Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, whose 203rd birthday we are observing, was a protector and friend for the Jews “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”
At the outset of the Civil War the Jewish Community faced official discrimination as the legislation expanding the US Army restricted the chaplaincy to clergy of the Christian faith. Members of the Jewish Community energetically protested this exclusion. Petitions for change in the law, including one in the U.S. Senate presented by Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, later the author of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, were submitted. In response, President Lincoln wrote to Dr. Arnold Fischell on December 14, 1861:
I find that there are several particulars in which the present law in regard to Chaplains is supposed to be deficient, all of which I now design presently to the appropriate Committee of Congress. I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is deferred by you in behalf of the Israelites.
President Lincoln was good to his word and on March 26, 1862 the act was amended to allow for brigade chaplains “one or more of which shall be of the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish religion.” The community reaction and Mr. Lincoln’s responsiveness set an important precedent for the far more dangerous threat that was to follow.
From Lincoln and the Jews:
In January 1863, Lincoln revoked the only incident of official anti-Jewish discrimination when he countermanded Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11, which expelled Jews from Northern Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. Lincoln also appointed seven Jewish generals to the Union forces.
What were the reasons for Lincoln’s concern and kindly attitude toward the Jews? First and foremost was the fact that by the time of the Civil War, Jews had become a factor in American life. During the Revolutionary War and the founding of America, Jews numbered a miniscule 2,500 out of a population of approximately 4 million. By 1840, they had only grown to 15,000, but 20 years later, in 1860, the Jewish population had risen to 150,000, out of a nation of 30 million. The Jews emerged from a relatively docile and unseen element in the population to a viable minority, striving for its own rights and recognition.
With the increased Jewish population, the future president knew Jews as admirable neighbors even in the little towns where he grew up.
Louis Salzenstein was a storekeeper and livestock trader in the town of Athens, Ill., near New Salem, where Lincoln spent six years. When Lincoln was postmaster, he collected the mail from “Old Salty’s” store, which served as the regional post office. He became good friends with Salzenstein, who was remembered by a town historian as “doing more than any other man toward bettering the improvements and the mode of living in this section.”
First Published 2/21/2011