‘Lincoln and the Jews’ Explores Bonds With a Nation’s Growing Minority

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Alonzo Chappel’s 1867 painting of Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed is part of the exhibition “Lincoln and the Jews” at the New-York Historical Society. The work prominently features Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born Jewish ophthalmologist and a leading Washington physician, gazing intently at the president. CreditChicago History Museum

ON Sept. 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln had a lot on his mind. The Civil War was raging, and just days later he would issue the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Still, the weary president found time to sit down to write a testimonial to his podiatrist.

“Dr. Zacharie has, with great dexterity, taken some troublesome corns from my toes,” Lincoln wrote. “He is now treating me, and I believe with success, for what plain people call back-ache. We shall see how it will end.”

The story may seem like the beginning of an ill-advised borscht belt meets Corn Belt joke. But in fact it’s one of the more unexpected vignettes presented in a serious new exhibition, “Lincoln and the Jews,” which opens on Friday at the New-York Historical Society.

The show includes about 100 letters, photographs and other artifacts, many never previously exhibited, drawn largely from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, assembled by the collector and philanthropist Benjamin Shapell.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition presents the broader story of Lincoln’s political career and the Civil War through what organizers say is a fresh prism: Lincoln’s complex and sometimes surprising interactions with a religious minority that was beginning to claim an equal place in American life.

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The exhibit, which opens Friday, includes a  testimonial that Lincoln wrote to Dr. Issachar Zacharie, one of several testimonials he wrote for his Jewish podiatrist.CreditThe Shapell Manuscript Collection

“Lincoln played an important role in turning Jews from outsiders in America to insiders,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University and the author, with Mr. Shapell, of the new, separately published book “Lincoln and the Jews,” which inspired the show. “It’s a subject that has really been overlooked.”

Lincoln’s lifetime coincided with a dramatic increase in America’s Jewish population, which grew from about 3,000 in 1809, the year of his birth, to roughly 150,000 in 1860. Growing up in the Midwest, he probably encountered few or no Jews in person until he became a young man. But at a time when anti-Semitism and nativism ran high, the show notes, there is no evidence of Lincoln harboring any animus toward Jews.

“When it came to personal interactions with Jews or issues that had an impact on Jews, Lincoln did the right thing on every occasion,” Harold Holzer, a prominent Lincoln scholar and the exhibition’s chief historian, said in an interview.

He added, “The most important thing you could be to Lincoln wasn’t a Christian or a Jew, but a Republican.”

The exhibition opens with a wall-size graphic laying out “Lincoln’s Jewish Connections” in concentric circles of decreasing intimacy, from “friends” (five) to “appointments and pardons” (48), seemingly leaving no stone unturned. The first known photograph of Lincoln with a beard, a label notes, was taken by a Jewish photographer from Illinois, Samuel Alschuler. (That photo, along with a beardless one also taken by Alschuler, is displayed in a vitrine mimicking a 19th-century box camera.) Jews were also responsible for helping organize his first inaugural ball, telegraphing the official text of the Emancipation Proclamation and designing the Lincoln penny.

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Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer in Quincy, Ill., first met Lincoln in 1843. Jonas was a staunch supporter of Lincoln throughout their more than two decades of friendship, and Lincoln called him “one of my most valued friends.”CreditWells Family Collection

Lincoln also counted Jews among his closest political allies. Two sections of the exhibition are devoted to Abraham Jonas, an Illinois businessman and politician he met around 1843. Jonas — “one of my most valued friends,” Lincoln once wrote — was among those who strongly encouraged Lincoln to run for president, suggesting a strategy of appealing to outsiders, including “liberal and freethinking Germans” and “Israelites.” It was also Jonas who, in a December 1860 letter included in the show, warned Lincoln of a plot to assassinate him at his inauguration.

As president, Lincoln took some bold actions on behalf of Jews. In 1862, he approved legislation creating the first Jewish military chaplains, to serve the nearly 7,000 Jews in the Union Army. He also appointed an Orthodox Jew as a quartermaster, noting that “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew.” (Eventually, some 50 Jews would fill that capacity.)

When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Orders No. 11 in 1862, barring Jews “as a class” from all territories under his control because he thought they were smuggling cotton, Lincoln quickly rescinded it.

“I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners,” Lincoln reportedly said.

Lincoln’s commitment to religious pluralism even held in grisly moments. When five deserters were executed at Beverly Ford, Va., in August 1863, each was accompanied by a clergyman of his own faith, with a Jewish prisoner marching out first in accordance with Judaism’s status as “the most ancient of religious creeds,” as one news account put it.

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A December 1860 letter from Jonas to Lincoln warning Lincoln of a plot to assassinate him at his inauguration. The warnings did not go unheeded: Lincoln was smuggled into Washington, arriving in the dead of night 10 days before the inauguration.CreditLibrary of Congress

And then there was Lincoln’s relationship with the eccentric, British-born Issachar Zacharie. The chiropodist, as a foot doctor was known at the time, scored a cameo in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” — as well as an entry in the online resource PodiaPaedia. But his story, Mr. Sarna said, is told in full in the book for the first time.

Zacharie first treated Lincoln in 1862, on the recommendation of the editor William Cullen Bryant and others. Their relationship was celebrated in an “Ode to Dr. Zacharie” published that year in Vanity Fair, then a humorous weekly. (The first line: “King of Chiropodists, salaam!”) In early 1863, Lincoln sang the doctor’s praises to a (gentile) White House visitor who had presented a far-fetched scheme to end the Civil War, restore the Jews to Palestine and establish general world peace.

“I myself have a regard for the Jews,” Lincoln reportedly said, brushing off his visitor. “My chiropodist is a Jew, and he has so many times ‘put me on my feet’ that I would have no objection to giving his countrymen ‘a leg up.’ ”

Zacharie’s grandiose dream of establishing a chiropody corps within the Union Army never came to pass. But Lincoln did send him to New Orleans in 1862 to gauge public opinion among Jews there, in what Zacharie later described as a spy mission. (At one point, the exhibition notes, he enlisted the help of fellow Jews disguised as peddlers.) He made a similar trip to Richmond, Va., in 1863, reporting back to Lincoln on a meeting with Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish secretary of state for the Confederacy.

Zacharie also vigorously campaigned in New York for Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, reassuring him that “the Israelites” would “vote for you,” and claiming to have secured “trustworthy men to attend to them on Election Day.” (Such comments, a wall label notes, helped to set off scoffing in the Jewish press that any Jewish bloc existed.)

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A carte de visite of Dr. Zacharie, who first treated Lincoln in 1862. In 1864, he vigorously campaigned in New York for Lincoln’s re-election.CreditThe Shapell Manuscript Collection

He popped up again in a January 1865 memo titled “About Jews,” in which Lincoln implicitly rebuked his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, for detaining Zacharie during another trip to the South, and also requested fair treatment for Leopold Blumenberg, a Union Army provost marshal charged with torturing suspected deserters, among other abuses.

Lincoln, the exhibition shows, did much for Jews, individually and as a group. But just how affected was Lincoln by his encounters with them?

Deeply, Mr. Sarna argues. The encounters, he writes in the book, helped push Lincoln past a “parochially Christian” understanding of American identity. In what he called his “most controversial claim,” not made by the show, Mr. Sarna writes that the ecumenical phrase “this nation, under God” in the Gettysburg Address may have been meant as a “silent homage” to Jews who fell on the battlefield, one that “reimagined America in language that embraced Jews as equals.”

Mr. Holzer, the winner of this year’s Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for his book “Lincoln and the Power of the Press,” said he wouldn’t go that far. “Clearly Lincoln was a leader concerned principally with African-Americans and their relationship with white America,” he said. “I think it would be wrong to say he dwelled on the place of non-Christians.”

But still, Mr. Holzer added, there is no denying Jews’ sense of “mystical association” with Lincoln, who was assassinated not just on Good Friday but during Passover, when many rabbis heard the news as they were preparing for Saturday services.

A wall text near the end of the exhibition quotes a eulogy delivered by Rabbi Henry Hochheimer at the Oheb Israel Congregation in Baltimore. “More than all others, the ‘House of Israel’ has cause to mourn this great loss,” the rabbi declared. “Abraham Lincoln had served as American Jewry’s ‘shield and protection.’ ”

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