This Day in Jewish History |

1864: Abe Lincoln Gets Bad Advice: Don't Court the 'Jewish Vote'

Jews have no politics and if they did, they couldn't be bought, a very young newspaper editor advised Lincoln, who stood for reelection.

David Green
David B. Green
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A ferrotype of Abraham Lincoln - a sort of forerunner of campaign buttons. By the way, Lincoln won the election.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On October 26, 1864, Myer S. Isaacs, a 23-year-old newspaper editor, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln to warn him from being taken in by Jews who claimed to have the ability to deliver the so-called Jewish vote for him in the upcoming presidential election, two weeks away.

Isaacs (1841-1904) was the son of Samuel Myer Isaacs, the Dutch-born rabbi of New York’s Congregation Shaaray Tefila and founder and editor of the Jewish Messenger newspaper. His son Myer was a brilliant young lawyer who was also co-editor of his father’s paper and secretary of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. The Board was a representative organization, also founded by his father, and an American counterpart to the British Board of Deputies and France’s Alliance Israelite.   

The occasion for the younger Isaacs’ letter to the president was a report he had received, that Lincoln had hosted a group of distinguished Jews at the White House who claimed they could arrange for their co-religionists to vote for the president’s re-election, on November 8, 1864.

At the time, there were some 150,000 Jews in the U.S., constituting about one-half of one percent of the overall population of 32 million, according to historian Harold Holzer.

No 'Jewish politics'?

The details of what Isaacs had heard are not known. He alleged in his letter, however, that the visitors had claimed “to represent the Israelites of New York or the United States,” and in so doing, had perpetuated a “deception that resulted to their pecuniary profit.”According to Isaacs, many American Jews were indeed supporters of Lincoln and the Union, but he hastened to note that “there are also supporters of the opposition, and indeed the Israelites are not as a body, distinctly Union or democratic in their politics ... the Jews as a body have no politics.”

“There is no ‘Jewish vote,’" Isaacs reiterated, and “if there were, it could not be bought.”

On November 1, 1864, John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary, wrote back to Myer Isaacs to assure him that "You are in error in the assumptions you make in regard to the recent interview to which you refer between certain gentlemen of the Hebrew faith, and the President.” According to Hay, who did not deny that such a meeting had taken place, “No pledge of the Jewish vote was made by these gentlemen and no inducements or promises were extended to them by the President.”

Coincidentally, another Jewish correspondent had written to President Lincoln on October 26, Samuel A. Lewis, a friend and associate of Isachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s foot doctor and sometime political confidant, whom the president had employed in the past for several confidential political missions to the South.

Historian Charles Bracelen Flood, in his 2009 book, “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History,” quotes Lewis’ letter, in which, in similarly vague terms, he alluded to his understanding that “some parties representing themselves as ‘a committee from the Jews’ had called on you to solicit contributions” Lewis, speaking for both himself and Dr. Zacharie, however, wanted the president to know that “we propose to give – not to take,” and asked Lincoln, should any other Jewish group call on him, to “send them to me I will furnish them such amounts as we see can be used to advantage.”

John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State but before that - personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln.Credit: Adam Cuerden, Wikimedia Commons

A few days later, on November 3, Zacharie himself, having apparently returned from the hustings, wrote to the president, and assured him that, “I now think all is Right As regards the Isrelites [sic] with but few Exceptions, they will vote for you.”

In case Lincoln had any misapprehensions on that point, Zacharie wanted him to know that he had “taken the precaution — to see that they do as they have promised,” and he had “secured good and trustworthy men to — attend them on Election Day.”

What precisely Lincoln may have thought about Zacharie’s letter is unknown, but, according to Flood, he must not have been especially offended. Just a few weeks later, Lincoln – who was elected for a second term on November 8 – arranged for the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, to furnish the podiatrist with a pass that would enable him to enter a part of the Confederacy newly under Northern control, in order to visit family there.