so many Jews at a time when anti-Semitism was gathering strength in America.

10. How was Lincoln able to persuade others in DC at the time to be able to see his side when it came to supporting Jews and Jewish themes?

11. What lessons does society learn from Lincoln’s relationship with Jewish friends to help promote tolerance?

12. From what we’ve read in the book what lessons and examples of tolerance can other people and parts of the world learn from how Lincoln treated Jewish people?

13. Who inside the DC political spectrum could have prevented the president from his support of the Jewish people, and who could have been his biggest allies for his supporter of the Jewish people?

14. After reading the book have you ever experienced anything like this topic and what do you feel would be the most profound aspect to experience in the exhibition of Lincoln and the Jews?

15. The parting words Lincoln reportedly said to his wife that last night of his life was, “I hope to see Jerusalem before I die.” Will this book and the lessons of life and tolerance contained within serve as a testament to Lincoln’s desire to see the Holy Land and what it represented?

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