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Lincoln-“He Was Like One of Us”

The man who many have called the greatest of all American presidents has also become a spiritual and moral kinsman of the Jews. Abraham Lincoln socialized with Jews early on, during his years in Springfield (1837-1861), when he rode the 8th District Court circuit in central Illinois. Samuel Huttenbauer, an 18-year-old peddler from Cincinnati, told his children and grandchildren that during his peddling visits to Springfield, Abraham Lincoln purchased suspenders and collar buttons from his push cart. When in Athens, Illinois, Lincoln was known to lodge in the front section of Louis Salzenstein's clothing store. And by the time Lincoln ran for president, he referred to Abraham Jonas (1801-1864), a prominent political activist from Quincy, Illinois, as one of his "most valued friends."

When he served as president of the United States (1861-1865), Lincoln defended Jews from assaults on their civil rights on three prominent occasions.

In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, Congress authorized the U.S. military to appoint chaplains who were "ordained ministers of some Christian denomination." The organized Jewish community promptly appealed to Lincoln for help in revising the chaplaincy bill. Lincoln intervened and Congress passed new legislation in 1862. Lincoln then appointed the nation's first Jewish military chaplain, Rabbi Jacob Frankel (1808-1887) of Philadelphia's Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

On December 17, 1862 General Ulysses S. Grant promulgated General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jewish citizens "as a class" from the Military Department of Tennessee. Once the edict was brought to Lincoln's attention on January 3, 1863 by Cesar Kaskel, a Jewish businessman from Paducah, Kentucky, the president immediately revoked the order.

In February 1864, the newly established National Reform Association (NRA) sought to amend the U.S. Constitution so as to formalize the notion that Christianity was the nation's dominant religious tradition. A distinguished NRA delegation visited Lincoln, read him the text of the proposed amendment, and solicited his political backing. Lincoln promised the delegates he would study the matter carefully, but for the remainder of his administration took no action.

After his shocking death, American Jewish leaders joined the rest of the nation in praising the fallen leader as the savior of the Union; the Emancipator; one of the people; and a man of integrity, courage, and kindliness. In his eulogy for the martyred president, Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore declared: "He was like one of us."

Gary Phillip Zola is Professor of the American Jewish Experience at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio and the author of the forthcoming book, "He Was Like One of Us": Abraham Lincoln and American Jewry (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).