Lin­coln and the Jews: A History

Jonathan D. Sar­na and Ben­jamin Shapell

By – March 6, 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to the mil­i­tary — rebuffed attempts to declare Chris­tian­i­ty the country’s offi­cial reli­gion, and imme­di­ate­ly repealed Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 of Decem­ber, 1862 — Gen­er­al Ulysses S. Grant’s infa­mous edict expelling Jews from the ter­ri­to­ry under Union con­trol.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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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?