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Segal: ‘He was like one of us’

David Segal
Guest Commentary

The man many have called the greatest of all American presidents has also become a spiritual and moral kinsman of the Jews.

Abraham Lincoln socialized with Jews early on during his years in Springfield, Illinois (1837 to 1861), when he rode the 8th District Court circuit in central Illinois. Samuel Huttenbauer, an 18-year-old peddler from Cincinnati, told his children and grandchildren that during his peddling visits to Springfield, Lincoln purchased suspenders and collar buttons from his push cart. When in Athens, Illinois, Lincoln was known to lodge in the front section of Louis Salzenstein’s clothing store. And by the time Lincoln ran for president, he referred to Abraham Jonas (1801 to 1864), a prominent political activist from Quincy, Illinois, as one of his “most valued friends.”

When he served as president of the United States (1861 to 1865), Lincoln defended Jews from assaults on their civil rights on three prominent occasions.

In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, Congress authorized the U.S. military to appoint chaplains who were “ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” The organized Jewish community promptly appealed to Lincoln for help in revising the chaplaincy bill. Lincoln intervened, and Congress passed new legislation in 1862. Lincoln then appointed the nation’s first Jewish military chaplain, Rabbi Jacob Frankel (1808 to 1887), of Philadelphia’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

On Dec. 17, 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant promulgated General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jewish citizens “as a class” from the Military Department of Tennessee. Once the edict was brought to Lincoln’s attention on Jan. 3, 1863, by a Jewish businessman named Cesar Kaskel from Paducah, Kentucky, the president immediately revoked the order.

In February 1864, the newly established National Reform Association sought to amend the U.S. Constitution so as to formalize the notion that Christianity was the nation’s dominant religious tradition. A distinguished National Reform Association delegation visited Lincoln, read him the text of the proposed amendment and solicited his political backing. Lincoln promised the delegates he would study the matter carefully, but for the remainder of his administration he took no action.

After Lincoln’s shocking death, American Jewish leaders joined the rest of the nation in praising the fallen leader as the savior of the Union; the emancipator; one of the people; and a man of integrity, courage and kindliness. In his eulogy for the martyred president, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, declared, “He was like one of us.”

This holiday weekend we celebrate America’s independence. We give thanks for the unprecedented religious freedom that our nation has protected from its inception as well as the religious diversity that such freedom has cultivated. In honor of this theme, Rabbi David Segal invited Rabbi Dr. Gary P. Zola to share his thoughts about President Abraham Lincoln’s special relationship with American Jewry. Zola will be speaking on this topic at 3:30 p.m. today at the Snowmass Chapel. Zola is professor of the American Jewish Experience at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati and the author of a new volume on Lincoln and the Jews titled “We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014).


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