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Honest Abe and the Children of Abraham

Mitchell Abidor
July 27, 2015

Much Ado About the Inconsequential

by Mitchell Abidor

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Reviewed in this essay: Lincoln and the Jews, by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shappel. Thomas Dunne Books, 2015, 288 pages.

LincolnTHERE HAVE BEEN some sixteen thousand books written about Abraham Lincoln, few of them, I’d wager, dedicating many pages to his chiropodist (as podiatrists were then called). Issachar Zacharie was a man who made magnificent claims about his education, which was in reality all but non-existent; who plagiarized an already existing text on chiropody and replaced the author’s name with his own; and who somehow managed to wheedle his way into the heart of the Washington establishment at the time of the Civil War and work on the corns and bunions of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, William Seward, and Abraham Lincoln.

“Dr. Zacharie has operated on my feet with great success, and considerable addition to my comfort,” wrote President Lincoln in 1862, by way of an endorsement of Zacharie’s services. So strongly did Lincoln and his Secretary of State Seward feel about him that they jointly wrote, in the middle of the bloodiest war in U.S. history, about “the great skill of Dr. I. Zacharie in operating on corns, bun- ions, and other troubles of the feet” and expressed their desire that “the soldiers of our brave army may have the benefit of the doctor’s surprising skill.” Remarkable solicitude or poor prioritization?

The most thorough examination of Lincoln’s daily activities shows that Zacharie treated Lincoln’s feet and back but four times, yet somehow, as we learn in Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shappel’s Lincoln and the Jews, he managed to parley this into so close a relationship with the president that he was sent on a spy mission to the South, attempted to negotiate peace with the Jewish Confederate leader Judah P. Benjamin, was ordered released by Lincoln when he was imprisoned on this journey, and routinely discussed issues of war and peace with Lincoln. Yet when Lincoln rejected the peace plan the good doctor had proposed to Benjamin — the joint North-South conquest of Mexico, which would then be turned over to the Confederacy — Zacharie would say of the president that he “lacks stability. He has it in his powers to stop all fighting in twenty-four hours if he would follow out my program.” A few weeks later, he would say of Lincoln and Seward that he had “no confidence in them.” If khutspe was not yet in common usage in the U.S. at the time, Zacharie should have inspired its entry into American life.

FEW BOOKS would have dealt with this minor sideshow in the life of America’s greatest president, but it receives thorough coverage here because, Sarna and Shappel tell us, only three books prior to this one have dealt with Lincoln and the Jews. This should hardly be a surprise, since Jews constituted, at the time of the Civil War, only half of one percent of the American population, and Lincoln never encountered a flesh-and-blood Jew until the 1840s, when he was already past 30. The total number of Jews who fought in the Civil War on both sides, ten thousand, would half-fill Madison Square garden for a hockey game; the total number of fighters, however, would fill the arena for every game for three years.

Sarna and Shapell are able to diagram what they call “Lincoln’s Jewish Connections,” but their ability to do so is a sign of just how restricted that group was. Lincoln had, we learn, five Jewish friends, including the eccentric Zacharie (though I don’t know if one can fairly call the person who removes your bunions a “friend”). Among them was Abraham Jonas, a lawyer, politician, postmaster, Orthodox Jew, and Freemason whom Lincoln called “one of my most valued friends.” A wider circle of some fifty-five Jews were “acquaintances,” and again the definition is a loose one: they included people he met with once or twice for specific issues, but with whom socializing was not in the cards.

On November 4, 1862, he wrote to Edwin Stanton that “I believe we have not yet appointed a Hebrew” when advocating for the appointment of New Yorker Morris Raphall as assistant quartermaster with rank of captain. In fact, other ‘Hebrews’ had been appointed, but Lincoln was simply unaware of their Jewishness. This is all to his credit, but it makes a mockery of tabulating his Jewish circles. Lincoln’s superiority over his peers, which Sarna and Shapell thoroughly demonstrate, was such that not only was he never guilty of making an anti-Semitic utterance, but that Jewishness was such a matter of indifference to him that even after having appointed Jews to posts, he wasn’t aware of the fact.

In this he was rare: Along with Ulysses Grant’s infamous General Order no. 11 (discussed below), which expelled Jews from his field of action, Sarna and Shapell remind us how deep-grained and ugly Jew-hatred was in Northern circles. General Benjamin Butler, for example, after conquering New Orleans, a major Jewish center, wrote of them as “Jews who betrayed their Savior & also have betrayed us.” Even abolitionists were guilty of it, Theodore Parker going so far as to say of Jews that “they did sometimes kill a Christian baby at the Passover or the anniversary of Haman’s famous day.”

Lincoln’s acceptance of Jews as Americans like any other did little to win them to his side, however, when he ran for president in 1860. There were Jews in the Republican Party who campaigned actively for him, but the authors admit that in New York, even then home to the largest Jewish community of the period, “German immigrants... as well as Jews voted against him by a two-to-one margin,” and that “only four of the North’s eleven most populous cities (where Jews tended to live) gave him a majority.” In the end, the question is of little importance, since “the 50,000 or so Jewish voters made no difference whatsoever in the election results.”

FOR ALL OF THEIR overreaching, the authors end up burying the only two real Jewish issues that Lincoln dealt with during his presidency: that of military chaplains, and Grant’s General Order no. 11.

When Congress passed a bill authorizing the appointing of chaplains, it contained a proviso stating that “the Chaplain... must be a regular[ly] ordained minister of a Christian denomination,” eliminating the possibility of Jewish chaplains. Interestingly, the most outspoken opponent of this measure’s anti-Jewish tendency was the most virulent of Copperheads, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, whose hatred of Lincoln (and blacks) was so great that he supported the Southern cause while in the U.S. Congress and was ultimately deported behind Southern lines. Vallandigham noted that the chaplaincy bill excluded “a large body of men in this country... of the Hebrew faith,” and offered a counterproposal that made eligible “those at least who are of the Hebrew faith and who, by the terms of the bill, are unjustly and without constitutional warrant excluded from it.”

Lincoln was less forthright than this Copperhead and signed the measure as it stood, exclusionary clause and all. In order to combat the bill, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites sent a rabbi, Arnold Fischel (defined as a Lincoln “acquaintance”), to meet with the president. Lincoln told Fischel that “it was the first time this subject had been brought under his notice” and that he would consider the matter. His solution was eminently political: Lincoln didn’t ask to have the language repealed or revised. Instead, working with Congress, he had it interpreted in such a way that any regularly ordained minister at all would be recognized. Within a month of this Talmudic legerdemain, the first Jewish chaplains were named.

The matter of Grant’s General Orders no. 11 were discussed at length in May 2013. In short, on December 17, 1862, General Grant, disgusted by speculators and smugglers in the area of his command — a disgust exacerbated by a request by his father, with two Jewish partners, for a permit to export southern cotton north — expelled “Jews as a class” from his zone. The order had its greatest impact in Paducah, Kentucky, where the Jewish community was indeed expelled from their homes. Organized Jewry entered into action, contacting Lincoln, who, as in the case of the chaplains, appeared to be ignorant of Grant’s order. A Jew from Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, went to Washington, was received by the president, and succeeding in having him rescind the order.

These, in reality, were the only two Jewish issues of any importance during the Civil War. That this should be so is hardly surprising, given the insignificance of the Jewish presence. That some Jews deserted and asked for pardon of the famously benevolent president, as documented in this book, is only normal. That a Jew commanded the troops that put down the 1863 draft riots in New York, that Lincoln received a suit from a Jewish tailor, that he bought eyeglasses from a Jewish optometrist, that a Jew designed the Lincoln-head penny, are pleasant side-lights but ultimately of no importance. Sarna confesses that “[t]hese and similar interactions between Lincoln and Jews might, on their own, seem trivial. For the most part, they have escaped historians’ notice. Aggregated, however, they form a pattern. The president of the United States, they show, insisted on treating Jews on the same basis as everybody else.” Indeed.

The why of this is unanswerable, though Sarna and Shapell consider it to be founded in Lincoln’s childhood experience: “his youthful image of the Jew was primarily shaped by what he learned at home, from his parents’ church, and his own reading.” Was any of this so different from what was imbibed by most Americans? It’s impossible to establish so linear a relation between upbringing and any person’s conduct, much less that of someone as extraordinary as Lincoln. Had his background been the cause of the Lincoln we had, we’d have been swimming in Honest Abes in the middle of the 19th century. Instead we had one unique man.

THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY hosted an exhibit tied in to this book that ran from March 20-June 7. The exhibit had the great and obvious advantage of providing us with the presence of the actual documents reproduced in the Sarna book. But it also had the signal disadvantage of providing explanatory texts even more summary than the book, and which therefore exaggerated the unimportant to almost comic proportions.

An interactive timeline of Lincoln’s dealing with Jews, titled “Open Doors to the White House,” provides information on key meetings and interactions between Lincoln and Jews. We are told of how a Jew managed the first inaugural ball, how Lincoln requested that Seward meet with a Jewish lithographer, and how Lincoln pardoned a Jewish slave trader in July 1863 who was “an unsavory character.” There is more along these lines, and one can only wonder why the organizers would think that displaying such frivolous information in any way exalts either Lincoln or the Jews.

The overinterpretation of facts that plagues Lincoln and the Jews was continued in the exhibition. In an 1860 letter to the great Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, we are told, “Lincoln referred to himself as a humble candidate. Perhaps he even saw himself as an outsider, like the Germans and Jews he befriended.” That such balderdash can appear in an historical exhibition is shocking. Given Lincoln’s less than robust record as an officeholder, might that not have been the reason he considered himself as a “humble candidate”? Why drag the Jews into everything?

Similarly, Lincoln is turned into a Zionist avant la lettre when a comment in a letter to Zacaharie, in which Lincoln mentions the podiatrist’s access to “his countrymen” in the South, is interpreted to mean that “Lincoln recognized the Jews as a nation, not only a religion, a concept he likely gleaned from the Old Testament.” Mightn’t it be that he simply used a common word for people of a like kind, and wasn’t thirty years ahead of Herzl?

Lincoln and the Jews ends with Sarna and Shapell speculating that “the Jewish love affair with all things Lincoln harks back, one suspects, to Lincoln’s own remarkable regard for the Jews.” This is nonsense. I fell in love with the Civil War as a 7-year-old when I saw John Ford’s 1959 film The Horse Soldiers. I’ve read about and thought about the Civil War for over fifty-five years. Never, not once, have I thought about Lincoln in regard to the Jewish question, and in this I’m certain I’m not alone.

Jews have no especial “love affair with all things Lincoln.” Instead, just as Jews acted and reacted like other Americans during the Civil War, they react to Lincoln in various ways. He is loved by Jews no more and no differently than by most Americans outside the Ku Klux Klan: for his fundamental decency, his humanity, his ability to grow and change the positions he took on slavery and the black race — not because he named Jews to patronage positions. He’s loved because he led a fight that crushed the vilest institution that ever existed in this country. His humane position on Reconstruction is a debatable one: failure to hang and outlaw the rebels left them free to come back in force a decade later and institute a century-long reign of terror. Still, it was consistent with everything for which Lincoln is loved. That he was free of anti-Semitism is a bonus: it shows that we are right to love him. It doesn’t, however, explain why we do.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.