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Father Abraham's Bosom
By Stephen M. Astrachan
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, whose 200th 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.
On December 17, 1862 General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11 which, among its other provisions, barred Jews "as a class" from residence in the large territory under his command. The various accounts Grant's motivations generally involve either the considerable trade between businessmen in Union territory and the Confederate population or overcharging the Army for supplies. As in so many previous times, all were blamed for the misdeeds, real or imagined, of the few. Under General Order No. 11 the U.S. Army actually began the forcible expulsion of Jewish families from their homes in many of the "Western" territories.
As with the exclusion from the chaplaincy, the Jews fought back with organized protests. Most importantly, Ceasor Kaskel, representing the Jewish community of Paducah, Kentucky, traveled to Washington D.C. to try to meet with President Lincoln. He arrived at the White House late on January 3, 1862. Without any previous appointment and accompanied by Representative Gurley of Ohio, he was able to speak to the President. Once Mr. Lincoln understood what was at issue this remarkable and historic exchange took place:
Lincoln: "And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?"
Kaskel: "Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham's bosom, asking for protection."
Lincoln: "And this protection they shall have at once."
Thus, President Abraham Lincoln overruled the order of his most popular and successful general in a war that in January 1863 he was far, so very, very far, from winning. (Would that President Roosevelt had taken a similar stance towards the Japanese Americans in California in 1942.)
President Lincoln's deeds of kindness and protection toward the Jewish Community were not limited to acts of state but reached to the most human and personal level. As his old friend Abraham Jonas of Quincy, Illinois lay dying, the family was grieved that one son Charles could not be there. He was, in the nation divided, a Confederate prisoner of war. In a 1908 letter to author and researcher Isaac Markens, Charles, then 77, explained:
When during my father's last illness and hope of his recovery had been abandoned, my mother and sister asked Mr. Lincoln to permit me to see him before his death. I was at that time a prisoner of war on Johnson's Island, Lake Erie. President Lincoln granted the request without hesitation, and issued an order to the Commandant at the prison to liberate me on parole to visit my dying father. This was done at once and I reached Quincy on the day of my father's death, but in time to be recognized and welcomed by him.
Mr. Lincoln's deeds were all the more laudatory for having occurred during a crisis as serious and threatening as any this country has faced. So as the nation observes his 200th birthday we should take a moment to reflect on this less well known, but no less meritorious, aspect of a magnificent legacy for which we, as Americans, can be justly proud and, as Jews, truly grateful.
from the March 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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