Abraham Lincoln’s life coincided directly and indirectly with the emergence of Jewish people in the United States, said scholar Jonathan Sarna at the 33rd annual Brown-Lyons Lecture on April 11 at Cabell Library.
The number of Jews in the United States increased from less than 3,000 around the time of Lincoln’s birth to more than 150,000 at the time of his assassination, 56 years later. With the rise in population came anti-Semitism, something Lincoln is seen to have resisted, said Sarna, whose book, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History,” examines this relationship.
Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said Lincoln’s predecessors were openly prejudiced against Jewish people and made Lincoln’s appointment of figures like Abraham Jonas to the position of postmaster all the more significant.
“That’s actually important,” Sarna said. “Because if you have a diverse social network, prejudice goes down.”
Lincoln established what Sarna called the “first case of affirmative action” in Jewish history when he acknowledged in a letter he had not yet appointed a Jew to a military position and in the same letter requested Cherie Levy be appointed Assistant Quarter Master with the rank of Captain, calling him a capable and faithful man.
Lincoln’s most significant Jewish appointee was Rabbi Jacob Frankel as the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army. Before the Civil War, the necessary qualifications for a military chaplain were described as “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination,” thus barring Frankel from the position.
Lincoln signed a bill changing the legal definition of “Christian” to mean broadly religious instead of pertaining to the specific faith. Sarna said the amendment was buried in a bill giving raises to Union generals. He joked he was the first one to notice it.
“More than we realize, America at that moment was transformed because suddenly non-Christians of all sorts could serve in the military chaplaincy as they do today,” Sarna said.
Previously having used Christian terms in speeches, Lincoln changed his language to be more inclusive of other faiths, Sarna said. The use of the phrase “one nation under God” in the Gettysburg Address was meant to include Jews.
“Lincoln becomes much more sensitive,” Sarna said. “He apparently knew that Jewish soldiers fell side-by-side with Christian ones at the Battle of Gettysburg.”
When Gen. Ulysses Grant accused Jews of war profiteering — in this case, supporting black-market cotton trade — and expelled them from the U.S. Army, Lincoln revoked the order. Sarna said if Grant’s order had been upheld, the entirety of Jewish-American history would be different.
Lincoln’s efforts to promote religious equality parallel those to abolish slavery, Sarna said. At the time, he said, the persecution of Jews and Black people were linked in the popular mind.
“There are a couple of people who used [his support of Jews] against Lincoln,” Sarna said. “I would say that he suffered more from people who were angry toward his friendships with African Americans.”
Long-term, Sarna said Lincoln’s actions made a difference for Jewish people in the U.S., though discrimination in social and professional settings continued into the 20th century.
“I like to teach my students that American history is not just someone else’s history,” Sarna said. “They need to own that history as well.”
Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor
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