Lincoln and the Jews: A Book Review

The Book.

Lincoln and the Jews, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell, is an important book on many levels. First, it is a beautiful book, and very very classy. The illustrations, while not rivaling Michelangelo, are copies of historical ephemera: letters, photographs, newspaper articles and related items. Many are priceless because they are written in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand. The others are important because they are personal connections to Abraham Lincoln.

While much of the illustrated ephemera comes from the Library of Congress or similar Lincoln archives, the bulk of it is from the world-renowned private collection of Benjamin Shapell, lovingly assembled, preserved, protected, and now available to all.

It is not leather-bound and gold-tooled, but it is a book that looks wonderful on the coffee table or the shelf. Or read in entirety. The publishers should be proud.

The Great Man

Then of course, as the title suggests, the book concerns Abraham Lincoln, and is an essential to any and all interested parties, scholars, and collectors of Lincolniana. During the last century and a half, practically everything of even remote interest and connection to Lincoln has been assiduously ferreted out, documented, protected, described and fit to belong to the ages. That new, undiscovered, or hidden-away-for-a-century material has surfaced (or resurfaced) makes Lincoln and the Jews a great and rare treasure. It opens up a hitherto unknown, or under-known aspect of the sixteenth president.

The Jews

Then there is the Jewish connection. Even rarer.

There are no surprises here regarding Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes or treatment toward the handful of Jewish people whose paths he crossed during his adult life. (It is surmised that in his “annals of the poor” upbringing, he had no early Jewish acquaintances.)

By Lincoln’s election in 1860, there were perhaps 150,000 Jewish people in the United States, scattered throughout the country, mostly in pockets of urban areas. It is undeniable that anti-Semitic attitudes permeated, as they always did and do, creating some of the clannish and insular connotations that fed the anti-Semitism. After all, 1860 still acknowledged the pervasive “Know-Nothing” nativism of the previous decade, and some of the “best people,” the people of importance, of prominence, of wealth and power unabashedly held those negative attitudes.

But not Lincoln. Even if this book had no documentation of his ecumenical attitudes toward his Jewish acquaintances, everything we know about him suggests open, fair, respectful and kindly behavior toward all with whom he came in contact, regardless of race, religion, nationality or circumstance. Frederick Douglass, who met Lincoln on a few occasions, remarked that he never felt any distinction because of his color. It is likely that Lincoln’s Jewish connections felt similarly. In other words, Lincoln was a mensch. A human being. No surprise here.

The two important and well-known connections between Lincoln and the Jews, were not  about individual people, but had farther-reaching connotations. He supported appointing Jewish chaplains in the Union army. Where there had been none, by the end of the Civil War, there were fifty. Then there was rescinding Grant’s infamous General Order #11, the expulsion of Jewish sutlers from his army, a sad blot on the Grant escutcheon. Lincoln did not wish to have a whole class or nationality condemned “because of a few sinners.”

What is a semi-surprise, is the number of Jews who rippled around the sixteenth president’s life. There is a wonderful graphic illustration in the front of the book, suggesting just such a ripple effect of the Jews in Lincoln’s circle. A few were long-time acquaintances. By Lincoln’s own words, at least one was a “valued friend.” Abraham Jonas shared a first name, and knew Lincoln since his early days in Springfield. He rode the court circuit with him; he likely broke bread with him during those weeks away from home. He was one of the first who promoted and supported him for President. Lincoln knew the Jonas family, and a half-century later, one of their sons recalled having the martyred President pat his head or tousle his hair. Such was the importance of the remembered link.

And such was the importance of any link, that well into the twentieth century, Jews who were young children with no personal memory of Lincoln, treasured those mementos of their family’s connection – no matter how slight or remote.

The Religious Link

Lincoln was never formally associated with any particular denomination, nor did he join any specific church, although his wife Mary, a lifelong Presbyterian, attended regular services. He occasionally went with her.

This lack of church-going formality does not make a person a non-believer. Lincoln had a deep reverence for God, and was surprisingly knowledgeable in the Scriptures. Mostly Old Testament. In a detailed study of all Lincoln’s scriptural quotes, Old vs. New Testament, the Old predominates.

Judaism has always been perceived as a “questioning” rather than blindly dogmatic faith. In the Jewish religion, questioning is not only permitted, it is usually encouraged. It makes for more conceptual, and hopefully wiser, thinking. Lincoln was undeniably self-educated, and a deeply conceptual thinker. It would not be unreasonable to ponder how much that concept of “questioning” appealed to him, or if he recognized that aspect in the few Jewish people of his closer acquaintance.

The Importance of Lincoln and the Jews

Historians and lay folk can debate the importance of this book forever; some may consider it insignificant or arcane, in that it deals with a minuscule percentage of the population, and not especially mistreated. Black slaves numbered in the millions, and their needs were far greater than the American Jews of 1860.

But even after more than 150 years of space-time, and in an age where esteem has become an endangered species, Lincoln and the Jews is important because of the enormity of respect given to all involved.

Throughout Jewish history, it has always been the wise man who is revered by the community, and in American history, there are few men who consistently displayed such depth of wisdom as Abraham Lincoln. The great respect for this wisdom is pervasive throughout Lincoln and the Jews, and does credit to its author and collector.

Lincoln and the Jews

Sarna, Jonathan D. and Shapell, Benjamin

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2015



About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to Lincoln and the Jews: A Book Review

  1. awax1217 says:

    the truth is that the Jews control money and Lincoln did not want this money to go to the Confederate Nation.

  2. Something on Lincoln that hasn’t been written about at least 50 times? I need to check this out! Thanks, Feather.

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