President Abraham Lincoln and his Jewish Friends

August 22, 2012  

Lincoln: And so the Children of Israel were driven from the
happy land of Canaan.
Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come to Father
Abraham, to ask his protection.
Lincoln: And this protection they shall have
at once.

Cesar J. Kaskel, apprising President Lincoln of General Grant’s
Order Number 11

In his scholarly study of American Jewry and the Civil War
(Philadelphia, 1951), Bertram W. Korn writes that in the eulogy Rabbi Isaac
M. Wise delivered after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, he
claimed: “the lamented Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone from our bone
and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew
parentage. He said so in my presence.” There is no shred of evidence to
substantiate Wise’s assertion, Korn declares, and “Lincoln is not known to have
said anything resembling this to any of his other Jewish acquantances.” But,
Korn asserts, Lincoln “could not have been any friendlier to individual Jews, or
more sympathetic to Jewish causes, if he had stemmed from Jewish ancestry.” He
also points to the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of Lincoln Papers in the
Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress as a prime source “for the
elucidation of Lincoln’s contacts with various Jews … in particular …
Abraham Jonas and Isachar Zacharie.”

Some of the “elucidation” Korn mentions may be gathered from
sixteen items, eight in manuscript and eight in print, garnered from the
Library’s rich lode of Lincolniana.

Correspondence with the

In 1860, Lincoln wrote to Abraham Jonas (1801-1864) “you are
one of my most valued friends.” The friendship began soon after Jonas settled in
Quincy, Illinois, in 1838. He came from Kentucky where he had lived for ten
years, served in the State Legislature for four terms, and become the Grand
Master of the Kentucky Masons. Before that he lived in Cincinnati; to which he
came from England in 1819, to join his brother, Joseph, the first Jewish settler
there. In Quincy, Jonas kept store and studied law, which became his lifelong
calling. From 1849 to 185 1, he served as postmaster and in 1861 was reappointed
to that office by Lincoln. Two letters from the Jonas-Lincoln correspondence in
the Library’s collection are especially illuminating.

When Lincoln visited Quincy in 1854, he spent most of his time
with Jonas, as we can see from his letter to Jonas on July 21, 1860. What
occasioned Lincoln’s letter was one from Jonas in which he told the presidential
candidate: “I have just been creditably informed, that Isaac N. Morris is
engaged in obtaining affidavits and certificates of certain Irishmen that they
saw you in Quincy come out of a Know Nothing Lodge.” Jonas feared that this
purported association with a nativist antiforeigner political party would cost
Lincoln many immigrant votes, so he alerted his friend in a “confidential”
letter. Lincoln’s lengthy reply states, in part:

Yours of the 20th received. I suppose as good, or even better
men than I may have been in American or Know-Nothing lodges; but in point of
fact, I never was in one, at Quincy or elsewhere. I was never in Quincy but one
day and two nights while Know-Nothing lodges were in existence, and you were
with me that day and both those nights. I had never been there before in my
life; and never afterwards, till the joint debate with Douglas in 1858. It was
in 1854 when I spoke in some hall there, and after the speaking, you with others
took me to an oyster saloon, passed an hour there, and you walked with me to,
and parted with me at the Quincy House, quite late at night. I left by stage for
Naples before day-light in the morning, having come in by the same route, after
dark the evening previous to the speaking, when I found you waiting at the
Quincy House to meet me …

That I never was in a Knownothing lodge in Quincy, I should
expect could be easily proved, by respectable men who were always in the lodges
and never saw me there. An affidavit of one or two such would put the matter at

And now, a word of caution. Our adversaries think they can gain
a point if they could force me to openly deny the charge, by which some degree
of offence would be given to the Americans. For this reason it must not publicly
appear that I am paying any attention to the charge.

Yours Truly
A. Lincoln

Whatever was done, or not done, by Jonas, must have been
effective because the matter was never mentioned publicly during the


In a letter from Jonas to Lincoln on December 30, 1860, marked
“Private,” Jonas again alerts his friend:

The purport of this communication must be my apology for
troubling you-and my great anxiety in regard to your personal safety and the
preservation of our National integrity will I think justify me on this occasion,
when you have so much to think of and so many things to perplex you.

You perhaps are aware, that I have a very large family
connection in the South, and that in New Orleans I have six children and a host
of other near relatives. I receive many letters from them, their language has to
be very guarded, as fears are entertained that the sanctity of the mails, is not
much regarded. on yesterday I received a letter from N.O. from one who is
prudent, sound and careful of what he writes and among other things, he says
“things are daily becoming worse here, God help us, what will be the result, it
is dreadful to imagine. One thing I am satisfied of, that there is a perfect
organization, fearful in numbers and contrauled by men of character and
influence, whose object is to prevent the inauguration of Lincoln, large numbers
of desperate characters, many of them from this city, will be in Washington on
the 4th of March and it is their determination, to prevent the inauguration, and
if by no other means, by using violence on the person of Lincoln. Men, engaged
in this measure are known to be of the most violent character, capable of doing
any act, necessary to carry out their vile measures.” The writer of this, I
know, would not say, what he does, did he not believe the statement above given
to you. I cannot give you, his name, for were it known, that he communicated
such matters to persons in the North, his life would be in danger — and I trust
you will not communicate, having received any such information from me. I had
seen rumors in the Newspapers to the like effect, but did not regard them much —
this however alarms me, and I think is worthy of some notice. What ought to be
done-you are more capable of judging, than any other person — but permit me to
suggest — ought not the Governors of the free States, and your friends generally
to adopt at once some precautionary measure-no protection can be expected from
the damned old traitor at the head of the Government or his
subordinates-something should be done in time and done effectually.

With great esteem and devotion
I am truly yrs —

Jonas was one of the first to suggest Lincoln for the
presidency. When Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Daily Tribune,
went to Quincy for a lecture in December 1858, he met with a number
of leading Republicans to discuss the election of 1860. Abraham Jonas and
his law partner Henry Asbury were among them. Asbury later recalled that when
the discussion turned to who might be a strong candidate, he proposed a likely

Mr. Greeley and one or two others asked who I meant. I said
gentlemen I mean Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. I am sorry to say that my
suggestion fell flat, it was not even discussed, none of them seemed for Lincoln
… Some one said Lincoln might do for Vice – President-at this point Mr. Jonas
… said: Gentlemen there may be more to Asbury’s suggestion than any of us now

Dr. Isachar
, an English-born chiropodist, first met Lincoln in September 1862
on a professional call. A satisfied patient, Lincoln gave the doctor a
testimonial, “Dr. Zacharie has operated on my feet with great success, and
considerable addition to my comfort.” Within a few months Zacharie was in New
Orleans on a mission for the president. Two years later, the New York World
wrote that the chiropodist and special emissary “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s
confidence perhaps more than any other private individual.” Zacharie also
involved himself in politics, actively soliciting the “Jewish vote” for the
president. When honored by Jews in 1864, he expressed what may well have
been his ambition as Lincoln’s friend and confidant:

Let us look at England, France, Russia, Holland, aye, almost
every nation in the world, and where do we find the Israelite? We find them
taken into the confidence of Kings and Emperors. And in this republican and
enlightened country, where we know not how soon it may fall to the lot of any
man to be elevated to a high position by this government, why may it not fall to
the lot of an Israelite as well as any other?

In the Lincoln Papers at the Library there are thirteen letters
from Zacharie to Lincoln, and one dated September 19, 1864, apparently as
yet unpublished, from Lincoln to Zacharie:

Dear Sir

I thank you again for the deep interest you have taken in the
Union Cause. The personal matter on behalf of your friend which you mentioned
shall be fully and fairly considered when presented.

Yours truly
A. Lincoln

To which Zacharie replied:

Dear Friend,

Yours of the 19th came duly to hand, it has had the desired
effect, with the friend of the Partie.

I leave tomorrow for the interior of Pennsylvania, may go as
far as Ohio. One thing is to be done, and that is for you to impress on the
minds of your friends for them not to be to [o] sure.

As rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Rev. Dr. Morris J.
Raphall (1798-1868), one of New York’s more prominent clergymen, had gained
renown as an orator, distinction as being the first rabbi to open the session of
the House of Representatives with a prayer, and notoriety for his sermon The
Bible View of
Slavery, which was printed, reprinted, and widely distributed
as a proslavery sermon by antiabolitionist forces. As Raphall told his
congregation, when it assembled to mourn the martyred president, he knew Lincoln
but slightly. He had met Lincoln only once, but on that single occasion the
rabbi had asked a favor of the president and, as Raphall told his congregants,
Lincoln had “granted it lovingly, because he knew the speaker to be a
Jew-because he knew him to be a true servant of the Lord.” The favor granted
must have been the rabbi’s request that his son be promoted from second
lieutenant to first. Forty years later, in 1903, Adolphus S. Solomons of the
book publishing firm of Philip and Solomons, in Washington, D. C., reminisced
that he had helped Rabbi Raphall get an audience with the president, where that
request was made and granted. Lincoln did even more for Raphall’s son-in-law,
Captain C. M. Levy.

Assigned to the Quartermaster Department in Washington, Captain
Levy undertook as an added task to distribute special food and clothing to
Jewish soldiers in the capital’s hospitals. On October 9, 1863, a Captain C. M.
Levy was court-martialed and dismissed from service for unspecified charges.
Apparently appealed to, Lincoln must have responded with his fabled compassion,
for on March 1, 1864, Raphall wrote him thanking him “for the generosity and
justice with which you have treated my son-in-law Captain C. M. Levy.”

My whole family unites with me in feeling that you are indeed
his true benefactor. Happy shall we be that any thing you may at any time
require of me or them, is thankfully obeyed by all of us.

I take the liberty of sending you a couple of my potographs
[sic] and with sincere prayers for your continued health and prosperity I am
Your obliged and respectful servant, M. J. Raphall.

Source: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of
, (DC: Library of
Congress, 1991).


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