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Good For The Jews: R.I.P., Abraham Lincoln

By Robert A. Liftig, EdD

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln was an important figure in the history of fair treatment for Jews in the United States; he both exemplified the freedoms under which the nation was founded, and confirmed them for the Jews of that day and for the approaching wave of Jewish immigrants.

Our 16th president was reported to have self-identified as a person of some Jewish heritage, although the issues he faced during his presidency and the people he faced them with have never been considered as having anything much to do with Jews as a “class,” or with Jewish Americans as individuals. On the other hand, Lincoln had significant relationships with Jews and many Jews felt he was even partial to them – by leveling the playing field as members of a non-Christian minority in a majority Christian land.

When the call to battle came after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Northern Jews responded with enthusiasm. Jewish historians proudly note that Jews fought on both sides in the Civil War – around 3,000 for the Confederacy and 7,000 for the Union. There were seven Jewish generals in the Union Army, and, by the end of the war, at least seven Jewish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Yet, northern Jewish peddlers had also been expelled by General Ulysses S. Grant from among his camp followers under the infamous Order #11– which caused protests from Jews, Christians, and representatives in Congress.

There are many curiosities of detail about Lincoln’s relationships with Jewish Americans which provoke further inquiry.

First, there is the curious matter of Lincoln’s Jewish self-identification.

That Lincoln at least thought he had inherited Jewish ancestry from either the Hanks or Lincoln side of his family – or both – has been the object of some conjecture, although all of the “evidence” is circumstantial and almost always involves a list of “possibilities,” among them: that Lincoln’s great-grandfather was named Mordechai; his ancestors came from the town of Lincoln, England, which, during the Crusader riots in the 11th century, saved its Jews by putting them under the Sherriff’s protection; and that the president has been described as having Sephardic features (or Amer-Indian, or Negroid, or Melungeon – a mixture). Add to that, that after he died, Shearith Israel in New York City broke with its tradition by chanting a Sephardic morning prayer in his memory, and that other Jewish communities across the country sat shiva for him.

Lincoln enjoyed many friendships with Jews. Lincoln and Jewish lawyer Abraham Jonas (1801-1864), for example, were in regular correspondence, and Lincoln wrote that Jonas was: “one of my most valued friends.” Their relationship developed just after Jonas settled in Quincy, Ill. Jonas had served in the Kentucky State Legislature and later was re-appointed Postmaster by Lincoln. It was Jonas who suggested to Horace Greeley that Lincoln would make the perfect presidential candidate.

There was also Louis Salzenstein (1811-1884), a storekeeper in the hamlet of Athens, Ill., which was near New Salem, Ill, where Lincoln lived from 1830 to 1837. “Old Salty’s” store served as the post office, and Salzenstein, a prominent member of that small settlement, became one of Lincoln’s trusted friends. Later, in Springfield, where Lincoln met and married Mary Todd, he befriended another Jewish neighbor, Julius Hammerslough (1832-1908), who eventually founded a mail order empire and became the president of the first Jewish synagogue in that state capital. Hammerslough visited Lincoln at the White House and accompanied Lincoln’s funeral train on its sad trip back to Illinois.

Lincoln also enjoyed both a personal and professional relationship with English-Jewish podiatrist (“chiropodist”) Dr. Isaachar Zacharie, (1832-1908) who, more than once operated on the President’s lower appendages. Lincoln made no effort to keep his friendship a secret (as might be expected in a more prejudiced environment). The New York World reported that Dr. Zacharie “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s confidence perhaps more than any other private individual.” In return Zacharie brought out the “Jewish vote” in 1860. Their relationship was one of deep personal trust, and it continued into Lincoln’s White House years. In 1863 Lincoln sent Zacharie on a special wartime mission to New Orleans to report on the state of affairs in that Union-occupied city. Later that year Lincoln put Zacharie on another mission, this time to Richmond, Va. to engage in secret peace negotiations. Six months later Zacharie returned to Washington to report on his meeting with fellow Landsman Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State for the Confederacy, though the proposals he carried were rejected both by Lincoln and his cabinet.

American Jews have correctly believed that Lincoln regularly went out of his way to treat them equally, as can be seen in the story of the prominent rabbi, Dr. Morris J. Raphall (1798-1868) of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. Though Raphall had met Lincoln only once, he felt comfortable enough to ask him to intervene in one matter regarding his son and another regarding his son-in-law, Captain C. M. Levy who had been distributing food and clothing to recovering Jewish soldiers in Washington hospitals, then court martialed and dismissed from the Union’s service. Lincoln interceded, and Levy was reinstated.

Lincoln’s affinity for Jewish-Americans was returned with pride and affection. This is evidenced by a story handed down in my own family. In 1860, a member of one of my cousins’-in-law’s “mispuchah” was a German-Jewish tailor in New Haven. Lincoln made a campaign stop there on his way from New York City to Springfield and Boston, then to New Hampshire to visit his son Robert, at school in Exeter. The candidate arrived by train, expecting a small group of supporters to meet him. Instead, he was greeted by an enthusiastic gaggle of townsmen – including my “mispucha”-in-law Bernard Levy. The German tailor had closed his shop, “borrowed” a large white stallion, and proudly rode by Lincoln’s side as New Haven made welcome the future president. For the rest of his life, the tailor proudly said: “I marched with Lincoln.”

Other American presidents – maybe most of them – had few close Jewish friends – or had occasionally shown themselves to be hostile to Jews, at least during their pre-presidential careers (Grant, of course, is one). But Lincoln had Jewish friends and he welcomed them into the White House. He did not only rely on his Jewish friends; he defended them when they needed it – not only individual Jews, but Jews – and Jewish peddlers – as a class, There were 15,000 Jewish peddlers in the United States in 1860, according to the U.S. Census. In 1863 General Grant issued his infamous Order #11 expelling Jewish peddlers from among his “camp followers” – the only official anti-Semitic action in American Jewish history.

Six weeks after Order #11 was issued, Lincoln revoked it, not simply because of, but certainly in the wake of a tempest of protest from the Jewish communities across the nation.

Whether because of these special considerations, because of their affection for the president, or simply because Jews, like other Northeners, believed in preserving the Union, American Jews enlisted in the northern Army soon after War broke out, some of them in mostly Jewish regiments. Two Union Jewish outfits were raised: Company C of the 82d Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers, made up mostly of recent immigrants from Europe, and the “Perkins Rifles” of Syracuse, New York. For the most part though, Jews served in the War by the side of Christian soldiers.

By the end of the War, Lincoln had appointed seven Jewish generals, highest ranking among them being Hungarian-born Major General Frederick Knefler (1824-1901), commander of the 79th Indiana regiment and veteran both of the Battle of Chickamauga and Sherman’s “March To The Sea” through Georgia.

Not long after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln met with a Canadian Christian Zionist named Henry Wentworth Monk. Monk told Lincoln he hoped that the Jews in Russia and Turkey could be freed from the oppression “by restoring them to their national home in Palestine.” Lincoln answered that what would come to be known as Zionism was “a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.”

Had Lincoln another 20 years, would he have promoted the resettlement of European Jews in the face of the pogroms? Or would Lincoln, after his trip to Jerusalem, have even joined with Herzl and the others to encourage emigration of the Jews to land of their forefathers? And, if that wasn’t practicable, would the “Great Heart” have encouraged immigration to the United States less than four score and seven years before the Alaskan resettlement proposal of 1939 was rejected by F.D.R.? If any of these had come to pass, it might have prevented the Shoah, or at the least provided a safe haven for the Jews of Europe.

Roosevelt refused to spend his political capital on the Alaska proposal, but Lincoln was made out of stronger material. By the time he was assassinated he had already stopped a national fratricide and united a growing nation – and, mostly because it just seemed the right thing to do, and helped the “People of the Book” when few others in the same position might have done so.

Dr. Robert A. Liftig is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fairfield University and a freelance writer. He lives in Westport.

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