October 22, 2019

The story of Lincoln’s support for Jewry, in his own hand

According to an old publishing industry joke, one title that is bound to be a best-seller is “Lincoln’s Dog’s Diet,” which helps to explain why more than 16,000 books about Abraham Lincoln have been published so far, and more are offered each year.

At least one-third of the joke was proven to be accurate when some 800 people thronged to the Skirball Cultural Center last week to hear renowned Jewish historian Jonathan D. Sarna in conversation with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer (co-author of, most recently, “A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity”) on a remarkable new book written by Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). 

Tellingly, the lively and illuminating conversation between Sarna and Holzer was accompanied by a slideshow of images from the book itself. Indeed, “Lincoln and the Jews” is a sumptuous gallery of historic artifacts between the covers of a book generously annotated by Sarna. Drawn from the private collection of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, which was founded by the book’s co-author, “Lincoln and the Jews” allows us to gaze at handwritten letters, documents, currency, seals, maps, handbills, newspaper clippings, photographs, drawings and even an American flag decorated with Hebrew text from the Book of Joshua, all of which figure in the remarkable story of Lincoln’s relationship with America’s Jewish community.  

“The subject of Lincoln and the Jews is still unknown to most,” Shapell explains in his introduction to the book. “Now, on the occasion of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary marking the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination, this book reveals fresh discoveries and revelations of Lincoln’s profound and unusual relationship with Jews.” Above all, what is wholly new is the presentation of visual evidence “that catch the eye, enhance the story, and capture history, something never before accomplished for this subject.”

Thus, for example, we meet Abraham Jonas, who was probably “the first Jew whom Lincoln came to know well,” according to Sarna. We see the role that Jonas played in both the senatorial and presidential campaigns of Lincoln, who later assisted his Jewish friend in liberating a Black sailor from Illinois who had been stranded in New Orleans and put up for sale as a slave. The friendship reached its fullest expression during the Civil War, when Lincoln granted permission to Jonas’ son — who had served in the Confederate army and was a prisoner of war in federal custody — to travel to his dying father’s bedside.

We learn that Lincoln, ever the artful lawyer, contrived a way to appoint the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army, Michael M. Allen, even though a law had been passed to limit these appointments to a “regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” The president, at the urging of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (“something of a one-man Anti-Defamation League in his day,” Sarna explains), brokered a deal in Congress by which “some Christian denomination” was construed to mean “some religious denomination.” Thus did Lincoln keep his promise to the Jews who lobbied him: “I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.” 

Perhaps the most stirring example of Lincoln’s willingness to champion the Jewish cause came when Ulysses S. Grant, his most successful battlefield general, issued an order that excluded Jews “as a class” from the war zone under his command — “the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history,” as Sarna puts it. The root cause of Grant’s order, a matter of friction between Grant and his father, is explored in discerning detail, but the denouement is that Lincoln intervened to reverse the “Jew order,” as Grant himself called it. The effort to persuade Lincoln to countermand the order led to a discourse, poignant if perhaps not entirely historical, between the president and Cesar Kaskel, one of the exiled Jews and an emissary from the Jewish community.

LINCOLN: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?

KASKEL: Yes, and that is why we have unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.

LINCOLN: And this protection they shall have.

Some of the discoveries in the Shapell Manuscript Collection are entirely incidental but also extraordinary — a Jewish photographer named David Bachrach snapped a shot of the crowd at Gettysburg, and when the photo is blown up, we glimpse the figure of Lincoln himself “just prior to or immediately after giving his famous remarks.” From such found objects emerges a relationship of unsuspected richness and complexity between Lincoln and the Jews. “In all likelihood, Abraham Lincoln never met a Jew while he was growing up,” Sarna writes. By the end of his life, as we discover for ourselves, Lincoln had cultivated friendships with a great many influential Jews, drawn on them for advice and assistance, and courageously championed their causes. Sarna concludes: “He promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and helped to transform Jews from outsiders in America to insiders.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.