A noted historian asks new questions about Abraham Lincoln.
When Sarna (American Jewish History/Brandeis Univ.; When General Grant Expelled the Jews, 2012, etc.) noticed, to his surprise, that there was a Lincoln Street in Jerusalem, he became curious about the American president’s connection to Jews. Drawing on archival sources and historical accounts, the author paints a well-delineated portrait of Lincoln as a friend and advocate of Jews before and during his political career. Heavily illustrated with images and manuscripts from the Library of Congress, many other collections and especially from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the book offers an enhanced perspective on Lincoln’s moral and ethical decisions, as well as his personal friendships. Jewish immigration burgeoned during Lincoln’s lifetime. A population of about 3,000 in 1809 grew to more than 150,000 Jews in 1865, the year Lincoln was assassinated. Along with this increase came a rise in anti-Semitism, testing Lincoln’s beliefs about equality and justice. Growing up, he learned about Jews from the Bible or local gossip. His first interactions occurred in Illinois, where he met Abraham Jonas, a British immigrant, who became a lawyer, state legislator and active member of the Whig party; like Lincoln, Jonas later became a Republican. Jonas served as committee chairman for the Lincoln-Douglas debate, shared Lincoln’s views on slavery and, writes Sarna, “was a particularly shaping influence. Jonas served for him as an enduring model of what it meant to be a Jew….” When Jewish soldiers—more than 7,000 served in the Union Army—petitioned for a rabbi as chaplain, Lincoln complied; in 1862, a Passover Seder was held on a battlefield in West Virginia. Many Civil War generals were blatantly anti-Semitic but none so powerfully as Ulysses Grant, who issued General Order No. 11, expelling Jews from the area under his command, an order Lincoln immediately countermanded.
Sarna and manuscript collector Shapell offer a vivid, fresh perspective on Lincoln’s life and times.