The name Abraham Lincoln is known to millions, not just in the United States, as one of America’s greatest presidents. He is famous for having maintained the American union and freed its black slaves. Less known is that he also championed the rights of Jewish Americans, even when it was difficult and unfashionable to do so.
|Replica of the 34-star silk flag presented to Abraham Lincoln by his friend, Abraham Kohn (1819-1871) of Chicago, on Lincoln's departure for Washington D.C. in 1860 as President-elect.|
The inscription is from Joshua 1:9.".הֲלוֹא צִוִּיתִיךָ חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, אַל-תַּעֲרֹץ וְאַל-תֵּחָת: כִּי עִמְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ"
"Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage; be not affrighted, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."
Of President Lincoln’s actions to assist the Jewish people, his most notable and public manifestation was Lincoln’s cancellation of a general order by Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant. On December 17, 1862 (the 26th of Kislev, 5623 in the Hebrew calendar), General Grant issued General Orders 11 expelling "Jews as a class," which stretched from northern Mississippi to the southern tip of Illinois, and from the Mississippi to the Tennessee Rivers. It was the first day of Hanukkah. At the time, Hanukkah was not the major holiday it is now. But Grant's order, if carried out, meant that entire families would be uprooted during the holiday and beyond, and exiled from their communities.
A long-time anti-Semite, Grant had come to think of Jews as speculators and war profiteers. The fact that thousands of Jews were heroically serving in the Union Army at the time seemingly did nothing to change his anti-Jewish hatred. Upon learning of the order, Lincoln immediately took steps to cancel Grant’s order.
Ha-Magid Newspaper (The Storyteller), published in Lyck, East Prussia (today, the City of Elk in northeastern Poland), specialized in the news of Jews around the world, such as the following story of February 19, 1863:
|Text from the February 19, 1863 edition of Ha-Magid.|
Translation: The ruler Abraham Lincoln, head of government of the Lands of the North (president [transliterated]) in America, during a recent visit of the learned rabbis, Messrs. Wise and Lilienthal from Cincinnati, and attorney (advocate) Martin Bijur from Louisville, who had come to vent their spleen upon General Grant, and ask him to reverse the evil decree issued by the general upon all the Jews in the territory of Tennessee, told them in the course of conversation, after promising to reverse the decree, that he (the president) sprang from the belly of Judah, and his forefathers were Jews; and these emissaries indeed report that the facial features of the president are evidence of his descent from the loins of the Hebrews.
Lincoln regularly quoted from the Bible in letters, speeches, and ordinary conversation. But unlike many American Christians of his time, Lincoln did not focus primarily on the Christian parts of his Bible and seemed remarkably comfortable with the Torah. Also, unlike many 19th Century American Christians, Lincoln had many Jewish friends, the first of which was Julius Hammerslough (1832-1908). Hammerslough was a young store owner in Springfield, Illinois. When Lincoln was elected to the Illinois State Legislature in 1834, he met Hammerslough, and at a time when Jews were viewed with suspicion, Lincoln treated Hammerslough as an equal.
Julius, an owner of the Hammerslough Brothers Clothing Company, with locations in New York, Illinois, and Missouri, enjoyed very friendly relations with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. Mr. Hammerslough witnessed Lincoln's first inauguration and was a frequent guest at the White House, President Lincoln invariably inquiring of Mr. Hammerslough "How are the boys?" referring to the Hammerslough Brothers in Springfield. Julius accompanied Lincoln's remains from Chicago to Springfield as one of a committee of citizens of Lincoln's old home chosen for that purpose, and he also provided the plumes for the funeral car used in Springfield. Hammerslough took a very active part in the project for the erection of the Lincoln monument in Springfield, being appointed by the national monument committee special-agent to bring the subject to the notice of the Jews.
As the Civil War (1861-1865) started, Lincoln recruited military and civilian leaders to help lead the fight. He openly appointed members of the Jewish faith, never disparaging them for their religion, as many of his contemporaries constantly did. In addition to Jewish military officers, Lincoln also appointed dozens of Jews to be quartermasters, overseeing housing, supplies, transportation, and clothing for the troops. When Jews began lobbying Congress to allow Jewish chaplains in the army, Lincoln supported their cause, eventually seeing the passage of an 1862 law changing the requirements for becoming a military chaplain, and for the first time in history allowing non-Christians in the post.
|Rabbi Jacob Frankel|
Lincoln himself signed Rabbi Jacob (Jakob) Frankel’s (1808-1887) commission on September 18, 1862. Frankel was assigned to a hospital in Philadelphia, in response to a request from the Board of Ministers of the Hebrew Congregations of that city. The request followed the deaths of two Jewish soldiers there, without their being afforded the attention of clergy of their faith. Rabbi Frankel (1808-1887), nicknamed the "Sweet Singer of Israel," was cantor of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. Over the course of the Civil War, some 7,000 Jews served with the Northern forces against the Confederates, whose chaplaincy law, by the way, required only that one be a “minister of religion.” The total Jewish population of the North and South at the time was approximately 250,000. Frankel continued to serve Rodeph Shalom (today the oldest active Ashkenazi synagogue in the United States) as a cantor while he served the military in the Army of the Potomac. No Rabbi is known to have applied for or received an application for chaplain; or, at least, no document or record of such application or commission has survived the destruction of large portions of the official documents and papers of the Confederacy.
On April 14, 1865, President and Mrs. Lincoln were attending the play, "Our American Cousin," a comedy, at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C., when Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an enraged and unbalanced actor. Later, Mrs. Lincoln said Abraham had told her that he hoped one day they would travel to Palestine (a part of the Islamic-run Ottoman Empire (1517-1917) today's Israel) together, just a few minutes before Booth showed up.
|34-Star Civil War Flag - Visual Aid|
Among the millions who mourned the 16th President, many Jewish congregations held special services and composed prayers for their beloved president. In Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln was buried on May 4, 1865, his old friend Julius Hammerslough closed his store and displayed a portrait of Lincoln with a declaration that captured what so many felt: “Millions bless thy name.”
Today, in addition to monuments to Abraham Lincoln in the United States, a street in central Jerusalem is named for Abraham Lincoln, a fitting tribute to the Jewish people’s gratitude to a president who championed and defended America’s Jews.
"Abraham Lincoln and the Jews," by Isaac Markens. Published in 1909.
Courtesy of my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.