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Father Abraham [Lincoln] & the Children of Israel: 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 process.

Your Excellency,

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 integrity.

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).