The Unusual Relationship Between Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

As a powerful new exhibit shows, the 16th president felt a close connection to the Jewish people. Why?

The last posed photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken ten weeks before his assassination. Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia.

The last posed photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken ten weeks before his assassination. Alexander Gardner, Wikimedia.

Observation
April 1 2015
About the author

Edward Rothstein is critic at large for the Wall Street Journal. His previous essay in Mosaic, “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” appeared in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.


It was Good Friday—April 14, 1865—when John Wilkes Booth made his way into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, forcibly propped the door shut behind him, and shot a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln. For many mourners, the timing had unusual significance. The Civil War, in which some 750,000 Americans had lost their lives, was coming to an end. Just weeks earlier, citing the nation’s trauma in his Second Inaugural address, Lincoln had suggested that this “mighty scourge of war” was a form of divine retribution visited on “both North and South” for the offense of slavery. He ended with words of consolation and exhortation:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . .

Lincoln’s own suffering, as evident as the nation’s, was inscribed in his countenance. Of his two life-masks, one had been cast as he was beginning his campaign for the presidency in 1860, and the other in February 1865, some two months before the end of the war. In the intervening years, his face had become emaciated, his eyes were gouged into his skull, and his skin was creased by age and sadness. “This war is eating my life out,” Lincoln once told a friend. “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”

Then came the assassination. You can see an account of the death and autopsy by Lincoln’s family physician in With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews, a fine new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The handwritten pages are blotched with brown stains— likely Lincoln’s blood. Since it was widely noted that the president had been shot on the day marking the crucifixion of Jesus, the spilling of his blood became imbued with religious resonance. In New York, Congressman James A. Garfield (to become, in 1881, the second U.S. president assassinated) stated: “It may be almost impious to say it, but it does seem that Lincoln’s death parallels that of the son of God.”

Unfortunately, the Christian parallel also prompted some to indulge in the world’s most ancient slander. The Chicago Tribune characterized the assassination as “the most horrid crime ever committed on this globe since the wicked Jews crucified the savior.” Also invoking venerable canards was Lincoln’s successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson. Excoriating Judah P. Benjamin, who had served as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state in the Confederacy, as “a sneaking, Jewish, unconscionable traitor,” and citing the apostle John’s account of the crucifixion, Johnson placed Benjamin in “that tribe that parted the garments of our savior and for his vesture cast lots.”

So much for “malice toward none”—and, perhaps, for the sorry fate of Reconstruction under Johnson’s presidency. But such comments, some of which are to be read at the exhibition or in its more detailed companion volume, provide context and contrast, not substance. For not only are any such sentiments absent from Lincoln’s own writings, but the relationship between Lincoln and the Jews was something else entirely. (With Firmness in the Right is on view till June 7, after which it will travel to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois; it is a perfect companion to the current exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation. Curated by Ann Meyerson and Dina Grossman, with Harold Holzer as historical adviser, the Historical Society exhibition is accompanied by the valuable, recently released Lincoln and the Jews: A History, co-authored by the distinguished historian Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis and by Benjamin Shapell, president of the manuscript foundation that owns many of the striking documents on display.)

For American Jews, Lincoln’s death was associated not with Good Friday but with the simultaneous holiday of Passover and not with Jesus but with Moses, who had liberated his people from slavery but was unable to lead them into the promised land. Many learned of Lincoln’s death on Saturday morning while on their way to Sabbath services. Adolphus S. Solomons, an Orthodox printer and bookseller in Washington DC who had managed Lincoln’s inaugural ball in 1861, noted that “it was the Israelites’ privilege here, as well as elsewhere, to be the first to offer in their places of worship, prayers for the repose of the soul of Mr. Lincoln.” At Temple Emanu-El in New York the congregation rose as one at the news and recited in unison the kaddish memorial prayer. Rabbi Elkan Cohen of San Francisco’s Emanu-El, hearing the news as he mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, “was so overcome,” reads one report, “that, bursting in tears, he sank almost senseless.”

The exhibition offers a sampling of synagogue eulogies. “We should regard Abraham Lincoln,” said Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, “as a son of Israel.” Another eulogist was Lewis Naphtali Dembitz of Louisville, uncle of the future Supreme Court justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis and a Republican leader so devoted to Lincoln’s political creed that he named one son after Henry Clay, the young Lincoln’s political idol, and another after Lincoln himself. Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, of Cincinnati, who had initially jeered at Lincoln’s election (“one of the greatest blunders a nation can commit”), only to become an ardent admirer (“the greatest man that ever sprung from mortal loins”), claimed that Lincoln had once confided to him that he was “bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh” and supposed himself “a descendant of Hebrew parentage.”

Since there is no other evidence supporting such a statement, Lincoln might have been speaking metaphorically. But his ancestors, as the exhibition points out, included New England Calvinists who bore names straight out of the Hebrew Bible. As the Puritans tended to emphasize Hebrew Scripture in general, alluded to their settling in the New World as a sign of the restoration of Israel (and in some cases even imagined Hebrew as the future American language), some aspect of their feelings of kinship may have passed down through the generations. Although Lincoln himself famously belonged to no church, he quoted the Hebrew Bible (the exhibition records) about three times as often as he did the New Testament, and the rhythms of the King James Version run throughout his speeches, his writings, and, it seems, his conversation.

In brief, his was no casual acquaintance. And if the living Jews of the time felt an unusual connection with Lincoln, it is no less clear from the letters, official papers, personal notes, and artifacts gathered here that he seemed to feel a similar connection—one that contrasts starkly with the regnant attitudes of his time. This association, not often examined, may also reveal something about Lincoln’s vision of the world.

 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Some of the items on display may not seem to offer much, being rather of the kind intended to inspire ethnic and religious pride. Did you know that the designer of the 1909 Lincoln penny was a Jew? Or the nineteen-year-old telegraph operator at the White House who broadcast the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the bearded doctor who was among the attending physicians at Lincoln’s deathbed and who appears directly above the president in Alonzo Chappel’s famous 1867 painting, The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln? Or the first man to take a photograph of Lincoln (in 1858) and loaned him his own velvet-trimmed coat for the occasion?

These examples reveal less about Lincoln’s relationship with the Jews than about how, in the mid-19th century, Jewish immigrants were already making their way into the wider society. In 1809, the year Lincoln was born, there were perhaps 3,000 Jews in the United States. By 1840 the number had risen to about 15,000. But by 1860, thanks to extensive immigration from mostly Germanic lands, the figure had leaped upward to 150,000 (one part of a much larger wave that brought over three million immigrants to American shores). “Wherever there is a chance for profitable trade,” the New York Journal of Commerce intoned, Jews “have insinuated themselves.”

Lincoln’s first contact with Jews, in the persons of store owners in Kentucky and Illinois, may have been due to such “insinuations.” But his most important Jewish connection was with a fellow lawyer, Abraham Jonas, who was born in England and had come to the United States in 1819. Jonas’s law practice in Quincy, Illinois was in the same building as Congregation B’nai Abraham, which his family had helped establish. The two lawyers became political allies, fellow admirers of Henry Clay. Both campaigned for the Whig party, were elected to the state legislature, and became active in the anti-slavery Republican party after its founding in 1854. Jonas, apparently no mean politician himself, championed Lincoln, helped organize his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, and worked to propel him into the presidency in 1860. Once in office, Lincoln, who called Jonas “one of my most valued friends,” made him a postmaster—a patronage position—in Quincy, and after Jonas’s death appointed his widow to the position lest the family be left without income.

The Historical Society exhibition gives considerable attention to this friendship, which even extended to Jonas’s children, five of whom moved to the South and two of whom joined the rebel army. Yet Lincoln’s interactions with them remained touching and compassionate throughout. One of them, a lawyer, contacted Lincoln in 1857 on behalf of a black man from Illinois imprisoned in New Orleans for lack of papers; Lincoln raised the money to rescue him. During the Civil War, as Abraham Jonas lay ill, President Lincoln arranged to give another son, a Confederate prisoner of war, a three-week parole to visit his dying father.

The Jonas example is not the only personal relationship that stands out in Lincoln’s associations with Jews. Among his more colorful acquaintances was a chiropodist named Issachar Zacharie, who earned a testimonial letter for alleviating the pain in the presidential feet. Evidently a bit of an operator, Zacharie gained Lincoln’s trust, becoming emissary to New Orleans to imbue his “countrymen” with loyalty to the Union. He also acted as a kind of spy, reporting on Confederate troop movements. His correspondence with the president extended over a period of two-and-a-half years, with multiple White House meetings.

But the close connection felt by many Jews to Lincoln was not, of course, based on personal acquaintance. As the exhibition notes, Lincoln’s position on slavery, together with his ardent advocacy of American possibility, must have resonated deeply with the growing Jewish population. Why else would a Chicago merchant named Abraham Kohn have thought to send the newly elected president a painting of an American flag in whose white stripes was inscribed, in Hebrew, a passage from the book of Joshua: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest”?

It was indeed a special moment in American Jewish history. Not only were Jewish immigrants becoming established themselves but they were raising children who were entering American society. And then there was the effect of the war. Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, a compelling exhibition two years ago at the Yeshiva University Museum (co-presented with the American Jewish Historical Society), suggested that the war served as a “crucible” for American Jewish life. Through its trials, on both sides of the conflict, Jews were inducted into the mainstream of America, a change reflected in politics as well as in commerce and everyday life.

So at home in America were Jews beginning to feel that at least one Union soldier from Ohio could joyfully recount, in 1862, a Passover seder held by “twenty of my comrades and co-religionists belonging to the Regiment.” (His account can be heard on the exhibition’s audio tour.) After vividly describing the elaborate preparations, the menu, and the drinking—“we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider”—he concludes:

There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our G-d and our cause [emphasis added], would have imagined themselves amongst mortals. . . .

Jews entering American life—and confronting, no doubt, many obstacles along the way—must have felt a strong connection with a president who stood out for not erecting barriers, indeed for extending a welcome. During the war, the roster of Lincoln’s Jewish appointments is astonishing. In addition to Jonas, Henry Rice, a dry-goods merchant whom Lincoln knew from Springfield, was endorsed by him to become a sutler or military storekeeper. C. M. Levy, an Orthodox Jew from New York who had applied for a quartermaster position—responsible for army housing, transport, clothing, and supplies—earned this 1862 approbation addressed by Lincoln to his secretary of war Edward M. Stanton: “We have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” and Levy is “a capable and faithful man.” About 50 other Jews would likewise serve as quartermasters for the Union. In addition, although Congress had ruled that chaplains in the army had to be “ordained” ministers of “a Christian denomination,” Lincoln responded positively to the direct appeal of a Jewish candidate for such a position, and in July 1862 the chaplaincy was opened to non-Christians for the first time.

Lincoln also promoted Jewish officers in the Union Army, a fact hardly worth noting unless one knew that, as the exhibition points out, “In the military, anti-Semitism was casual, yet virulent and omnipresent.” Union generals seemed to endorse it as policy. Maybe that is why we see Lincoln, on multiple occasions, overriding unjustified condemnations or convictions of Jews. In early 1865, he intervened on behalf of two Jewish clothiers, Philip and Meyer Wallach, who, we read, “were unjustly convicted of selling contraband goods to the Confederacy.” But he also let stand a conviction if he found it just: a replica of a drawing here shows a procession of five deserters being led to their execution in Virginia in 1863. One of them is a Jew with a rabbi at his side.

The most notorious example of official anti-Semitism during the war was, of course, General Ulysses S. Grant’s December 17, 1862 order expelling “Jews as a class” from the territory he controlled. Grant was attempting to combat cotton smugglers and had decided that Jews were the villains. One Union soldier, in a letter here, testifies to having observed cotton smuggling, but not by Jews: “We soldiers can’t understand why they were singled out.” Others appealed directly to Lincoln, who had not been aware of the order. He said: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” The order was rescinded.

 

Lincoln’s record in all of this is stunning, unlike that of any American president until the 20th century. While little of the information at the exhibition seems new, and the subject has even inspired previous books (including one as early as 1909 by Isaac Markens)—and while the exhibition would have benefited from greater narrative continuity—the overall effect is powerful: strong enough to place Lincoln in a new light. Abraham Lincoln was a philo-Semite.

But what was the source of this sentiment? There is, as we’ve said, his family history to consider—his religious heritage—which may have made him less likely to indulge in calumny. But, given his contacts and friendships, he also had to have developed a fairly sophisticated understanding of Jewish beliefs and even of Jewish history. The exhibition points out that his sympathies may have also been stirred by “Jewish-themed” plays that the Lincolns attended in 1864 and 1865, including Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Twice he attended Gamea, or The Jewish Mother, about the 1859 abduction and secret baptism of a Jewish child in Italy on order of the Pope; and he also saw Leah, the Forsaken, a play about 18th-century Austrian anti-Semitism that the editor of Harper’s Weekly believed was relevant to the war then being waged over a similarly “outcast race.” But these were late experiences, and could only have confirmed and deepened already mature views.

One important reason for the affinity, emphasized in both the exhibition and the book, was Lincoln’s interpretation of the national project—his vision of equality. His treatment of Jews as fellow citizens seems in this reading to be a corollary to his convictions about slavery. Objecting to restrictions on immigration in 1855, for example, he wrote: “I have some little notoriety for commiserating with the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.” This is the opening quotation in the Historical Society’s exhibition, which throughout underlines Lincoln’s striving for “tolerance and inclusivity.”

This theme surely had something to do with the affinity, but it is too broad to yield insight into the case, specifically, of the Jews. Was it, perhaps, that Lincoln felt that Jews in particular shared his vision? There is certainly a tendency today to associate Jewish identity itself with a belief in “tolerance and inclusivity,” but the behavior of Jews during the Civil War was more equivocal. Of the 10,000 Jews who fought, 3,000 served in the Confederate army. As Lincoln had to know, moreover, there were rabbis who opposed abolition (some to their later embarrassment). Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, for example, supported Douglas over Lincoln and adduced biblical justifications of slavery. In a discomfiting passage in their book, Sarna and Shappell mention that, according to some sources, the family of John Wilkes Booth was itself of Jewish extraction.

So are we making too much of this matter of a specific affinity? In a recent collection, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives, edited by Eric Foner, the historian Robert Carwardine writes that Lincoln strove to maintain good relations with all faiths, and met with a “full gamut of religious visitors.” Carwardine also suggests (without mentioning Jews) that many religious groups claimed Lincoln for their own: Quakers pointed to his Virginia ancestors, Baptists to his parents’ faith, Episcopalians to his wedding ceremony, Presbyterians to the ministers he heard, spiritualists to séances at the White House in which Mary Todd Lincoln tried to contact the spirit of her dead son. “Methodists, Unitarians, Universalists, and Catholics—not to mention Freemasons—have found, or invented, reasons to clasp him to their bosoms.”

Is the Jewish case just another example, then, of Lincoln’s wide embrace? I don’t think so. What makes it so peculiar when compared with these other examples is that Lincoln’s attitudes toward Jews were so dramatically at odds with mainstream American opinion at the time. This suggests an intellectual consanguinity, even an aspect of shared belief (recall Lincoln’s intimate affection for the Hebrew Bible). Mary Todd Lincoln told friends that Lincoln said he wanted to see Jerusalem before he died. In the exhibition we are greeted in the final gallery by Frederick Edwin Church’s luminous, immense Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, painted in 1870: the city “as Lincoln might have seen it had he lived.”

If Lincoln did share with the Jews a particular religious temperament, in what did it consist? This is difficult to specify because his approach to religion tended to be solitary and ruminative, and it shifted over the years. Aside from his reading in the Bible, he regularly met at the White House, as Carwardine reports, with preachers and ministers of various sects—including one self-proclaimed prophet and Christian messianist to whom Lincoln announced: “I myself have a regard for the Jews.” All seemed to agree that he was a deeply religious man. In fact, he established more holidays for national religious observance, including the first nationwide Thanksgiving, than any president before him. As the end of the Civil War approached, he evidently devoted much thought to the conflict’s religious significance—the subject, in a sense, of the Second Inaugural, saturated as it is with allusions to both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.

Such generalities aside, some fundamental aspects of Lincoln’s thought are notably consistent with a particularly Jewish orientation. When Lincoln speaks of God and the role God plays in the world, he devotes almost no attention to the idea of salvation or otherworldly reward. For him, our interactions with God are this-worldly. While he made varying endorsements of predestination, his emphasis was on the ways we choose to regulate our lives and on the principles we choose to affirm.

This had something to do with his stubborn attachment to the law, a salient element in his approach to slavery that was at odds with the position of radical abolitionists. Agreeing with the latter’s moral ideals, he nevertheless argued that any alteration to the system had to follow the law meticulously. There were political considerations behind this stance, needless to say, but it was his adherence to law that accounted for the limited scope of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only the slaves in the rebelling states. Lincoln’s belief was that he could not, as president, simply eliminate slavery—that was left to Congress and the 13th Amendment—but as commander-in-chief in the midst of war, he did have some control over rebel property. He also had the authority to act to suppress rebellion. That’s what freeing the slaves in the rebellious states would do, and why the proclamation was issued in the president’s name “by virtue of the power vested in me as commander-in-chief.” It calls itself a “fit and necessary war measure.”

The point of this fastidiousness was to emphasize his main principle: fidelity to law was essential. In fact, it was the issue at stake in the Civil War itself: secession was an act of legal violation. As he suggested in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln wished to demonstrate that it was possible, while clinging strictly to laws founded on the principles of equality and democratic governance, for a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” to “long endure”—and not just to endure but to usher in “a new birth of freedom.”

In that same address, he speaks in high religious tones while insisting that the “unfinished work” and the “great task remaining” are the responsibility of “us the living.” Fulfilling that responsibility, however, would not yield a perfect world. When, in its Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court suggested that the Declaration of Independence had not extended equality to “negroes,” Lincoln retorted that the Declaration was meant to be a “standard maxim for free society,” regardless of society’s failings at the time, and that it should serve as a guide “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” The world would always fall short, but it would be up to the people to labor for the ideal’s achievement.

Some of the same spirit appears in the Second Inaugural, which speaks of “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” The conviction of being “right” is a human conviction, therefore necessarily incomplete. Lincoln is convinced, as he says, quoting Psalm 19, that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” But he knows human efforts are unending.

I am using broad strokes here, but it strikes me that this set of emphases—on this-worldly activity, on law as the basis and necessary means of human action, on human incompleteness, and, in other contexts, on education as an instrument of freedom—are congruent with bedrock Jewish ideas and values, and in their own way help explain the close connections between Lincoln and the Jews. So, at any rate, it was believed at the time. Lewis Naphtali Dembitz, in his eulogy at the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, had it partly right: “Of all the Israelites throughout the United States, there was none who more thoroughly filled the ideal of what a true descendant of Abraham ought to be than Abraham Lincoln.”

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