Exhibit spotlights relationship between ‘Lincoln and the Jews’

First portrait of Abraham Lincoln with a beard, taken by Samuel G. Alschuler, a Jew from Urbana, Ill. Photo courtesy Library of Congress  

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Abraham Lincoln was America’s tallest president. According to Johnston & Murphy, which has made shoes for presidents since 1850, Lincoln also had the largest shoe size in presidential history, size 14, though other sources put his shoe size at 13 or even 12.

Regardless, President Lincoln had large feet that needed doctoring. He found relief from a Jewish man named Issachar Zacharie, a controversial, self-taught chiropodist (podiatrist) who operated on Lincoln’s feet and, in doing so, healed him “and I believe with success, from what plain people call back-ache,” our 16th president wrote.

This piece of information is among many letters, documents, photographs and other artifacts in a groundbreaking exhibit that opened Monday, Aug. 3, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. 

“With Firmness in the Right: Lincoln and the Jews” focuses on Lincoln’s role in championing acceptance and inclusion of Jews in America. It also tells the story of how a significant number of Jews, as a group and as individuals, affected Lincoln and became his neighbors, friends, colleagues and allies.

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Based on the book “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell (St. Martin’s Press, $40), the exhibit runs through Nov. 15 and includes items, some on public display for the first time, from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, Chicago Historical Society, Brown University, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the museum’s Lincoln collection. 

“This is a really a new story about Lincoln, and it’s hard to find an entire exhibit that’s going to tell us something new about Abraham Lincoln,” said Daniel Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and director of the Center for Digital Initiatives at the Lincoln library. “Having been at this for nearly 25 years, I guarantee you that the more you study Lincoln, the more you find there is more to study. He is a fascinating individual, and this (exhibit) brings together a new facet of Lincoln’s life. Most people couldn’t name a single Jew Abraham Lincoln knew or if he even knew any.”

Stowell says the exhibit underscores Lincoln’s commitment to religious pluralism and inclusion of all minorities – Jews, African-Americans, white Southerners or any immigrant group. According to the Sarna/Shapell book, when Lincoln was born in 1809, about 3,000 Jews lived in the United States, most of them in a half-dozen East Coast port cities. By the time he was assassinated in 1865, the Jewish population exceeded 150,000 and had spread from coast to coast.

One of Lincoln’s closest Jewish associates was Abraham Jonas, a fellow lawyer and an early political supporter from Quincy, Illinois, whom Lincoln met in 1843. Both shared Whig and later Republican political beliefs and served as electors for the Republican candidate in 1856. 

In a relationship that spanned more than two decades, Lincoln wrote in a letter on display that he considered Jonas “one of my most valued friends.” He also was one of Lincoln’s most ardent political supporters and helped arrange the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate, in Quincy in 1858.

When war came, five of Jonas’ sons fought for the Confederacy, but he remained loyal to the union. In July 1861, Lincoln appointed Jonas deputy postmaster of Quincy. After Jonas died, Lincoln appointed Jonas’ wife, Louisa, to succeed her husband in the job.

The exhibit notes many other appointments Lincoln extended to Jews, including Alfred Mordecai Jr. to second lieutenant in August 1861; Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia as the country’s first Jewish military chaplain in September 1862; and C.M. Levy, son-in-law of New York’s leading Ashkenazi rabbi, Morris Raphall, to assistant quartermaster with the rank of captain because he had not yet “appointed a Hebrew” in November 1862. The truth was that Lincoln already had appointed a number of Jews as quartermasters, but Levy was different in that he was Orthodox.

“What’s so interesting about Lincoln is the way he treated Jews individually,” Stowell said. “He didn’t treat them as a group per se. That was one of the keys to his remarkable success. He dealt with people as individuals. Given that he appointed the first, second and third Jewish chaplains in American history, the fact that he treated Jews as citizens, probably encouraged more Jewish emigration from Europe,” where there was rampant anti-Semitism.

“I don’t want to paint this as ‘America as the Promised Land,’ that there was no anti-Semitism here. But what was remarkable was Lincoln’s opposition to it – and overcoming – that broad, cultural context.”

Perhaps the best example was Lincoln’s reversal of Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 of 1862, which banned all Jews “as a class” from the area under his command including parts, or all, of the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi. Worried about cotton speculators, smugglers and traders, some of whom were Jews in his troops, Grant became convinced that all smugglers and traders were Jews, regardless of whether they were Jewish or not.

According to the Sarna/Shapell book, the decree “perpetuated the most blatant state-sanctioned act of anti-Semitism in American history,” Lincoln said. What bothered him most about the order was that it singled out an entire group. 

“To condemn a class,” he said, “is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” 

Later, when Lincoln rescinded the order, and later still, when running for president, Grant claimed that  “the order was made and sent out without reflection.”

Of all the materials in the exhibit that underscore Lincoln’s commitment to the inclusion of Jews in America, it is his relationship with the chiropodist Zacharie that perhaps is the most curious. Beyond the relief he brought to Lincoln’s chronically painful feet, Zacharie served as Lincoln’s emissary to the influential Jewish community of New Orleans, which numbered 2,000 at the time. 

In a letter to Gen. Nathaniel Banks, newly in command of the Department of the Gulf in 1863, Lincoln writes that Zacharie “might be of service, to you, first, in his peculiar profession, and secondly, as a means to access to his countrymen, who are quite numerous in some of the localities you will probably visit.” 

Sarna, in the introduction to “Lincoln and the Jews,” explains how Mary Lincoln recounted in 1866 that her husband hoped to visit Palestine after his second term as president came to an end. 

Sarna writes: “Perhaps the naming of a Jerusalem street in Lincoln’s memory aimed to compensate for this thwarted desire. If so, that would have been highly appropriate. But Lincoln Street also memorializes the fact that so many American Jews considered Abraham Lincoln to be their friend.”