Lincoln and the Jews
by Harold Holzer
Abraham Lincoln – America’s “Great Emancipator” – never liberated any Jewish people. But in death, America’s Jews compared him reverentially to Moses. Like the prophet and lawgiver from Exodus, Lincoln had led people from bondage, yet did not live to see the Promised Land. As Rabbi M. R. Deleeuw put it in his eulogy at Congregation B’nai Israel in New York on April 19, 1865, Lincoln “had brought this nation within reach of the great boon he sought to attain,” but “was not destined to taste the sweets of the peace he had so zealously labored to establish.” The analogy was not lost on the nation’s small but vocal Jewish community. On a more practical level, Lincoln had not only befriended Jewish people throughout his life but made several major presidential decisions that benefited American Jewry.
This is not to suggest that American Jews had an easy time during the Civil War era. They were a tiny and often oppressed minority of the population: 150,000 out of about 32 million – just half of one percent – although the country did boast vibrant centers of Jewish life in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Some 6,000 Jews served in the American military, a number that included twelve generals, many surgeons, and six Medal of Honor winners.
But it was not a monolithic group: Northern Jews remained loyal to the Union, Southern Jews mainly to the Confederacy and to slavery. In fact, Southern society may have in some ways been more hospitable to Jews than that of the North. In an era in which Jews filled no major roles in the Lincoln administration, Judah P. Benjamin became Secretary of State of the Confederacy. Yet Benjamin’s elevation did not eliminate bigotry there. According to one Southern diarist in 1861:
The Jews are at work. Having no nationality, all wars are harvests for them. It has been so from the day of their dispersion. Now they are scouring the country in all directions, buying all the goods they can find in distant cities, and even from the country stores. These they will keep, until the prices of consumption shall raise a greedy demand for all descriptions of merchandise.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in this atmosphere, one county in Georgia was actually consumed by an uprising aimed at driving out Jews.
Things could be just as dangerous, however, in the supposedly enlightened North. In New York, the same city where the “Jews’ Hospital” changed its longtime admissions policy so it could treat wounded soldiers of all faiths (today the once-modest institution is known as Mount Sinai Medical Center), draft rioters attacked and pillaged Jewish stores just a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg. When the Union Treasury began issuing paper money, one Confederate newspaper taunted, “Why are Lincoln’s green-backs like the Jews? Because they come from Abraham and have no redeemer.” Against that backdrop of discrimination stood a modern Abraham: Abraham Lincoln.
A New York rabbi named Morris Raphall came to the White House early in the war to ask Lincoln to promote his son to the rank of lieutenant in the Union Army. Lincoln had declared that day a national prayer and fast day, and after he listened to the rabbi’s plea, he asked, “As God’s minister, is it not your duty to be home today to pray with your people for the success of our armies, as is being done in every loyal church throughout the North?”
Taken aback, the rabbi managed to explain that his assistant was doing so in his place. “Ah,” Lincoln replied, “That is different.” Then he wrote out the promotion, handed it to Raphall, and said, “Now, doctor, you can go home and do your own praying.”
Raphall was not the first Jew Lincoln ever encountered, but it is fair to say that Lincoln probably never saw one until he was about 30 years old, when he first met a fellow Illinois lawyer named Abraham Jonas. Jonas became an enthusiastic political supporter, whom Lincoln would call one of his “most valued friends.” He later appointed Jonas a postmaster, a position he held until his death, when Lincoln quietly transferred the plum job to his widow (at a time when he was reluctant to name his own female relatives to such coveted patronage posts). Lincoln even paroled Jonas’s son, a captured Rebel, to visit his father on his deathbed. The sins of the son were not visited on the loyal father.
Lincoln counted other Jews among his friends and allies: Julius Hammerslough, one of his hometown Springfield merchants, who attended his inauguration and later helped raise funds to build his tomb; and Henry Rice, a clothing retailer who sold Lincoln “duds,” as his famous customer referred to them, on the Illinois prairie. Photographer Samuel Alschuler lent Lincoln a velvet-trimmed coat to wear in a photograph taken in Urbana, Illinois, in 1858. Two years later, and now relocated to Chicago, Alschuler took another portrait of Lincoln, now President-elect. It turned out to be the first ever made of him with a beard.
Bavarian-born Chicago merchant Abraham Kohn, president of Congregation Anshe Maariv (Men of the West), was another staunch Republican supporter. Just before Lincoln left Illinois for the White House, Kohn sent the president-elect a flag emblazoned with Hebrew writing from Deuteronomy 31: “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid neither be thou dismayed for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
A few days later, as Lincoln left his Springfield home for Washington, he gave a farewell speech to his neighbors offering words clearly inspired by Kohn. That day, Lincoln declared his trust in a God who can “go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good.” Here was an Old Testament inspiration, direct from a Jewish friend. Later witnesses remembered seeing Kohn’s flag on display at the White House.
But the most fascinating – and influential – of Lincoln’s Jewish acquaintances was undoubtedly his Jewish chiropodist, Isachar Zacharie. A New York newspaper described him as having “a splendid Roman nose, fashionable whiskers, an eloquent tongue, a dazzling diamond breastpin,” and, most important of all for treating a patient with chronically aching feet, “great skill in his profession.”
In 1862, Lincoln heard that Zacharie could boast in his résumé of having had feet of Clay – Henry Clay, that is, Lincoln’s personal and political hero. So the President sent for him to see if the chiropodist could alleviate his aching corns. One newspaper joked, “It would seem . . . that all of our past troubles have originated not so much with the head [of the nation] but with the feet of the nation. Dr. Zacharie has shown us precisely where the shoe pinches.”
Jokes aside, Zacharie worked wonders with Lincoln. As the President put it, in an endorsement of his skill, “Dr. Zacharie has operated on my feet with great success and considerable addition to my comfort.” Not everyone who met the chiropodist was able to overcome prejudice. One general assessed Zacharie “the lowest and vulgarest form of Jew Peddlars,” adding, “It is enough to condemn Mr. Lincoln that he can make a friend of such an odious creature.”
Lincoln was not swayed by such prejudice. He not only retained Zacharie as his physician, bit he also found other ways for him to serve the Union as an unofficial envoy to Jewish communities in the South with an eye toward rebuilding their ties to the Union. The doctor turned up in New Orleans, for example, supposedly to arrange financial aid for that city to ease it back under federal authority. Later, Lincoln twice sent him to Richmond on mysterious missions. In return, Zacharie peppered Lincoln with boastful letters and gifts like fresh pineapples, bananas, and hominy grits.
Zacharie worked hard for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, writing to assure the President during the campaign:
The Isrelites [sic] with but few exceptions they will vote for you. I understand them well.... I have secured good and trustworthy men to attend to them on Election day. My men have been all the week seeing that their masses are proparly [sic] registered—so that all will be right.
Zacharie’s efforts predictably aroused a stir among – who else? – his fellow Jews, some of whom took issue with Zacharie’s claim that he could “deliver” the Jewish vote as a bloc. “There is no ‘Jewish vote,’” the editor of the Jewish Messenger, Meyer Isaacs, wrote angrily to Lincoln, “and if there were it could not be bought.” The fracas threatened to erupt into a political crisis until Lincoln ordered an aide to write a letter assuring Jewish leaders that no one had ever pledged the Jewish vote to the President, and he in turn had offered no inducements to secure it.
The fact that Lincoln utilized a character like Zacharie remains surprising. The doctor was rather full of himself. In 1863 he talked about “the great responsibility resting upon me,” words Lincoln had more appropriately employed to describe the burdens on him! A week before Election Day 1864, Zacharie bragged that he had accomplished “one of the Largest things that has been done in the campaign.” Then he complained to the exhausted President that he was tired. “I wish to God all was over,” he wrote, “for I am used up, but 3 years ago, I promised I would elect you, and if you are not it shall not be my fault.” Notwithstanding such boasting, Lincoln saw something in his doctor that historians have never quite understood. Lincoln was an excellent judge of character, so it’s difficult not to conclude that somehow, Zacharie did serve him beneficially – and not just medically.
Critics point to an odd memorandum Lincoln wrote during the war that began, “About Jews,” and went on to offer instructions on seemingly unrelated matters: issuing to “Dr. Zacharie a pass to go to Savannah,” and providing some kind of hearing to a Mr. “Blumberg, at Baltimore.” In a way, the memo suggests that Lincoln tended to think of Jews as a nation within the nation, perhaps not as truly assimilated as American Jews thought themselves to be. On the other hand, the memo also sent a signal to the bureaucracy that the President believed that Jews, at least these particular Jews, should be treated decently by the government.
There were two real tests of Lincoln’s tolerance during the Civil War.
A year into the war, there was still not one Jewish chaplain in the armed services. Federal law required that all chaplains be “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.”
Jews wanted their own. They had a champion in Ohio Congressman Clement L. Valandigham, who took to the House floor to demand equal chaplaincy rights for Jews. Unfortunately, they could not have recruited a more counterproductive ally. Valandigham was a so-called “Copperhead,” an anti-war Democrat. “Valiant Val” later would be arrested for treason and expelled from the Union. His support guaranteed defeat for expanding chaplaincy rights.
The issue might have died there had it not been for the so-called “Allen incident.” Michael Allen was a rabbinical student elected chaplain of a largely Jewish regiment headed by a Colonel Max Freedman. When the army found out about him, they pressured him into quitting, arguing that he was not yet fully ordained. Colonel Freedman promptly named a fully ordained New York rabbi named Arnold Fischel to take his place. But the U. S. Sanitary Commission, the charity that attended to the soldiers’ medical and moral needs, turned him down, too, citing the law that required all chaplains to be Christians.
Frustrated, Jewish leaders went public. They wrote editorials for Jewish periodicals, got liberal newspapers to support them, and finally sent a delegation to the White House. There, Dr. Fischel begged Lincoln to recognize “the principle of religious liberty . . . the constitutional rights of the Jewish community, and the welfare of Jewish volunteers” who were dying in battle without access to spiritual support.
Lincoln swiftly pledged, “I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.” The following summer, the law was duly amended to include all “regularly ordained ministers of some denomination.” The word “Christian” was expunged. That September, Lincoln named Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia the first Jewish chaplain in American military history. The Jews, under Lincoln, had reversed four score years of institutionalized discrimination within the army.
Another crisis followed, a result of an action by one of the war’s greatest heroes, Ulysses S. Grant. After his triumph at the Battle of Shiloh, the general inexplicably began imagining Jews infiltrating his encampments en masse, speculating, profiteering, and conducting other wicked business unchecked. Grant was determined to root them out. In July 1862, he ordered his commanders to inspect all visitors’ baggage and confiscate contraband, noting, “Jews should receive special attention.” That November he advised another officer, “Refuse all permits ... the Isrealites [sic] especially should be kept out.” A day later he repeated, “No Jews are to be permitted to travel on the Rail Road southward from any point. They are such an intolerable nuisance, that the department must be purged of them.” Weeks afterward, he was still railing about “the total disregard and evasion of orders by the Jews,” admitting, “my policy is to exclude them as far as practicable.” A camp newspaper not surprisingly echoed the popular general: The Jews were “sharks, feeding upon the soldiers.”
Then, Grant’s own father turned up in camp, hand-in-hand with some Jewish cotton brokers eager for profit, though no greedier for money than the elder Mr. Grant. Perhaps believing his father had been duped, the general let his hostility run wild. On December 17, 1862, he issued his infamous General Orders Number 11, declaring in part:
The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade ... are hereby expelled from the department within 24 hours. ... Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be ... required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement.
Reaction was swift. A Jewish captain named Philip Trounstine promptly resigned his commission, complaining of “taunts and malice.” Respected Northern rabbis unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the pulpit and in the press. Even Grant’s greatest Washington champion, Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, admitted, “Your order touching the Jews has kicked up quite a dust among the Israelites. They came here in crowds. ...”
Some of the crowds went directly to the President, who might easily have ignored the outcry for fear of humiliating one of his most valuable military assets. To Lincoln’s credit, he did not excuse or cover up. He came to the rescue. When a delegation led by Cesar Kaskel visited him to lodge a formal protest, the President supposedly said, “So the children of Israel were forced out of the happy land of Canaan?”
A clever delegate shot back, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom asking protection.” Replied Lincoln, “That protection you shall have.” Another group headed by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise soon followed, and Lincoln told them, “I don't like to see a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” Wise remembered, “The President fully convinced us that he knew of no distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that he feels none against any nationality and especially against Israelites.”
In one of the rare occasions in which he ever overruled his prize general, Abraham Lincoln made sure that General Orders Number 11 was rescinded a few weeks after its publication. He did not mind expelling peddlers, Lincoln explained privately. But, as he put it, Grant had “proscribed a whole class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks.” This was unacceptable. Another threat to the legal standing of Jewish citizens had been recognized and corrected. Whether it inspired Jews to vote as a bloc for Lincoln’s re-election the following fall remains impossible to know, but the positive impact on Lincoln’s reputation was incontestable.
History books note the irony of the fact that like Jesus, Lincoln was slain on Good Friday. It is seldom observed that the 1865 calamity also occurred during Passover weekend. Seders that season were dedicated in part to Lincoln’s memory.
Synagogues across the North draped themselves in black and devoted Sabbath and holiday sermons, as one Jewish newspaper reported, “to the grief that sorrowed the hearts of the people.” Jews took an active part in the Lincoln funeral in Washington. At the public ceremonies in New York, a rabbi was even asked to recite a prayer. One young local Jewish shopkeeper named Abraham Abraham was so moved that he bought a bust of Lincoln, draped it in black, and displayed it in his window. The shop later became the department store of Abraham & Strauss. In Chicago, a special canopy was provided by the city’s Jews, inscribed with the Hebrew lament: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high places.”
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who had earlier called Lincoln a “primitive,” now praised “the spirit and principles of the man.” At Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan the mourners’ Kaddish was recited for the first time in memory of a non-Jew, inspiring a protest from some outraged Orthodox Jews but praise from most congregants. If Lincoln could break precedent by opening up the army to Jewish chaplaincy, then synagogues could say Kaddish for their gentile champion. Even in the South, Jewish leaders acknowledged a special bond between Lincoln and the Jews and a special sorrow at his loss. It was attributable mainly to Lincoln’s acts of compassion and justice, but perhaps, also, to the fact that his religious beliefs seemed so universal.
Lincoln had once summed up his faith: “When I do good I feel good, and when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.” Perhaps it is no accident that the sentiment is remarkably close to what Hillel urged in his teachings: “To forbear doing unto others what would displease us.”
That deceptively simple but poignant philosophy made Lincoln seem to Jews of his day like God’s child and America’s father at one and the same time. When Lincoln died, many Jews really did feel “the beauty of Israel was slain upon the high places.” But as Rabbi Samuel Adler put it at Temple Emanu-el in New York City on April 19, 1865: “Abraham Lincoln has not fallen. He is lost to us but he is as Light ... and remains with us in memory and adoration and will so remain for ever.” Rabbi Adler called him “Father Abraham” that day, a rare tribute from the pulpit echoed at synagogues throughout the nation during that Passover of mourning. “Fear not, Abraham,” Rabbi Samuel Meyer Isaacs declared, quoting the Bible, from the pulpit of the Broadway synagogue, “I am thy shield; thy reward shall be exceedingly great.”
History has vindicated that prediction.
A version of this article appeared in Lincoln and the Jews: The Last Best Hope of Earth (Chicago: The Skirball Cultural Center, 2002) and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
Harold Holzer is one of the country's leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era. A prolific author and lecturer, he serves as co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. For his scholarship on the Civil War and President Lincoln, he received a 2008 National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is Senior Vice President for External Affairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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