To celebrate the upcoming opening of our groundbreaking exhibition, Lincoln and the Jews on March 20, Harold Holzer, the Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and Chief Historian to the exhibition, has signed on as this week’s guest blogger. In his post, he highlights the show and the exciting history it illuminates. So read on and don’t miss Lincoln and the Jews, opening a week from today here at New-York Historical!
“Some of my best friends are Jewish.” It’s an old cliché, but uttered in the mid-19th century, such a statement would surely have raised eyebrows—and, very likely, objections. Abraham Lincoln, however, never believed in “a house divided.” Though he is, of course, best known as a champion of black freedom, Lincoln had a remarkably liberal attitude—and record—when it came to Jews, a record that might be characterized by the words he used in his second inaugural address just six weeks before his death: “malice toward none.”
Lincoln’s relationship with Jews and Judaism is an overlooked subject that will be addressed in the upcoming New-York Historical Society exhibition, Lincoln and the Jews, opening March 20. The exhibition shares its title with the big, beautiful catalogue co-authored by the brilliant historian Jonathan Sarna and mega-collector Benjamin Shapell. Together the two have inspired a display of original documents and objects—many never-before-seen—that illuminate Lincoln’s little-known personal relationships with Jewish people of his day, and explore his landmark official actions designed to protect Jews in crisis and extend to them equal rights.
Visitors will meet Lincoln’s fellow lawyer and political supporter Abraham Jonas, who never lost Lincoln’s affection even when his sons fought for the Confederacy; the Springfield, Illinois, clothiers Hammerslough and Rosenwald, who later founded the Sears Roebhuck empire; Illinois photographer Samuel Alschuler, who took the first photograph ever to show Lincoln with whiskers; and Lincoln’s own Jewish doctor—the beguiling, mysterious, controversial chiropodist (podiatrist)-turned-political emissary Issachar Zacharie, who not only cured the president’s chronically aching feet, but served as Lincoln’s representative to Jewish communities in New Orleans and other cities.
Surprises abound: Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn, to whom Lincoln sent one of his most famous public letters (“Keep the jewel of liberty”) was Jewish-born; a Jewish officer helped quell the New York City draft riots and save its most innocent victims—the residents of the “Colored Orphans Asylum” on Fifth Avenue; Lincoln’s well-chronicled enthusiasm for the theater included attendance at slew of plays on Jewish themes; Lincoln quoted the Old Testament in his writings far more often than the New; and one of the physicians attending Lincoln at his deathbed was a Jewish ophthalmologist!
Most important of all, the show reminds visitors that Lincoln made humane decisions when they mattered most. Throughout American history, military chaplains were required to represent some “Christian denomination.” Lincoln advocated for Jewish chaplaincy rights, arguing that Jewish Union soldiers deserved the comforts of religion, and eventually signed the bill extending that right to Jews. He appointed the first Jewish army quartermasters, as well. And when General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous “General Order Number 11” expelling all Jews from his vast military command in the West, Lincoln rescinded the command—quietly enough to maintain Grant’s loyalty and morale, but loudly enough so American Jews understood and appreciated his resolve to allow no official discrimination.
This is a fascinating, complex, gripping story, and the exhibition a perfect way to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death (April 15)—by celebrating a little-known aspect of his life. The show should not be missed.