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July 17, 2015  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Exhibit explores Lincoln’s relationship with Jews

JUF/JTA news service

At a time when America’s heroes are dwindling, filmmakers and historians have turned to Abraham Lincoln for inspiration.

The 16th U.S. president inspired Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film examining how his political acumen helped him get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment formally abolishing slavery. Another film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, imagines “The Great Emancipator” as a slayer of slaveholding Southern vampires.

Lincoln’s relationship with the Jews, a lesser-known story, is the inspiration for a groundbreaking exhibit that opens Aug. 3 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL.

Titled “With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews,” the exhibit opened earlier this year at the New York Historical Society. It is based on the book Lincoln and the Jews: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell.

“These are not the stories you’ve heard about Lincoln from textbooks,” said Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. “It opens up a whole new world of another aspect of Lincoln’s life.”

Many may be surprised to learn that Lincoln was deeply committed to religious pluralism and had more Jewish friends and acquaintances than any president before him. In 1809, the year of Lincoln’s birth, scarcely 3,000 Jews lived in America. By 1865, the year of his assassination, the number had increased to 150,000.

The exhibit includes a series of letters between Lincoln and Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer from Quincy, IL, who is instrumental in Lincoln’s political rise. In a friendship that spans just over two decades, Jonas is one of the first to support Lincoln’s candidacy for president and urges the Republican Party to woo political outsiders like the “liberal and freethinking Germans” and “Israelites.”

In 1861, Lincoln rewards Jonas with a plum political appointment: postmaster of Quincy. But perhaps the greatest testament to their friendship is Lincoln’s handwritten order in May 1864 to allow one of Jonas’ sons, Charles, then a Confederate prisoner of war, “a parole of three weeks to visit his dying father.”

Lincoln’s fundamental sense of fairness distinguished him throughout his political career. Evidence of this trait appears in many of the documents, photographs, letters, Bibles and other artifacts assembled for the Springfield exhibit.

The items – some being displayed publicly for the first time – are drawn from sources that include the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the Chicago Historical Society, Brown University and the Library of Congress.

The exhibit includes a tracing of Lincoln’s feet and highlights his close relationship with his eccentric foot doctor, the British-born Issachar Zacharie, who is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery. In 1863, The New York World reported that the doctor “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s confidence more than any other private individual.”

Lincoln even sent Zacharie on peace and intelligence missions to the South during the Civil War. The president had just appointed Gen. Nathaniel Banks to replace the anti-Semitic Benjamin Butler in the Gulf. With Jewish connections in New Orleans, Zacharie was the ideal choice to help repair relations with its 2,000 Jews.

Urging Banks to make somewhat mysterious use of Zacharie’s skills, Lincoln said, “I think he might be of service to you, first in his peculiar profession, and, secondly, as a means of access to his countrymen, who are quite numerous in some of the localities you will probably visit.”

Lincoln made bold decisions that transformed Jews from outsiders to insiders in American society. One significant example is the overturning of Ulysses Grant’s General Orders No. 11 (December 1862), which expelled Jews “as a class” from Union-controlled territory (including parts of southern Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi). Born out of frustration with some Jewish cotton smugglers, the edict qualifies as “the most blatant statesanctioned act of anti-Semitism in American history,” according to Lincoln and the Jews.

Daniel Stowell, the Lincoln Presidential Library’s curator for the exhibit, agrees that the countermand of the Grant order showed how Lincoln stood up to anti-Semitic generals. “Lincoln gave wide latitude to generals that were succeeding, and Grant was one of them,” Stowell said. “Lincoln would have had no trouble if Grant said, ‘OK, all peddlers need to leave the area,’ but Lincoln was quoted as saying he did not like condemning a whole group because of a few sinners.”

In September 1862, Lincoln took another bold action, appointing Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia as the U.S. military’s first Jewish chaplain, and that document is included in the Springfield exhibit. At the time there were 7,000 Jews in the Union Army.

“Many Jews did feel like second class citizens, especially in the decades prior to the Civil War, but Lincoln establishes this sense that all sorts of people should be treated as equals. The Emancipation Proclamation was all about that idea,” he said.

(Jennifer Brody is a former associate editor at JUF News and a freelance writer living in Chicago.)

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