As our nation prepares to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s death next week, his yahrtzeit seems especially poignant to me personally…but possibly not for the reason some of my readers may think. (Speaking more precisely, his yahrtzeit was actually this last Wednesday since he died on the fifth day of Pesach in 1865, just one day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the rest of the world is planning on observing the anniversary of his death next week on Wednesday, April 15, the secular date of his death 150 years ago.)
With the publication just last month of Jonathan Sarna’s gorgeously illustrated and extremely interesting Lincoln and the Jews: A History and the mounting of a rich exhibition at the New York Historical Society called “Lincoln and the Jews” (which Joan and I actually went to see last Wednesday on the actual fifth day of Pesach), there are more than enough ways to read up on the relationship between our sixteenth president and the American Jewish community of his time. (It was a small community in those days of about 150,000 souls in a larger American population in 1860 of more than 31 million. The community, however, even then was burgeoning; a mere twenty years earlier there had only been one-tenth as many Jewish Americans amidst their then-17-million co-citizens.) Much has been made, for example, of Lincoln’s early friendship with one Louis Salzenstein, whose store served as regional post office in Athens, Illinois, when Lincoln himself served their common district as regional postmaster. Nor was “Old Salty” Lincoln’s only Jewish friend in his pre-presidential years: the names of Abraham Jonas and Julius Hammerslough, among many others, are well known to history buffs as living “evidence” of Lincoln’s willingness to accept Jews as friends and colleagues. And some of those many others are highlighted in the Historical Society exhibit, including the president’s flamboyant chiropodist and confident Issachar Zacharie, and his photographer friend Samuel Altschuler, whose clean-shaven portrait of the future president taken in April of 1858 is also on display. (The Altschuler portrait is on loan from the Library of Congress. Chiropodists today are more commonly called podiatrists. The exhibit will be open to the public through June 7.)
Later on, of course, President Lincoln became famous as a great defender of Jewish rights when he personally countermanded General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11, which expelled Jews from certain areas of the occupied Confederacy in January of 1863. (That episode, by the way, is covered in great and definitive depth in a different book by Jonathan Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, which was published by Schocken in 2012 and which I can also recommend highly.) Less widely discussed, but surely just as relevant, is the fact that Lincoln appointed seven Jews as generals in the United States Army and in 1862 went personally to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to amend the existing law to grant rabbis the right to serve as chaplains in the Armed Forces of the Unites States. (Upon the passage of the law in July of that year, Lincoln then personally appointed three American rabbis, Jacob Frankel, Bernard Gotthelf, and Ferdinand Sarna, as U.S. Army chaplains.)
Also well-known is the report by Mary Todd Lincoln that, in the last week of his life, the president commented to her that one of his great hopes was one day to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. And, of course, well documented too is Lincoln’s great love for the Hebrew Bible and particularly for the books of the prophets and the Psalms, from which he quoted often both in public and private speech.
All that is compelling evidence regarding Lincoln’s warm feelings towards the American Jewish community of his day and his willingness publicly to be seen as a defender of the rights of its members to live freely and fully as American citizens. But in this world of never-ending turmoil in which we seem to be living, Lincoln—in my mind, at least—stands for something else even more compellingly.
In Lincoln’s day, just as in our own, our country was facing unprecedented challenges. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, seven states had voted to secede from the union and had formed the Confederate States of America. Then, after the attack on Fort Sumter just one month after his inauguration, four more states joined the original seven to bring the total up to eleven. (After those eleven states declared their independence, the Union consisted of twenty free states and the five border slave states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia—that did not secede.) The issues on the table in need of immediate resolution were military and economic, obviously, but the most profound ideas at the true heart of the conflict were philosophical ones…and it is on them, or rather one of them, that I would like now to focus.
The United States itself was formed when the original thirteen colonies declared their self-arrogated right to declare independence because, in their own words, the right “to dissolve political bands” unilaterally and to assume “among the powers of the earth, a separate and equal station” is among the basic human rights shared by all peoples. In other words, our Founding Fathers based their claim to statehood on the fact that, because their lawful ruler had made it impossible for them to pursue their own destiny in the specific way they wished—i.e., as a self-constituted entity of like-minded citizens united as one in the desire to self-govern according to principles they considered to be self-evident truths—that in and of itself made it lawful for them to secede (to use the loaded term in this context) from their own country and to set out on their own independent course forward as an independent nation. And now, by asserting their right to assume their own separate and equal station among the powers of the earth, the leaders of the southern states were in effect throwing down to Washington the same gauntlet that our nation’s founders had thrown down to London. This, to my way of thinking, was the true challenge that the secessionist states laid at the feet of the nation’s leadership and, once he assumed office, specifically at the feet—those same feet cared for so assiduously by the faithful Dr. Zacharie—of President Lincoln. Would what had long-since been accepted as kosher sauce for the gander now too be kosher for the goose? Or would the president simply refuse to preside over the dissolution of his own country despite the obvious challenge of precedent rooted in his country’s own history?
Jefferson Davis, in a long series of speeches and essays defending the legitimacy of the Confederacy, returned again and again to the example of the founding fathers, sometimes expressing himself in the context of the right of each individual state to chart its own destiny and other times arguing that the right to secede from the national union was inherent in the decision of each state to join in the first place. (Readers who want to learn more about Jefferson Davis’ thinking on each of these matters have only to get a copy of his own The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published by the Confederacy’s only president in his own old age and still in print more than 130 years later. I’ve always wanted to read that book…and now that I’ve recommended it, perhaps I even will!)
But Lincoln, who knew the published works of our Founding Fathers as well as did Jefferson Davis, had his own way of reading history. In his First Inaugural Address, he spoke of his belief that by its nature the union of the states that collectively formed the United States was perpetual and irrevocable. In other speeches and addresses, he pursued that line of thinking further. Obviously, he insisted, the Founding Fathers were not acting within English law when they broke with England. But the difference between their actions and those of the leaders of the Confederacy was that the former were acting in accordance with moral principles—as famously listed in the Declaration of Independence itself—whereas the leaders of the Confederate State of America were not. The American Revolution was thus an exercise of a moral right that depended for its legitimacy on the ethical principles prompting it and not on the law of the country being revolted against, which idea would be an absurdity that would render ipso facto all rebellion illegitimate.
In others, President Lincoln was the opposite of a moral relativist. For him, the imperative that should guide a nation forward is not conformity with past practices or some indefensible argument that what’s right and legitimate in one context must logically be both those things in every other context as well. And it was that conviction, that the quest for the greater moral good must always be the principle that guides nations forward, that made Lincoln into the greatest of all our presidents, one prepared to put all on the line to do what seemed to him right and good. To justify immoral behavior—and particularly on the level of nations—with reference to historical parallels but without caring—or even without caring enough—what is just in any given situation…that is precisely where nations begin down the road to perdition. And it was exactly that line of reasoning that made it feel natural and right for the federal government not to acquiesce to the secession of states eager to be free, among other things, to own slaves and to treat them as beasts of burden. I am well aware of the argument that Lincoln’s own attitude towards slavery evolved over the years. But it seems to me that at the core of the conflict between the states was the wish of one side to preserve a life style built on indignity, injustice, and a denial of basic human rights to millions—there were more than 3.5 million slaves in the states that voted to secede from the Union—and the wish of the other side to grow towards a finer model of societal living, towards basic respect for human rights, and towards an eventual renunciation of slavery as a legitimate commercial institution.
In our day, I hear constantly—and read constantly on the op-ed pages of our newspapers as well—thinking rooted in precisely the kind of moral relativism that President Lincoln would never have found sound or cogent. Our sixteenth president believed there to be nothing immoral in favoring the right side in a dispute even if doing so almost by definition means not treating both parties to that dispute in precisely the same way…and so, if we truly wish to think of ourselves as his heirs as we pause to take note of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of President Lincoln’s passing, should we.