Book Review: Lincoln And The Jews: A History

Lincoln And The Jews:  A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell

As someone who reads a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln [1], I am always looking out to see if a given book will tell me something I had not read or thought about concerning Lincoln as a man and as a president.  This book managed to do just that in an unexpected way.  What this book does is put Abraham Lincoln in the context of the troubled history of the Jews in America and demonstrate that at least some of the controversy that Abraham Lincoln has in some circles may be related to his obvious favorable view of Jews, and his refusal to think of them as a class of people but rather as a group of diverse individuals.  Rather telling is the way that the authors weave together a tale that includes different groups of people with different levels of closeness, including a handful of Jews that were close friends of Lincoln, another larger group that were supporters or acquaintances, and still others that were appointments and pardons.  The result is a set of fascinating pictures that would give those who like reading about the Illuminati a lot to ponder about.

This book, which is about 200 pages or so, a good length for a book of this kind, is filled with a large number of photographs of the people involved as well as informative sidebars for those who are familiar with Jewish history but not necessarily Civil War history, and also of letters that were written between Abraham Lincoln and notable Jews.  There is a large amount of such correspondence, and I am more than a little surprised that it has not really come up in my rather voluminous reading on the subject of Abraham Lincoln.  The authors take a chronological approach, beginning with Lincoln’s youth and young adulthood, when he likely did not know any Jews personally, and then the time period of his years in New Salem and Springfield, the period between his 1858 campaign with Douglas and the presidency, and then four chapters which take up about two thirds of the book about his presidency with titles from correspondence between Lincoln and various Jews.  The authors make it plain that Lincoln’s sensitivity to the concerns of the ‘Israelites’ increased as his familiarity with Jews increased, and that he had an unusual degree of regard and respect for the Old Testament, including a fondness for citing it in his speeches and letters.  The authors are also at pains to contrast Lincoln’s own sentiments with the high degree of anti-Semitism that was extant at the time.

There is a lot of worth in here for those who ponder the relationship between Lincoln and Judaism.  Lincoln’s ability to relate probably stemmed from his outsider status as a non-Evangelical, from his fondness of the Old Testament, and from his concern with matters of logistics.  One thing that stands out notably is that Lincoln shrewdly placed Jews as chaplains in some Union regiments and also approved a substantial number of Jews as quartermasters and sulters, and even one as a spy and clandestine diplomat.  The book also details the relationship between Lincoln and the Rothschild family of Europe in some detail, and demonstrate considerably savvy on Lincoln’s part.  Of perhaps the darkest relevance, though, is that the Booth family themselves were considered to be Jewish, and so there is an ominous note that Jews were not only among Lincoln’s most notable friends and associates, but also ultimately his most deadly enemy.  Yet even as the authors reveal this, they also reveal a picture of the outpouring of grief which a minority community viewed the passing of the first president who can be said to have been favorable to their plight and attentive to their concerns as a marginalized community.  The tale is certainly an interesting one, and the material of this book well worth adding to the complicated picture of Lincoln’s involvement and his place in the wider context of American history.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Lincoln And The Jews: A History

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Lincoln Unbound | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Jews On The Frontier | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: American Judaism | Edge Induced Cohesion

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