Abraham Lincoln, the First Melting-pot President Who Championed Jews

'Lincoln and the Jews: A History' is a vivid presentation of a neglected topic: Lincoln's non-biased relationship with Jews during an era of widespread anti-Jewish sentiment.

Fred Kaplan
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The memorial to Lincoln in Washington. He stopped calling the U.S. Christian.
The memorial to Lincoln in Washington. He stopped calling the U.S. Christian.Credit: Bloomberg
Fred Kaplan

“Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pages, $40

On the last Saturday of August 1863, at Beverly Ford, Virginia, five Union Army soldiers, dressed in white shirts and blue pants, with their hands bound and with 25,000 soldiers watching them from a high slope, were marched through the assembled corps; their coffins were carried in front of them. A brass band played the death march. Each prisoner was forced to sit at the end of his coffin. When the command was given, 50 rifles were fired simultaneously.

The two Protestants, two Catholics, and one Jew, named George Kuhne, slumped backward onto their coffins. Oddly, the band played a folk tune called “The Girl I Left Behind Me” as the entire corps was forced to march “by the bodies to see that the work of the executioner had been effectively done.”

All five were foreign born, and had pled for mercy on the grounds that they had been led to believe that, after legally enlisting in the army as substitutes for conscripts, for which they were paid a fee by the conscript, they had the legal right to desert and then go through the same process again and again. General George Meade had insisted that the men be executed, and believed that this example would help decrease the high rate of desertions. It did not.

Of the three clergymen who tried to comfort the prisoners before the bullets killed them was Hungarian-born Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore. Rabbi Szold – whose daughter Henrietta founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America in 1912 – had personally appealed to President Abraham Lincoln, who hated “the butchering business,” to ask for clemency for Kuhne, a 22-year-old private. Lincoln sent Szold to speak with General Meade, but to no avail. As the rabbi, breaking the Sabbath, accompanied Kuhne to the execution site, he “kissed the accused, who convulsively clung to him.”

In “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” the account of Kuhne’s execution is accompanied by two illustrations, one of them from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting historical documents, many relating to American Jewish life. The volume in question is a collaboration between the organization and the distinguished scholar of American Judaism, Jonathan D. Sarna, and it is the basis for a current exhibition at the New York Historical Society, to run through June 7.

This large, heavily illustrated and valuable book is not without minor flaws – partly the result of the necessity to create a potted narrative of Lincoln’s life in order to provide the larger outlines for the story of the president’s relationship with individual Jews and with the American Jewish community, and partly because neither of the authors is a Lincoln scholar or an historian of 19th-century America.

Inevitability some distortion and even inaccuracy results, including the claim that the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was among those who “worked tirelessly” to promote the conversion of Jews. But none of these minor matters detracts from the fascination and the power of Shapell and Sarna’s engaging, illuminating, pictorially vivid presentation of a neglected topic: Lincoln’s warm, supportive, non-biased relationship with Jewish friends and supporters.

Watershed moment

It is a story worth telling, partly because it has not been told well enough and effectively enough before, but also because it marks a watershed moment in the history of American Jewry. The country’s 16th president, unlike so many Americans of his era, did not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body. Like every other ethnic and religious group, Jews, he believed, were neither good nor bad on the basis of birth and affiliation. They were human beings and American citizens, entitled to the same respect, rights and privileges guaranteed to every American by the Constitution and natural law. Ethnic and religious pluralism was, according to the president, an asset to American democracy.

Lincoln, it could be said, was the first “melting-pot president.” As a politician, he courted ethnic group voters, including the Jews. He was in a position, in a notably anti-Semitic world, to make a difference on matters that were important to the Jewish community, and he did. Rabbi Szold, for example, was not the first Jew to serve, albeit unofficially in his case, as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Despite some fierce opposition, some of it at high government levels, in September 1862 Lincoln had appointed Jacob Frankel to serve as the country’s first Jewish military chaplain.

About 10,000 Jews served as soldiers in the Civil War, 7,000 in the Union Army, but it made no difference to Lincoln’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism that Southern Jews mainly supported the Confederacy – indeed, some of them fought in the Confederate army – or that a sizable number of northern Jews, especially in New York City, supported the anti-war Democrats.

Lincoln appointed Jewish officers, sometimes despite resistance. He quickly reversed Union General Ulysses Grant’s anti-Semitic order – the subject of Jonathan Sarna’s previous book – expelling and excluding all Jews from the war zone under Grant’s command: the huge Department of the Tennessee (the Union Army was largely led by anti-Semitic generals).

In Illinois, as in Washington, Lincoln made no distinction between Jewish and Christian-owned businesses, he had Jewish political supporters and developed a lasting friendship, for example, with Abraham Jonas, a Quincy, Illinois, businessman who became a political adviser and probably the first Jew ever to be invited to the White House.

During the Civil War years, Lincoln employed and wrote testimonials for a Jewish podiatrist, Isaachar Zacherie, who had family in the South and who became an intermediary, probably an unreliable one, between the president and those involved in the peace effort. Lincoln highly praised Zacherie’s skills and recommended him widely.

The result was that Zacherie became the semi-official podiatrist for the Washington Republican establishment, though he failed, despite Lincoln’s efforts, to be appointed the foot doctor of the Union Army. Its marching feet would have benefited from his attention.

The ease with which Lincoln wrote, engaged with, and supported Jews at every level, though aware of widespread anti-Semitic opposition, is remarkable. Sarna and Shapell are unsuccessful at explaining the origin of what they perceive as Lincoln’s philo-Semitism, suggesting that the president’s childhood roots in a dissident and radical Baptist sect that valorized the Old Testament Hebrews may have been an influence.

The source of Lincoln’s graciousness toward and respect for Jews remains a mystery, though it would be sensible, albeit far from fully explanatory, to refer to his commitment to enlightenment values, to rationalism, deism and religious pluralism, and to a multicultural democracy in which every person has the right to participate as an equal. Nevertheless, Lincoln remains an admirable miracle of personality and intellect in the history of the American presidency, and a nonpareil in this matter as in others.

Mixed feelings

Not everything was ideal, however, in the relationship between Lincoln and his Jewish constituency. The concerns and dissatisfactions emanated not from him but from the Jewish community, especially from some of its religious and business leaders. Like every other subgroup in mid-19th-century American society, Jews did not speak with one voice and many were not Lincoln supporters, especially at the start of the Civil War. No Jews at all, as far as I know, were active in the abolitionist movement. Some, especially the Democrats, shared the widespread view that this was an unnecessary war; others believed that it was a necessary war as long as it was fought to maintain the Union rather than eliminate slavery.

Many northern Jewish businessmen, especially in New York City, where a large number of the country’s population of 150,000 to 200,000 Jews lived, dealt with Southern businesses; probably some had business connections to the slave structure of the Southern economy. Like many northern businessmen, they opposed the war and considered Lincoln a blundering incompetent, especially in 1861-1862, when the war was going badly.

Jewish religious leaders were divided in this matter: Some of the most prominent initially opposed Lincoln’s election and his presidency. Many Jews feared that the war itself – which, it could be argued, followed inevitably from Lincoln’s election – would not be good for them. On the contrary: Those who opposed Lincoln would hold the war against those Jews who supported him; those who opposed the president might have their patriotism impugned.

To what extent could Lincoln be trusted not to join the chorus of Protestant mono-religious enthusiasts – some in the clergy, some not – calling for America to officially declare itself a Christian nation, by means of proclamation and perhaps by Constitutional amendment? That effort by well-placed and influential Christians, many of whom proclaimed that the salvation of the Union depended on its total commitment to the Christian God, was to the country’s Jews the most dangerous threat to their identity as Americans.

Lincoln would have none of it. He gradually stopped using the word Christian in his description of the nation. The God he referred to in his second inaugural address was nonsectarian, though strongly influenced by Old Testament language and Calvinist feeling. Lincoln was a Christian in the loosest sense and rarely appeared in any church. American Jews discovered that they had nothing to fear from him in that regard, although that concern has remained an issue to this day – sometimes flickering away into irrelevance, sometimes ignited by those with a deep interest in forcing their religious identification onto the nation as a whole.

Fortunately, most Americans share Lincoln’s view that the United States is defined by its secular religion, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Everything else deemed religious is a private, not a public, matter – except for the good-humored coexistence, during dark winter days, of Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs in shopping malls and civic spaces.

Fred Kaplan is the author of “Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer” and, most recently, “John Quincy Adams, American Visionary.”

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