Lincoln & The Jews

The New-York Historical Society has an exhibit on ‘Lincoln and the Jews’ (say what?), so naturally the NYT is all over it:

The show includes about 100 letters, photographs and other artifacts, many never previously exhibited, drawn largely from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, assembled by the collector and philanthropist Benjamin Shapell.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition presents the broader story of Lincoln’s political career and the Civil War through what organizers say is a fresh prism: Lincoln’s complex and sometimes surprising interactions with a religious minority that was beginning to claim an equal place in American life…

Lincoln’s lifetime coincided with a dramatic increase in America’s Jewish population, which grew from about 3,000 in 1809, the year of his birth, to roughly 150,000 in 1860. Growing up in the Midwest, he probably encountered few or no Jews in person until he became a young man. But at a time when anti-Semitism and nativism ran high, the show notes, there is no evidence of Lincoln harboring any animus toward Jews.

Of Lincoln’s foot doctor, Issachar Zacharie:

But Lincoln did send him to New Orleans in 1862 to gauge public opinion among Jews there, in what Zacharie later described as a spy mission. (At one point, the exhibition notes, he enlisted the help of fellow Jews disguised as peddlers.) He made a similar trip to Richmond, Va., in 1863, reporting back to Lincoln on a meeting with Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish secretary of state for the Confederacy.


As is this:

Zacharie also vigorously campaigned in New York for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, reassuring him that “the Israelites” would “vote for you,” and claiming to have secured “trustworthy men to attend to them on Election Day.” (Such comments, a wall label notes, helped to set off scoffing in the Jewish press that any Jewish bloc existed.)

Ethnocentric bloc-voting among American Jews?


Honest Abe also helped start the still in-progress catharsis against ‘anti-Semitism’ rampant among the WASPs, a narrow demographic that, as late as 1980 comprised 90%+ of the country:

Lincoln, the exhibition shows, did much for Jews, individually and as a group. But just how affected was Lincoln by his encounters with them?

Deeply, Mr. Sarna argues. The encounters, he writes in the book, helped push Lincoln past a “parochially Christian” understanding of American identity. In what he called his “most controversial claim,” not made by the show, Mr. Sarna writes that the ecumenical phrase “this nation, under God” in the Gettysburg Address may have been meant as a “silent homage” to Jews who fell on the battlefield, one that “reimagined America in language that embraced Jews as equals.”

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