Jewish Americans are joining in the bicentennial celebration of the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, our martyred 16th president. He is warmly remembered for his friendship to the Jewish community and his legacy of leadership in the United States.
During the Civil War, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11 expelling all Jews (considered roaming merchants) from portions of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi where his forces had taken the field.
Granting an audience to Jewish community representative Cesar Kaskel, Lincoln first listened and then asked: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
Kaskel reportedly said, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.” Lincoln, who believed in “mystic” and “electric” chords of memory, firmly replied: “And this protection they shall have at once.”
He then ordered General Order 11 immediately revoked, as it proscribed an entire religious class, many of whom were loyal fighters.
Lincoln’s own possible Jewish roots are debated. His mother’s ancestry went back to a town in eastern England named Lincoln, where mostly Jews were known to reside. Named Abraham (his great-grandfather was Mordechai), Lincoln was the only American president not to have declared himself a member of any particular religious faith, and he was neither raised in nor belonged to a church.
A faithful believer in the Almighty, Lincoln was rooted in biblical theology and frequently cited the 20th chapter of the Book of Exodus, recommending that every American student study it. It is the Ten Commandments.
“In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book,” Lincoln once said.
Lincoln applied the lessons of the Bible through the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Promoting the philosophy and language of liberty, Lincoln worked hard and gave his life to free the slaves and win the Civil War to preserve “a more perfect union”:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, he said in the Gettysburg Address.”
Today Lincoln has become a unifying figure in a disunited country. Republicans revere Lincoln as the first GOP president. New Democratic President Barack Obama, son of a black father, swore his oath on Lincoln’s Bible, and famously made a pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial, site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which promised a continued path of human liberty and equality in the United States.
All of our American presidents have been wise to honor the prayer of Lincoln:
“ … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Of note, Lincoln stressed equality of opportunity over equality of outcome, believing that the best way to inspire diligent labor was to consider property a positive good in the world. Lincoln disagreed with notions of forced economic equality.
“Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built,” he said.
American Jews are therefore doubly blessed with two patriarchs. We are the covenanted people of Father Abraham, and the heirs of statesman Abraham Lincoln, meant to be a blessing and a great nation throughout the generations.
Larry Greenfield was Western director of the Republican Jewish Coalition and is now vice president and fellow in American studies at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.