Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States; first president to become officially involved in national questions of Jewish equality and anti-Jewish discrimination. Lincoln participated in two. The first related to the appointment of Jewish chaplains for the army and for military hospitals. Legislation passed by the House of Representatives in July 1861 required that a chaplain be a “regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” Although a Jewish layman, Michael Allen did serve as chaplain; he resigned his commission after being accused of serving illegally. A campaign of public pressure was undertaken to change the law and, in December 1861, the Rev. Arnold Fishel of New York went to Washington, under the aegis of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, to act as lobbyist and civilian chaplain. He secured an appointment with Lincoln who wrote him promising to use his best efforts “to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.” New legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate. By July 1862, a new law made it possible for rabbis to serve as military chaplains alongside Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, for the first time in history – a major step in the Americanization of the Jewish religion. Had Lincoln ignored Fishel’s representations, or actively opposed them, it is unlikely that either house of Congress would have passed the legislation.
In December 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from the area of his command, on the alleged grounds that Jews were engaging in illegal trade. This was brought to Lincoln’s attention by a Jew from Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, in January 1863, and Lincoln, recognizing the injustice of the order, issued instructions for its immediate cancellation.
General-in-Chief H.W. Halleck, in the second of a series of telegrams, explained to Grant that “as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.” Lincoln, consenting to see another Jewish delegation after he saw Kaskel, assured the group, which included Rabbis Isaac M. Wise and Max Lilienthal, that “to condemn a class 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 was a close friend and political associate of Abraham Jonas, a Jew from Quincy, Illinois, and their correspondence reveals a warm mutual appreciation and common political loyalties.
American Jews have felt especially attracted to Lincoln as the emancipator of the black slave, as a victim of violence, as a dreamer of peace, and as the spokesman of a way of life “with malice towards none, with charity for all,” which matches the idealism of the prophets.
B.W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951); I. Markens, in: AJHSP, 17 (1909), 109–65; E. Hertz (ed.), Abraham Lincoln, the Tribute of the Synagogue (1927).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.