Abraham Lincoln's Greatest Gift to the Jews

How Great Emancipator Fought Notion of ‘Christian America’

The Doctors Are In: In this painting by Alonzo Chappel, Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born Jewish physician, gazes intently at the 
dying president.
Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum
The Doctors Are In: In this painting by Alonzo Chappel, Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born Jewish physician, gazes intently at the dying president.

By Lenny Picker

Published April 05, 2015, issue of April 10, 2015.

“In central Jerusalem, close by streets named for the medieval Jewish luminary Moses Maimonides and the modern Hebrew writer Peretz Smolenskin, and abutting the American consulate, lies a crooked street named for Abraham Lincoln. When questioned about what he did for the Jewish people to merit a street named for him in Jerusalem, even those Jerusalemites familiar with Lincoln’s biography shake their heads and shrug.” So writes Jonathan D. Sarna in the introduction of his latest book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” which he coauthored with Benjamin Shapell.

Those Israelis are not the only ones; even someone as knowledgeable as Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, was surprised to discover how much he had to learn about Lincoln’s relationship with Jews, as he and Shapell, who founded the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an educational non-profit, prepared their book for publication this March. Notwithstanding all that had been written before about Lincoln, Sarna said they found a lot of new material. Their research also served as basis for an exhibition on the same topic, which opens at the New-York Historical Society this month and will travel to other locations across the country.

“Nobody realized that Lincoln played such a crucial role in making Jews equal in America. Nobody paid attention to Lincoln’s rhetorical shift away from ‘Christian America’ language, and toward inclusive language,” Sarna states. In their comprehensive and readable narrative history, Sarna and Shappell try to remedy that ignorance among both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. “We make the case that this is a highly important aspect of Lincoln’s life and legacy — that he, unlike many others at the time, viewed Jews as equals and befriended them,” Sarna said in an interview with the Forward.

The roots of Abraham Lincoln’s Judeophilia can be traced back to his childhood in Indiana. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, were Protestants who belonged to a church that opposed the conversion of Jews. That’s because they believed that missionaries were assuming responsibilities for the fate of others that properly belonged to God alone.

Lincoln’s Jewish BFF: Abraham Jonas prevented a conspiracy.
Wells Family Collection
Lincoln’s Jewish BFF: Abraham Jonas prevented a conspiracy.

The future president first had actual contact with Jews when he moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1837, where he encountered Jewish neighbors, clients and political allies. Abraham Jonas, who, like Lincoln, was an attorney and state legislator, became the only person Lincoln is known to have dubbed “one of my most trusted friends.” Jonas’s support at a crucial moment may well have changed the course of history: In 1858, Lincoln lost the election for U.S. Senate. When Henry Asbury, Jonas’s law partner, suggested that Lincoln be considered for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination in a meeting with Horace Greeley, the New-York Tribune editor, this idea was not warmly received — until Jonas reinforced Asbury’s proposal. Jonas next worked strenuously to increase support for the Republican Party, and to secure the nomination for his friend at the party’s convention in Chicago. Before Lincoln took office, Jonas received word from a relative of a conspiracy to prevent his inauguration, possibly with violent means, and urged his friend to take precautions. His warnings were taken seriously: Lincoln was smuggled into Washington at night.

Once Lincoln was in the White House, he displayed his empathy and tolerance for Jews on numerous occasions. The Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry had a Jewish commander and over 30 Jewish members, and, in 1861, elected Michael M. Allen, a Jewish liquor dealer, as the regimental chaplain. The unit was unaware that Congress had just established a requirement that military chaplains must be ministers of “a Christian denomination.” Once Allen learned his election violated that standard, he resigned. But the Fifth Pennsylvania was not daunted by this setback. The regiment promptly elected Arnold Fischel, a teacher and lecturer from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, as their chaplain — only to have the choice nixed by the secretary of war.

This congressional declaration that amounted to second-class status for Jews became a rallying point for American Jewry. Fischel showed up at the White House on December 11, 1861, even though he had been told that Lincoln was too busy to meet. Amazingly, he was invited to speak with Lincoln. The president agreed that the legislation was unjust, and crafted a compromise that allowed Jews to minister to their coreligionists in the army.

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