- - Monday, June 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LINCOLN AND THE JEWS: A HISTORY

By Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $40, 272 pages, illustrated

In an age where it has become so fashionable — in academe and elsewhere — to debunk even the greatest of men, it is refreshing as well as heartening to find this book which demonstrates that President Lincoln’s attitude toward Jews was in keeping with his generally admirable character. Not that Jews loomed very large in this nation when Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 or in the years when he was growing up. As historian Jonathan D. Sarna and manuscript curator Benjamin Shapell, the authors of this sweeping, informative study tell us, there were only 3,000 of them in the United States at the end of the 19th century’s first decade. By the year of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the number of Jewish Americans had increased 50-fold, but that still only amounted to a mere 150,000.

So the authors are correct in pointing out how remarkable it is that from relatively early in his life, Abraham Lincoln knew what were then known variously as Hebrews and Israelites as well as Jews. Indeed, so pervasive was verbal anti-Semitism in 19th-century America that the very word Jew had come to have contextual negative associations. Thus, as “Lincoln and the Jews” notes, “some considered Hebrew and Israelite more respectful terms . In Lincoln’s case, whether he wrote about Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites, he never did so, as far as is known, in a disrespectful way.”

The authors’ scrupulousness is evident in the qualifying phrase “as far as is known,” a quality certainly to be found in their presidential subject. Not all the documents pertain to matters Jewish: We see Lincoln amending by hand a note asking for his salary to be paid from the fifth rather than the first day of each month (he was inaugurated on March 4), “lest he be paid for four days when he had not yet assumed office.” His freedom from any trace of anti-Semitic prejudice is everything one could hope for.

Which is more than can be said for some of his leading generals, notably Butler, Sherman, McClellan and Grant, examples of whose anti-Semitism are provided here in letters. Some of this may be explained (if not excused) by the highly placed Jews in the Confederacy. Not only was Judah P. Benjamin its secretary of state, but also in his home state of Louisiana before the outbreak of war, he had been a United States senator. Its lieutenant governor and speaker of the legislature were both also Jewish. But stereotypical prejudices such as associating Jews with excess profiteering and trading with the enemy also played their part. When Gen. (and future president) Grant actually went so far as to expel “Jews as a class” from the area under his command in the infamous General Orders No. 11, Lincoln instructed his general in chief of the Army to revoke it forthwith.

When a delegation of Jewish leaders came to Washington to thank Lincoln, he met with them and “reaffirmed that ‘he knew of no distinction between Jew and Gentile’ and promised that he would allow no citizen ‘to be wronged on account of his place of birth or religious confession.’ ” The authors go on to write forcefully about Lincoln’s marked sense of fairness: “By revoking General Order No. 11, ensuring that the chaplaincy was opened up to Jews, and appointing numerous Jews to public and military positions of trust, Lincoln dramatically improved the status of Jews in the United States . Many who regularly interacted with Lincoln — including military men, Evangelical leaders, even his own attorney general — displayed no similar sympathies. They exhibited unabashed prejudice against Jews and Judaism. By contrast Lincoln displayed extraordinary sensitivity toward Jews and Jewish interests. More than any previous president, he befriended Jews, defended Jews and promoted Jewish equality.”

Indeed, he could go even further on occasion, practicing a kind of personal affirmative action — although certainly not in a canonical — still less legally enshrined — form. Writing to his secretary of war toward the end of the second year of the Civil War, appointing one C.M. Levy — whom he describes as “well vouched, as a faithful and capable man” — an assistant quarter master with the rank of captain, he actually begins the letter, “I believe we have not yet appointed a Hebrew!”

The authors of “Lincoln and the Jews” point to the significance of “Lincoln’s unequivocal assertion that “I myself have a regard for the Jews,” going on to write that it “comports with his friendships and actions since he became personally acquainted with Jews back in New Salem.” There is so much in this large, handsomely illustrated book to back up their judgment that even those most desperate to find that their idols have feet of clay will look in vain here.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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