Abraham Lincoln, one of the American presidents most responsible for changing the face of the United States during his time in office, is renowned for his main achievements: outlawing slavery, the Gettysburg Address and preserving the U.S. as a single country after four bloody years of civil war. He is less well-known for his great interest in and friendship with Jews, at a time when Jews accounted for a mere 0.5 percent of the U.S. population, and when equal religious rights were far from assured.
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As a historian and collector of presidential letters, I discovered that many presidents, whether or not they were successful in office, shared a common thread of personal trials and tribulations that engulfed their administrations, and, in some cases, broke their spirit. They were, after all, regular people, with some, like George Washington, hesitant to accept the office, others who could not wait to leave and still others who were exhausted from leading their country through wars.
To escape from the burdens of the presidency and its vast responsibilities, many presidents turned inward to their families and the closeness of old friendships. One such president was Abraham Lincoln, and many of those friendships involved Jews.
Lincoln has always been a fascinating figure. He was a self-made man, unschooled but self-educated who, with determination, persistence and firmness of purpose, overcame major challenges in life – as was definitively demonstrated during the four years of the bloody American Civil War. The most refreshing discovery of my study of Lincoln was not only his interest in the causes important to Jews, but the inescapable truth of the depth and breadth of this relationship to Jews themselves. It even seems to have extended into his own plans and desires: According to his wife Mary’s recollection in a recently-discovered letter from 1866, written just one year after Lincoln’s assassination, Lincoln “proposed the last week of his precious life,” that he would “anticipate much pleasure from a visit to Palestine.” Sadly, he would never get that chance.
Remarkably, it was not during the war that Lincoln met and interacted with Jews for the first time, but rather as a young man in rural Illinois, 30 years before. Over the course of his tragically foreshortened life – as my co-author, Professor Jonathan Sarna, and I illustrate in “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” – he represented, befriended, admired, appointed and, with anti-Semitism swirling through the military and the War Department, never flinched in defending Jews. This was demonstrated by his rescinding of the infamous edict issued by General Ulysses S. Grant expelling Jews from their homes, a vast area that encompassed all or part of four states.
The sheer volume of Lincoln’s interactions with Jews surprised even us; hardly a week went by, as seen in the illustrations of the book’s numerous letters and documents, without Lincoln handling a Jewish-related issue or corresponding with a Jewish friend. And this was during a time when Jews made up a small fraction of the population.
Lincoln’s relationships with Jews were not exploitative but warm and genuine, and went further and deeper than those of any previous American president. During the war, Lincoln remarked in an unprecedented note to his secretary of war that “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” and requested that a certain Jewish soldier, the son-in-law of New York’s most prominent rabbi, receive a high-ranking position in the army. In a separate directive, Lincoln, for the first time in American history, mandated that Jewish chaplains be immediately appointed to attend to the needs of the many Jewish soldiers fighting for the Union.
While his association with his two closest Jewish friends, Abraham Jonas and Issachar Zacharie, were known among selected scholars long before the publication of “Lincoln and the Jews,” the depth of his involvement with the two was not. Jonas was a lifelong friend of Lincoln’s, who served with him in the Illinois legislature. Lincoln was personally close with at least three of Jonas’ sons, and Jonas later helped engineer Lincoln’s successful run for the presidency. In one of Lincoln’s most revealing, personal letters, he wrote to Jonas in 1860, the year of his first, unexpected election to the presidency: “You are one of my most valued friends,” a sentiment he never directly expressed to anyone else. Another original discovery was an earlier letter written to Jonas in 1856 where Lincoln revealingly expressed his frustration at having to defend his wayward nephew accused of thievery. The fact that Lincoln shared this embarrassing account only with Jonas goes to the heart of the amazing closeness between the two men.
Zacharie, who met Lincoln during his presidential years, was a foot doctor and confidant who treated Lincoln on numerous occasions and, as one newspaper at the time wrote, "enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s confidence more than any other private individual.” Lincoln sent Zacharie on peace and secret intelligence missions to the South during the war. Lincoln was happy to accommodate Zacharie’s request for handwritten testimonials attesting to his great skill, and even found time to write no less than three of these notes during what was his most historic week as president – the week he shocked the nation and issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves. One of the notes to Zacharie was written on the actual day the proclamation was issued, September 22, 1862.
Another highly unusual discovery was that Lincoln, an avid theatergoer, sought out Jewish-themed plays to attend as president. One, “Leah: The Foresaken,” dealt with anti-Semitism, prejudice and intermarriage. Another, “Gamea, or The Jewish Mother,” seemed particularly to transfix Lincoln, and he attended twice in the same week. “Gamea” was based on the infamous Mortara Affair, in which a Jewish child in Italy was forcibly taken from his parents’ home and converted to Catholicism – a move sanctioned by the pope – never to return. To Lincoln, this was no doubt a stark reminder of the evils of slavery, where families were torn apart and sold.
As a young man, Lincoln had seen the moral failings and indignations of slavery, and now, as president, he waged a war on the very issue itself that cost more than 600,000 lives. At the end, with victory finally secured, Lincoln had no answers for the great suffering on both sides of the conflict and God’s seemingly hidden purposes for allowing the war to drag on as long as it did. He summed up his thoughts in his historic second inaugural address not in a long, emotional and impassioned discourse, but by finding solace to the Old Testament and quoting a half verse from Psalm 19, part of the Jewish Shabbat liturgy: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
The writer is the co-author of “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” and founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an independent educational organization whose collection includes original documents of historic individuals. www.shapell.org.