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Book review: Lincoln and the Jews


THOUGH NONE are alive today to tell the tale, American denizens of the 19th century knew it as a period in which it was not only common, but frequently fashionable, to be anti-Semitic.

Newspapers frequently included anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Judaic, epithets in their editorial columns. Otherwise sensible politicians, from backwoods legislators all the way to Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant, openly orated or wrote anti-Semitic screeds.

Even governments felt free to indulge in anti-Semitism; until the 1820s, the state of Maryland denied Jews the right to serve as elected officials, attorneys or jurors.

In that sense, Abraham Lincoln was something of an oddity.

Throughout his long legal and political career, the only thing he ever did that could even be remotely considered anti-Semitic was an 1861 speech in which Lincoln said that America’s sectional crisis could only be solved through “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity and a firm reliance on Him.”

A sin of omission, in other words, after which Lincoln — who listened to Jewish protests about the exclusiveness of the word “Christianity” — never made the same mistake again.

Although Lincoln’s exposure to Jews and Judaism during his youth on the rustic frontier was likely limited to references he read in the Bible and Gospels, he had an almost instinctive sensitivity to Jewish concerns. As a leader, he took such concerns seriously and often acted on them.

Responding to American Jewish appeals, he was the first president to authorize Jewish chaplains in the US military, quickly overturned Gen. U.S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11 which sought to expel all Jewish residents from an entire region during the Civil War, and broke precedent by readily appointing Jews to important administrative and military positions.

Even in his role as a wartime disciplinarian, Lincoln was even-handed. When in 1863 he authorized the execution of five Army deserters — two Protestants, two Catholics and one Jew — a rabbi was included among the clergymen who accompanied the condemned men to their deaths.

The president whose legacy will always be associated with his firm conviction that “all men are created equal” most definitely refers to blacks as well as whites, was not inconsistent when it came to other minority groups who are parts of the American quilt.

AN ONGOING theme in this astute and readable history by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell is that Lincoln not only “tolerated” Jews in terms of fair play, but admired and eventually came to rely on them.

From the earliest days of his legal career in Springfield, Ill. until his assassination in 1865, Lincoln actively sought the support and counsel of American Jews.

Some of them became lifelong friends, most notably Abraham Jonas, an Orthodox Jewish political activist who met Lincoln in Quincy, Ill., and remained one of his most trusted supporters and advisors for the rest of his life.

Not all American Jews, of course, were admirers of Lincoln or his positions regarding slavery and union. Many, in fact, such as the influential Reform Jewish leader, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, were among his fiercest critics.

Lincoln, however, who is remembered today not only for his thick skin when it came to opponents’ barbs, but his ability to ultimately win over many of his one-time foes (Rabbi Wise included) never held Jewish opposition to him or his policies against Jews as a people.

His admiration for Jews was open and oft-expressed; his respect for their religion was reflected in his frequent and effective use of quotations from Jewish scripture in his speeches.

Lincoln and the Jews concentrates mostly on the interaction between the president and the Jews in the context of the Civil War and the political realm, not a surprising focus, since the war was the pivotal issue of the day and Lincoln was an extremely political man.

But the nature of his relationship with Jews was broad and sometimes personal, and these aspects of the story are also told here.

There were also rather strange, and sometimes dark, commonalities. A fascinating example is Lincoln’s brief meeting with a self-described prophet, Henry Wentworth Monk, whose bearded visage was used by the pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt as a model for Jesus.

Monk asked Lincoln that since he was busily emancipating the black man, why didn’t he work to emancipate the Jew? The prophet advised Lincoln that the best way to do that would be to restore the Jews to their national home in Palestine.

“That is a noble dream, Mr. Monk, and one shared by many Americans,” replied Lincoln. “I myself have a regard for the Jews.”

It’s an amazing, and very little known, dialogue, almost amounting to a pre-Herzl endorsement of Zionism by no less than Abraham Lincoln himself.

Another historical scrap uncovered in the book was the rather less laudatory possibility (still not confirmed) that the Booth clan of Maryland, of which Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a member, may have descended, at least in part, from Hebrew antecedents.

The book tells these and many other stories professionally and artfully. The prose is most likely the fruit of the pen of Jonathan Sarna, a historian who really needs no introduction when it comes to American Jewish history. His writing is fluid and riveting at once, the very antithesis of the dry and inaccessible text that afflicts so many historical works.

It is also beautifully produced (a weighty book in more ways than one) and profusely illustrated, although the reproduction of so many historical manuscripts (many from the private collection of Benjamin Shapell, credited as co-author) can make one a bit bleary-eyed after awhile, especially since Lincoln was no John Hancock when it came to penmanship.

It’s a minor complaint. All in all, Lincoln and the Jews is an extremely satisfying literary and historical experience, an invaluable addition both to the massive accumulation of material on Lincoln and the much smaller collection of information on his relationships with American Jews.

Chris Leppek may be reached at

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountian Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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