by Jonathan D. Sarna & Benjamin Shapell,
New York: Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's, 2015. Pp. xvi, 272.
Illus., diagr., chron., notes, index. $40.00. ISBN: 1250059534
Lincoln Was “Good for the Jews”
It is a fortunate accident of history that the 16th President shared a name with the Hebrew Patriarch because, more than any other President before him (and a number since), Abraham Lincoln shared warm associations with individual Jews and a genuine, abiding respect for the Jewish people. This little-known relationship is meticulously explored by Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Benjamin Shapell, founder of The Shapell Manuscript Foundation in their fascinating Lincoln and the Jews: A History.
To the authors, Lincoln was not only the Great Emancipator of African slaves, but, likewise, of American Jews; indeed, they propose, that his efforts to secure their equality and freedom paralleled and influenced each other. In an era when anti-Semitism (social, economic and political) was commonplace (and often virulent, even among his own Cabinet and highest-ranking generals), laudably, Lincoln, guided by a deep-rooted belief in equality (he saw “no distinction between Jew and Gentile”), befriended, defended, appointed Jews to public office (“We have not yet appointed a Hebrew”) and promoted them in military rank (he appointed seven Jewish generals to the Union forces, and enabled rabbis to become military chaplains for the first time), dined with, conferred with and was advised by Jews (he was doubtless the first Presidential candidate to court the Jewish vote), considered the sensibilities of Jews by replacing Christian references in his addresses, for all their Biblical imagery, with the nondenominational, inclusive “God” and “He from Whom all blessings flow”), extended rights to Jews, encouraged tolerance, and furthered their advancement and inclusion in American society.
The story of Lincoln’s connections with his Jewish contemporaries is set within the context of his life and early career and his Presidential administration, thus digressing to matters unrelated to Jews, but no less hagiographic. Even so, the two aspects may be inseparable. His closest Jewish acquaintance and ally, Abraham Jonas, “one of my most valued friends” (in all of Lincoln’s writings, that phrase is used only once) from their time as fellow members of the Illinois State Legislature, played a major role in his political rise, promoted Lincoln to public notice years before the debates with Douglas, was one of the first to propose Lincoln as the Republican candidate for the presidency in the 1860 election, and, as a campaign strategist, worked backstage at the Convention to secure for him the nomination. Another noteworthy involvement was with his chiropodist (podiatrist) Issachar Zacharie, who treated Lincoln’s singularly painful feet, and who, because of connections among his “countrymen” (that is, other Jews) down South, was smuggled on secret missions to New Orleans and later Savannah to spy, to mingle and gather information, and to promote pro-Union sentiments. (His oculist was also Jewish, and Jewish physicians were among those who attended the mortally wounded Lincoln.)
In his interaction with ordinary Jews, he displayed the same justice, compassion and mercy as with Christians, demanding a hearing for a provost marshal, pardoning a deserter who had left to see his dying mother, and even freeing Confederate prisoners-of-war (including one of Jonas’s sons). “Father Abraham’s” (as he was dubbed) most celebrated intercession on behalf of Jews was his revocation, as soon as he learned of it, of General Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11 that expelled “Jews as a class” from the territory then under his command. (Purportedly directed at peddlers, the entire Jewish community of Paducah, Kentucky was forced out of their homes; it was one of their number who had traveled to the White House.) It is clear that Lincoln’s and the Jews’ relationship was mutually enriching and beneficial, and had an impact as well on the broader America landscape.
Based on primary documents, some newly discovered, and illuminated by hundreds of personal letters (whose handwritten originals are therein reproduced), photographs, paintings and lithographs (many from the Shapell archives), Lincoln and the Jews may easily lay claim to being the definitive work in a unique field of history where Lincolniana, Americana and Judaica intersect. Considering all that has been written about Lincoln, that is saying a lot.
--Mark L. Blackman
Our Reviewer: Mark L. Blackman is a lifelong history and Jewish history buff. His previous reviews include Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War, The Fascists and the Jews of Italy: Mussolini's Race Laws, 1938-1943,Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, Maestro John Monash: Australia's Greatest Citizen General, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia's North Caucasus and Beyond, The Pope's Jews, and ’Soldiers' Tales: Two Palestinian Jewish Soldiers in the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He lives in Brooklyn.