Did you know that more than twice as many books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than weeks have passed since his death almost 150 years ago? With Passover beginning at sundown, we’re honoring Lincoln’s legacy by exploring an untold aspect of his personal life and political career: his friendships with Jews. During his tenure at the White House, he fought for freedom—combatting widespread anti-Semitism and appointing the first Jewish military chaplain. Recently, we sat down with Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and co-author of the text, Lincoln and the Jews: A History, Jonathan Sarna. His book shares the title with our groundbreaking exhibition on display until June 7.
The exhibit highlights Lincoln’s close relationship with Jews. Can you describe these relationships and what exactly about them was groundbreaking?
The exhibit and my book illuminate Lincoln’s lifelong interest in Jews and put it into context. Of course the first Jews he learns about are in the Bible, but even as a young lawyer, he befriended a Jew at a time when a lot of people would not have done that. In fact, Lincoln’s life coincided with the emergence of Jews on the national scene. When he was born, there were scarcely 3,000 American Jews. By his assassination in 1865, there were more than 150,000. And in that sense, his personal encounters with Jewish Americans reflect a microcosm of how America was coming to terms with its growing Jewish population. Americans and Jews were both changed by this encounter. But what is so interesting is that Lincoln, probably more than any previous president, had Jewish friends—starting from his time in Illinois. And when you know Jews that of course shapes the way you view Jews. Lincoln does more than any previous president to promote the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and to transform them from outsiders to insiders.
Before 1864, Lincoln is very close to Abraham Jonas, a Jewish clothier and merchant who he first meets in Illinois. Jonas was very interested in political strategy and has a lot to do—much more than historians realize—with shaping strategy that wins Lincoln the nomination and the White House. But when Jonas passed away in 1864, it so happens that Lincoln became particularly close with a podiatrist named Issachar Zacharie. Zacharie is a mysterious figure. There is no doubt that he was dealing with Lincoln’s feet, and beyond that, Lincoln was also using him as a spy. Zacharie was trying to win support for Lincoln from Jews, especially in Louisiana. Zacharie worked really hard for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864. During the campaign, it is clear that Lincoln is aware of the Jewish community and believed at least its liberal members were going to support him. But he won over other people, too. Young people like Abraham Dittenhoeffer, who was a New York-transplant from the South. Even though he was brought up on southern principles, Dittenhoeffer converted to anti-slavery. He was persuaded that people whose own ancestors were enslaved in Egypt should not support slavery in America. Dittenhoeffer even brings relatives to the Republican cause and plays a role in Lincoln’s election.
Can you describe General Orders No. 11? What effect did it have on American Jews? Did it become a national topic of conversation?
Under General Orders No. 11, Ulysses S. Grant expelled Jews from his war zone [which encompassed parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky]. Grant had persuaded himself that the smuggling—which was prolonging the war effort and was a problem— was caused by Jews. Part of this was because it was common at the time to call all smugglers “Jews.” Just as you would call a northerner a “Yankee,” smugglers were “Jews.” There’s no question that Jews were smuggling, just as there were soldiers smuggling, and non-Jews smuggling. But fortunately for the Jews, Grant was attacked within 48 hours of issuing that order. At the time, a lot of the telegraph lines were cut and because of this, news of the order spread very slowly. So, only about 100 Jews were affected by it. Only in Paducah, Kentucky, were all the Jews are ordered out.
When the order reached Paducah, a man named Cesar Kaskel was expelled. Kaskel, who was in the clothing trade, knew a lot about advertising. Everywhere he went on his way from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., he distributed a press release on General Orders No. 11. He’s a little like the Paul Revere of this story. It’s thanks to Kaskel that the Associated Press picked up this story and sent it across the country. So the nation does hear about it, but what’s fascinating how quickly the order is reversed. It takes a while for word of it to reach Lincoln because of the telegraph lines are down. But when he finds out, he’s quick to act, declaring, ‘I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.’ Lincoln said the right thing and the Jewish community—even people who hadn’t supported him for election in 1860—is very grateful.
How did General Orders No. 11 affect the rest of Ulysses S. Grant’s career?
It comes up and is a big issue when Grant runs for president in 1868. Suddenly his enemies pounce on General Orders No. 11 and much was written and spoken about it. Grant apologized. Grant really spent the rest of his career proving that he has no prejudice against Jews. He appointed Jews and befriends Jews and really wanted to make sure that nobody thought that he was a man of prejudice. And, his wife wrote in her autobiography that Grant looked back on the order as one of his greatest mistakes.
The Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s reversal of General Orders No. 11 were both issued in early January of 1863. Are the two documents linked?
It’s December 28, 1862, when General Orders No. 11 reached Paducah, and Lincoln reversed it by January 5, 1863. That’s no time. I’m not sure if Washington could move that quickly today.
This was just as the Emancipation Proclamation was being published, and some people linked them. The Jewish community was very worried that when blacks were emancipated, the Jews would become the new out-group. Jews put these two laws together and decided that it was a deliberate policy of exchanging one out-group for another. That of course was not correct, but it is easy to understand why Jews thought it was correct. And you can certainly see in the Jewish newspapers, very strong articles, one of them asking ‘Are we slaves in this country?’ This illustrates the fear that Jews were experiencing—they envisioned themselves as the new slaves.
Had Lincoln not acted the way he did, then the history of Jews in American would have been entirely different. America would be remembered as another one of these places where Jews were expelled and targeted. It would never have had the reputation overseas as it does have without his reversal. It sent a message that maybe America is different.