Book review: Lincoln and the Jews shows friendships, high regard

Abraham Lincoln is a favorite topic of American historians, with 16,000 books on the shelves and 400 new ones added each year. They explore specialized facets of Lincoln’s eventful life, death and the continuing aftermath.

But one area relatively neglected in scholarship about Lincoln and the Civil War era has been his relationship with the Jews.

This gap has now been remedied with “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” by Jonathan Sarna, a pre-eminent scholar of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, and Benjamin Shapell, a leading Lincoln archivist and historian.

The co-authors have produced a book bound to become the definitive tome on Lincoln and the Jews. Based on original documentary sources, the book features a cornucopia of letters, notes and official papers that provide a detailed accounting of Lincoln’s spiritual commitments, political beliefs and observations of people, especially his relationships with the Jews.

The physical book itself is a gem, a hefty, large-format volume featuring crisp color photographs that help readers feel as if they are handling the documents themselves. In broad, sweeping chapters the authors outline Lincoln’s life and career, with special attention to his relationships in the political and professional worlds.

Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809, when there were only about 3,000 Jews in the entire nation. During his childhood Lincoln did not know any Jews.

He received his religious education at home from his parents — non-evangelical Protestants who imbued their son Abraham with a love of the Bible.

Biblical imagery appears throughout  Lincoln’s writings, especially as the president. But the Old Testament stories took on a more serious tone as the nation raced to confrontation over slavery and its abolition.

Lincoln was elected president in 1860 carrying the unredeemed promises of earlier presidents: “All men are created equal.” His greatest challenge was to create equality while preserving the Union, a cause that Jews were fundamentally committed to support, given America’s historic values of freedom and liberty.

We recognize in Lincoln’s correspondence affinities for the Jews and other spiritual allies. For instance, Lincoln understood that blacks and Jews had endured bitter oppression and might unify as Republican Party stalwarts in the post-Civil War era, a hypothesis envisioned but never carried out.

We also learn of Lincoln’s desire to visit Jerusalem (he was unable to do so), and of his close friendship with Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer and legislator from Illinois. Jonas was one of Lincoln’s best friends and a frequent confidant and strategist for the Republican Party, where 50,000 Jewish votes were up for grabs by the 1850s.

As a young man, Lincoln also had access to biblical stories, which he relied upon throughout his life, often quoting the Old Testament. The Second Inaugural Address, after Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, illustrates his affinity for spiritual sources.

“Lincoln and the Jews” includes hundreds of letters and other documents in which the reader is treated to Lincoln’s humility, compassion and respect for humanity. Lincoln’s own writings demonstrate the value he placed on character and personal integrity.

However, the 16th president had a special feeling for Jews; as he once wrote, “We have not yet appointed a Hebrew” and “I myself have a regard for the Jews.”

In fact, we find in the book voluminous correspondence revealing he represented Jews, befriended and admired Jews, defended and pardoned Jews, commissioned Jews, and extended rights to Jews.

Lincoln showed no signs of the anti-Semitism that ran rife through the American body politic at the time. Indeed, the president worked to include Jewish military chaplains, as there were thousands of Jews serving in the Union Army. He also rescinded Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious anti-Semitic orders banning Jewish soldiers from the war zones.

“Lincoln and the Jews” is a major new tool and resource for scholars and readers who continue to be fascinated by the remarkable life and achievements of the 16th president, and how he interacted with Jewish friends, allies and colleagues.

“Lincoln and the Jews: A History” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell (288 pages, Thomas Dunne Books)