Lincoln and the Jews: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell. Thomas Dunne Books. 288 pages. $40.
At once a fresh perspective on Jewish American life in mid-nineteenth century America and a fresh perspective on President Lincoln, Lincoln and the Jews is also a splendid coffee table attraction. With its high quality reproductions of Lincoln photographs and Lincoln manuscripts (most of them holdings of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the book’s copyright owner), this handsome, oversized volume will be the solution to finding a great gift for friends who are book lovers and especially history fans.
Its main value, however, is the story it tells. Unlike the U. S. presidents who came before him – and most of those who came after him – Lincoln had many Jewish friends. In a country where Anti-Semitism festered, Lincoln showed in his words and actions a full-hearted respect for Jews as a historic people and as fellow citizens. With these perspectives on full display, he stretched the boundaries of political risk-taking. Of course, this attitude toward Jews was thoroughly consistent with the humanism of the man who could craft the Emancipation Proclamation. Talk about bypassing Congress!
When Lincoln was born in 1809, there were only about 3,000 Jews in the entire United States, mostly in the major Atlantic ports. At the end of his life, the number had grown to over 150,000. Lincoln would have met few, if any, Jews during his childhood years. In his professional life as a lawyer and politician, he met many. With some, he developed intimate acquaintanceships and friendships.
As Prof. Jonathan S. Sarna points out in his introduction, “Experience had taught him to trust Jews, even when those around him displayed ugly prejudices against them.”
Among the prominent Jews with whom Lincoln had long and fruitful relationships, Abraham Jonas was perhaps the most important. They met when Jonas moved to Quincy, Illinois. Jonas, a businessman and lawyer, was a dynamic orator and canny politician who served with Lincoln in the Illinois legislature. Both men made the transition from Whig to Republican, and both praised Henry Clay. Jonas was one of the first to consider Lincoln to be presidential material, and he did much to help Lincoln succeed in reaching the presidency.
Issachar Zacharie was Lincoln’s chiropodist and, at Lincoln’s request, was charged with several important political tasks during the Civil War. Among these was some spy work regarding the movement of supplies to the Confederate Army. He also involved in behind-the-scenes peacemaking efforts.
The authors, Sarna and Shapell, very effectively present the paper trail of Lincoln’s complex relationships with these men and many, many others of the Jewish faith. Names like Charles Bernays (consul to Zurich and Elsinore) and Ferdinand Sarner (first Jewish regimental Jewish chaplain in the Union Army) are only two of many dozens of Jewish citizens whose lives connect with Lincoln’s in important ways. With regard to the chaplaincy, it should be noted that until Lincoln got a law passed eliminating the restriction, only Christians could serve as chaplains. This change was at the urging of Jewish acquaintances.
Though Lincoln received great support from the growing Jewish community, the authors do not skirt the fact that many Southern Jews were hostile towards abolition and strong supporters of the Confederate cause.
Lincoln and the Jews is a well thought out and carefully designed production. The glossy, heavyweight paper gives the book a refined, classy feel. The quality of the color reproduction (done in China, of course) is impressive; the page layout balances text and illustrations with grace and generates a respect for Lincoln’s estimable language skill for both formal and informal occasions. To see the evidence of his own hand building responses to solicitations or requesting a favor on someone’s behalf or asserting a position on an important issue makes the reader/beholder feel the very presence of a great humanitarian. Thanks to uncredited book designer Jason Snyder for a splendid job.
One can feel Lincoln’s comfort with his Jewish friends and acquaintances; one can feel their comfort with him. This is a comfort that stems in part from the president’s pushing against the constant pressure to have the United States defined as a Christian nation in its public declarations. He did this not merely as a response to the interests of his Jewish friends but as a matter of larger principle – perhaps a vision – of a truly inclusive nation whose greatness lay in this inclusiveness.
The book benefits from such features as a two-page graphic presentation of “Lincoln’s Jewish Connections,” concentric circles around the hub of Lincoln’s face organized by the nature of the relationship: friends, associates & supporters, acquaintances, appointments & pardons. A blow-up poster of these pages would make a terrific teaching tool.
The endnotes, keyed to the chapters, are extensive, clear, and engaging; the index performs its difficult task with a quiet confidence.
Do I need say that is a dazzling slice of Jewish history in America by a co-author (Sarna) who has already taken on the larger subject in his authoritative American Judaism: A History (2005)? In this new book, Sarna provides a capsule version of the story about how Lincoln revoked General Grant’s infamous order expelling Jews from jurisdictions under his wartime command. The full treatment is in Sarna’s recent When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012).
Make sure that someone you care about receives a copy of Lincoln and the Jews.
This review appears in the April 2015 edition of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).