Lincoln and the Jewish Vote
Myer S. Isaacs (1841-1904) was the precocious son
of a noted father, the Reverend Samuel M. C. Isaacs, one of New
York's earliest rabbis, and he was not quite twenty-two when he
framed the resolutions. The father, born in Holland and educated in
England, came to New York in 1839 to serve as the hazzan and preacher
of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, the city's first Ashkenazi synagogue. In 1857, he founded the Jewish Messenger, a weekly
espousing the cause of traditional Judaism, and in 1859 he was the
chief organizer of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites,
designed to serve as the over-all organization of American Jewry. In
both these efforts, he was assisted by his son.
The young Isaacs, in 1859, at age eighteen the top
graduate of New York University, received his law degree two years
later. He served as Secretary of the Board of Delegates of American
Israelites from its organization until 1876, when he became its
president. He was also coeditor of the Jewish Messenger, a
practicing attorney, and a civic leader.
On October 26, 1864, Myer Isaacs sent a strongly
worded letter to President Lincoln warning him against a deal that he
allegedly made with a group of New York Jews who, presenting
themselves as leaders of the community, had promised to deliver the
"Jewish vote" for him. This letter is one of the germinal
documents of early Jewish participation in the American political
As a firm and earnest Union man, I deem it my
duty to add a word ... with reference to a recent
"visitation" on the part of persons claiming to represent
the Israelites of New York or the United States and pledging the
"Jewish vote" to your support, and, I am informed,
succeeding in a deception that resulted to their pecuniary profit.
Having peculiar facilities for obtaining
information as to the Israelites of the United States, from my
eight years' connection with the Jewish paper of this city and my
position as Secretary of their central organization, the
"Board of Delegates" . . . I feel authorized to caution
you, Sir, against any such representations as those understood to
have been made.
There are a large number of faithful Unionists
among our prominent coreligionists but there are also
supporters of the opposition, and indeed the Israelites are not as
a body, distinctly Union or democratic in their politics ... the
Jews as a body have no politics.
Therefore, Sir, I am pained and surprised to
find that you had been imposed upon by irresponsible men ... such
acts are discountenanced and condemned most cordially by the
community of American Israelites ...
There is no "Jewish vote" if there
were, it could not be bought. As a body of intelligent men, we are
advocates of the cherished principles of liberty and justice, and
must inevitably support and advocate those who are the exponents of
such a platform "liberty and union, now and forever."
Pardon the liberty I take in thus trespassing on
your attention, but I pray that you will attribute it to the sole
motive I have, that of undeceiving you and assuring you that there
is no necessity for "pledging" the Jewish vote which does
not exist but at the same time that the majority of Israelite
citizens must concur in the attachment for the Union and a
determination to leave no means untried to maintain its honor and
Yours most Respectfully,
Myer S. Isaacs
Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay, responded
at once, on November 1, 1864, assuring Isaacs concerning the
"interview ... between certain gentlemen of the Hebrew faith,
and the President. No pledge of the Jewish vote was made by these
gentlemen and no inducements or promises were extended to them by the
President. They claimed no such authority and received no such
response as you seem to suppose."
Secretary of the Board of
Delegates of American Israelites, Myer S. Isaacs writes to
Lincoln on the eve of the presidential election, October 26,
1864, that "the Jewish vote does not exist" but assures
him that, "the majority of Israelite citizens must concur in
the attachment for the Union and a determination to leave no
means untried to maintain its honor."
Myer S. Isaacs to Abraham Lincoln, October 26, 1864. Manuscript
Division, Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).