Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell chronicles the extraordinary relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and American Jews. Through handwritten letters, maps, and photographs this book shows Lincoln’s impact on Jews being accepted into American society as well as how Jews influenced his presidency. Jewish Book Council had the privilege of interviewing the author, Brandeis Professor Jonathan D. Sarna.
Elise Cooper: Your previous book dealt with Grant and the Jews. How would you compare Grant and Lincoln’s attitude toward the American Jew?
Jonathan D. Sarna: In December 1862 General Grant expelled ‘Jews as a class’ from the war zone encompassing Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky with General Orders No. 11. Grant persuaded himself that the Jews caused the smuggling problem. There is no question that Jews were smugglers, but certainly not every Jew, and non-Jews were smuggling as well. Fortunately, Lincoln was president and knew Jews going back to his days in Illinois. He overturned that order because he did not want to see a class of people indicted for a few sinners. If this order had not been overturned people might say ‘even in America Jews can be expelled,’ but instead Jews saw a defender in the American president. Even Grant after he became president tried to prove he was not prejudiced against Jews by speaking out for Jewish rights and appointing Jews to important government offices.
EC: As with many Americans, Jews also had families torn apart by the Civil War. Do you agree?
JDS: A good friend of Lincoln’s, Abraham Jonas, was Jewish, an Abolitionist, yet his son fought for the Confederacy. He had many relatives in the South including six children. Many Jews had relatives in the North and South where families were pitted against one another.
EC: It was interesting that a sermon delivered by Rabbi Sabato Morais in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1863 used these words as he reminded his constituents that independence is “the event which four score and seven years ago brought to this new world light and joy.” Do you think Lincoln borrowed this phrase for his Gettysburg Address?
JDS: No previous Lincoln scholar noticed that the rabbi used that phrase. We do know that some of Morais’ sermons were sent to Lincoln and that he read them. Good politicians are known for borrowing phrases that will resonate with the public. So it is possible. All we know for sure is that Morais used the phrase before Lincoln and that the president had read some of Morais’ sermons.
EC: Do you think it was significant that Lincoln appointed the first Jewish Chaplain?
JDS: Yes, because it paved the way for minority faiths to gain recognition in the Christian-dominated army. This appointment showed the world Judaism was not a second-class religion in America and allowed Jewish soldiers to have their own clergy. Remember there were thousands of Jews serving in the Union Army. What is even more interesting is how Lincoln used his political skills to get this done. He buried the amendment to the chaplaincy bill inside another bill that gave raises to popular generals, ensuring that the bill would be approved.
EC: Why did Lincoln target the Jewish vote in the 1864 election?
JDS: His podiatrist Isaac Zacharie made a distinct effort to build Jewish support for Lincoln. We now know that the Jewish vote was not just targeted by politicians in the twentieth century. Prior to the 1864 election I am not familiar that anyone running for president sought the Jewish vote the way Lincoln clearly did.
EC: In the beginning of the book there are concentric circles of Lincoln’s Jewish connections. Why?
JDS: It showed that there were over a hundred Jews with whom Lincoln had some tie or connection. He had more Jewish friends and acquaintances than any previous president. Friendships break down stereotypes. Friends like Jonas and Zacharie allowed Lincoln to understand Jews. I think the Jewish population’s growth is also reflected in the diagram. That growth is partly due to Jewish immigration from Central Europe: there were but 3,000 Jews in America when Lincoln was born and about 150,000 in 1860.
EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?
JDS: That Lincoln, more than any previous president, promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and transformed them from outsiders to insiders. I want people to understand that American history is Jewish history as well. Many think that Jewish American history begins in the twentieth century but it is very important to realize that Jews have been a significant part of this country’s history much earlier.
Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.
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