Men with the President’s Ear
Simon Wolf: Spokesman for the Jewish Community (1836-1923)
In 1862, lawyer Simon Wolf left Cleveland for Washington. An active member of both Washington Hebrew Congregation and B’nai B’rith, Wolf was an eloquent orator and influential leader. He formed close relationships with every U.S. president from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson.
A White House Visit
Early in the war, Wolf learned that a Jewish soldier was to be executed the next morning for having deserted his unit to travel to his mother’s deathbed. Wolf went to Lincoln at 2 a.m. to plead for the soldier’s life. He said, “If your dying mother had summoned you to her bedside to receive her last message . . . would you have been a deserter to her who gave you birth, rather than deserter in law but not in fact to the flag to which you had sworn allegiance?”
Lincoln pardoned the soldier and his secretary, John Hay, immediately telegraphed the stay of execution.
Arrested for Defending Others
During the war, Wolf was detained for serving as attorney for Southern Jews charged with espionage and for his membership in B’nai B’rith. Accusing Wolf of being a traitor, Colonel Lafayette C. Baker of the War Department threatened him with imprisonment and called B’nai B’rith “a disloyal organization, which…is helping the traitors.”
When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton learned of the situation, he called it an outrage and promptly had Wolf released.
Mr. Wolf, you have done your duty and I know that you are a loyal citizen.
- Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (as quoted in Presidents I Have Known)
Setting the Record Straight
My primary purpose has been to prove that the Jewish people . . . have been unfailing in their devotion to their country’s cause.
- Simon Wolf, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen
In 1895, in response to charges that Jews had evaded military service, Wolf published a comprehensive review of Jewish service in the American military. The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen lists more than 8,000 Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Wolf concluded that “the enlistment of Jewish soldiers, north and south, reached proportions considerably in excess of their ratio to the general population.”
After the War: An Elder Statesman
After the war, Wolf held numerous local and national leadership positions.
President Ulysses S. Grant named him Recorder of Deeds, making him one of the first Jews to hold public office in Washington. He also served as president of Washington Hebrew Congregation in the 1870s. In 1881, President Garfield appointed him Consul General to Egypt.
As chairman of the Board of Delegates of Civil and Religious Rights and president of the International Order of B’nai B’rith, Wolf was an outspoken advocate on national and international Jewish issues. In 1869, he appealed to President Grant urging the United States to protest the expulsion of thousands of Russian Jews from their homes. In 1903, he helped organize a national petition protesting the Russian government’s actions in the Kishinev massacre.