In his role as the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln carved a place in history as a champion of African-Americans and one of our most illustrious presidents.
Few, however, knew of Lincoln’s affinity for and admiration of American Jews—a people who, during his lifetime, were often treated as second-class citizens. But now we can learn how the president who delivered millions from slavery was himself a friend to a growing population of Jews in the United States.
This previously little-known aspect of our 16th president’s life is on display in Lincoln and the Jews: A History (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), a comprehensive examination of photographs, letters and personal notes that show Lincoln in a way that he’s seldom been seen before.
It was during Lincoln’s lifetime that Jews emerged upon the national scene in the United States. In 1809, the year of Lincoln’s birth, there were barely 3,000 Jews living in the entire country. But by 1865, the year of his assassination, mass immigration (particularly from central Europe) had caused that number to swell to more than 150,000. Many Americans reacted to this increase with alarm and suspicion, and treated Jews as religious outsiders. Much as it was with other minorities in America, however, Lincoln’s view towards Jews was much more progressive.
In Lincoln and the Jews, authors Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell show how, from a young age, Lincoln befriended Jews and promoted their equality. Displaying a deep knowledge of an affinity for the Old Testament, Lincoln frequently used its language and concepts in his writing. Many of his public appointees were Jews, and he counted Jews among his closest advisors and supporters. He responded to the growing number of Jews in the country by changing the way he spoke about America—for instance, replacing the common idea of a “Christian nation” with the phrase “this nation under God”—and embraced Jews as a part of our national culture.
“As I came across letter after letter in which Lincoln expressed humility, biblical imagery, compassion and respect for a people and a religion, I was transformed as a collector,” writes Shapell in the book’s foreword. “In my research over the years, I have found dozens more, housed in major public institutions, all revealing the inescapable truth of the depth and breadth of this relationship, and Lincoln’s interest in the causes important to Jews.”
Shapell borrows a line from a letter Lincoln wrote following his second inaugural address in describing what drove him to create the book: “It is a truth which I thought needed to be told.”
Co-author Sarna describes a desire Lincoln had: to visit Palestine after the end of his second term as president. The invention of the steamship made that trip possible for many of the president’s contemporaries, including Mark Twain and Herman Melville. “Perhaps the naming of a Jerusalem street in Lincoln’s memory aimed to compensate for this thwarted presidential desire,” Sarna writes. “But Lincoln Street also memorializes the fact that so many American Jews considered Abraham Lincoln to be their friend.”
Lincoln and the Jews not only serves to reveal a little-known aspect of perhaps our greatest president, but it helps to remind us, 150 years after his death, why the force of his personality continues to make him a hero to so many.