Lincoln, a Friend Indeed–and in Deed
One-hundred and fifty years ago, the people of the United States lay prostrate in grief. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on what, for Jews, was the intermediate Shabbat of Passover. Subsequently, his body slowly and circuitously made its final journey by train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois.
Along the way, from April 24 to 25, some half a million New Yorkers came to view Lincoln’s remains. More than 20 different synagogues and Jewish organizations joined a solemn funeral procession through the streets of the city, and many congregations conducted special memorial services.
Samuel M. Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger and a respected Jewish religious leader, stood among Christian clergy delivering public prayers, a sign that the Jewish community’s goal—“to join our fellow citizens in paying a national tribute to [the] nation’s lost chief”—was fulfilled. Isaacs praised Lincoln for serving “the people of his afflicted land faithfully, zealously, honestly, and…in accordance with Thy supreme will” and prayed for the restoration of the Union “to its former tranquility.”
Subsequently, the Lincoln funeral train wound its way through 11 major cities, including Albany, Rochester, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago. Jews participated in the national mourning wherever they could. In Chicago, according to one source, “the reverend clergy…merged in the one great sorrow—Protestant and Catholic and Hebrew—all moving side by side.”
The funeral train came to its final stop in Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown. There the Jewish clothier Julius Hammerslough, who had known the slain president as a young man, stood among those who met the body. He accompanied him to his final resting place.
Hammerslough, and American Jews generally, had special reason to mourn Abraham Lincoln. They knew him as a friend. Lincoln, more than any previous American president, consorted with a wide range of Jewish friends and acquaintances—over 100 according to one count. Some of them, notably the Illinois lawyer and politician Abraham Jonas and the skillful chiropodist Issachar Zacharie, he came to know well. This likely shaped his view of Jews. “When birds of different feathers flock together,” political scientist Robert Putnam has observed, “they come to trust one another.”
American Jews today still benefit from Lincoln’s actions. Thousands who served in the military, for example, fondly remember the devoted work of Jewish chaplains. Lincoln made that possible. When the Civil War began, the military chaplaincy was restricted to ordained ministers of some Christian denomination. For that reason, when Rev. Arnold Fischel of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue) was elected to serve as chaplain of a Jewish-led regiment, Secretary of War Simon Cameron had no choice but to turn him down. “You are respectfully informed…that the Chaplain…must be a regular ordained minister of some Christian denomination,” he informed Fischel in a letter. “Had it not been for this legal impediment,” he assured him, “the Department would have taken your application into its favorable consideration.”
Fischel—like so many courageous Jews in American Jewish history—resolved to speak truth to power; he set out to fight for Jewish equality. At the behest of the Jewish community, he took his case directly to Lincoln at the White House. According to his first-hand report, which survives at the American Jewish Historical Society, the president “fully admitted the justice of my remarks” and “agreed that something ought to be done.” Working behind the scenes, Lincoln then helped craft an amendment to change the discriminatory law. He also employed his consummate political skills to ensure that the amendment passed. Days later, he personally appointed the first Jewish chaplain in American history—a man named Jacob Frankel. More than generally realized, America was at that moment transformed: Non-Christians of all sorts could henceforward serve in the military chaplaincy, as they still do.
Later, in December 1862, Lincoln once again acted to benefit Jews. Refusing to heed anti-Semites who blamed Jews for wartime smuggling, he unhesitatingly overturned General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Order No. 11 expelling “Jews as a class” from his war zone. “To condemn a class,” the president explained, employing language no less relevant today than during the Civil War, “is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Lincoln even shifted his official rhetoric to make America more inclusive of Jews. Early on, and as late as 1862, he reflexively described America in Christian terms and characterized Americans as a “Christian people.” Later in his presidency, however, he increasingly took note of the presence of non-Christians in the United States. Sensitive to the fact that Jews had fallen side by side with Christians in the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, he spoke there of “this nation under God,” a new phrase that embraced Jews as insiders.
In his remarkable Second Inaugural address, Lincoln again never mentioned any particular religion. He addressed people of all faiths, Jews among them. Ours is a more inclusive country today thanks in part to Lincoln’s words and actions.
Still, some may wonder why the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s final journey to Springfield continues to carry an important message. The answer is that the life and career of Abraham Lincoln serve as a timely reminder that leaders have vast potential to bring about change. The reason that thousands of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln is that he did more, arguably, than any other American to make his country a better place: for African-Americans, for Jews, for everyone. Contemporary leaders, even if humble enough to know that they are not a Lincoln, can still strive to follow in his footsteps.
Jews, meanwhile, can use this anniversary year to remember that Lincoln’s story is, in part, an authentically Jewish story. Jews played a distinctive and important role both in the life of Abraham Lincoln and in the subsequent preservation of his memory. Over the course of his tragically foreshortened life, Lincoln interacted with Jews, represented Jews, befriended Jews, admired Jews, commissioned Jews, trusted Jews, defended Jews, pardoned Jews, took advice from Jews, gave jobs to Jews, extended rights to Jews, revoked an expulsion of Jews and even chose a Jew as his confidential agent. His rhetoric and actions exemplified for Americans what it meant to embrace Jews as trusted insiders.
Of course, only a small minority of contemporary Jews have ancestors that lived in the United States (or the Confederate States) at the time of the Civil War. Nevertheless, it is critically important to remember that those Jews who were here participated actively in the history of their time. In recalling Abraham Lincoln’s final journey 150 years after it took place, we proclaim that American history is not just somebody else’s history; Jews own a part of that history as well.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. With Benjamin Shapell, he is the author of Lincoln and the Jews: A History (Thomas Dunne Books).