Abraham Lincoln’s Jewish Friend – Sermon, May 25, 2012


It is my custom on the Shabbat of Memorial Day and Fourth of July, to speak to you of an incident or event in American Jewish history.  We have been part and parcel of this country since before its inception, landing on these shores in 1654.  The American Jewish community, now over five million strong, began with those 23 bedraggled and exhausted refugees fromRecifein what was once Dutch Brazil.  By the time of the Civil War in 1861, there were over 150,000 Jews in theseUnited States.  About 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War, approximately three quarters for the North and a quarter for the South.  Just as there was no united Jewish vote in those days, there was no united Jewish position on slavery or loyalty to theUnion.  Jews reflected the beliefs of the states and cities within which we lived.  We were as divided as was the rest of the country.

I speak this evening about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his friend, Abraham Jonas.  Abraham Lincoln was the first American president who had Jewish friends and confidants.  He was extremely sensitive to the rights of minority groups and seemed to be partial to Jews.  Despite Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise’s assertion in his eulogy for President Lincoln thatLincolnclaimed to be a “descendant of Hebrew parentage,” there is absolutely no proof of this assertion. Lincolnwas well versed in the Bible and was a fine judge of human character.  He judged individual Jews by the same criteria he judged everyone else.  There was not a prejudiced bone in his body, so there was no reason for him not to befriend a Jew.  He met Abraham Jonas shortly after Jonas arrived inQuincy,Illinoisin 1838.  LikeLincoln, Jonas moved toIllinoisfromKentuckywhere he had served four terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives.  Jonas had emigrated fromEnglandtoCincinnatiwith a large group of Jews in 1819, after his brother sent back word that life in theQueenCityshowed promise.  After nine years inCincinnati, Jonas opened a store inWilliamstown,Kentuckyand ran for office, serving in the State Legislature for eight years and rising to the office of Grand Master of the Kentucky Masons, a tribute to his capacity for leadership.  Jonas, however, was imbued with the pioneering spirit and moved west once again, this time to the frontier town ofQuincy,Illinois.  While there he studied law, passed the bar and entered into a life long legal partnership with Henry Asbury.  He lost an election to the Illinois Senate but was awarded for his political activity by being awarded the position ofQuincypostmaster from 1849 to 1852.  A friend of Jonas described him as having a slender figure, brilliant dark eyes, an aquiline nose, black hair, and a very good voice.  He was said to be an excellent orator and a formidable opponent in a debate. 

Jonas became a fervent supporter of Abraham Lincoln in 1854 when he began sounding out potential supporters of aLincolnrun for the Senate.  It was soon after that the Whig party, to which Jonas belonged, died over the slavery issue.  Both he and Lincoln joined the new Republican Party and served as electors onFremont’s ticket in 1856, the first time Republicans fielded a national candidate.  Beginning in 1858, he actively began promotingLincolnas the next Republican Presidential nominee. Lincolndid win the Republican nod at theChicagoconvention.  Jonas traveled all overIllinoisof behalf ofLincoln’s candidacy.  In December, 1860, afterLincolnwon the election, Jonas wrote him a confidential letter.  He wrote that he had many relatives and friends inNew Orleans, one of whom warned him that there was a secessionist plot to assassinateLincolnbefore his inauguration.  He pleaded with his friend “to take all precautions for your personal safety and the preservation of our National Integrity.” It was not a coincidence that several months later,Lincoln’s train slipped throughBaltimorein the middle of the night on its way toWashington,D.C. Lincolnrewarded Jonas by appointing him to be postmaster ofQuincyonce again.

There was more correspondence between Jonas and his friend Lincoln during the War, but the most poignant letter came toLincolnin May, 1864 on behalf of Jonas from a mutual friend.  Jonas was on his death bed.  Like many families in theUnited States, Jonas had four sons fighting for the Confederacy.  One son, Charles, was in a Federal prisoner of war camp.  The letter requested that Charles be given a furlough in order to see his father before he died. Lincoln, clearly shocked to learn of his friend’s condition, readily granted Charles a three week furlough on June 2, 1864.  Charles arrived at his father’s bedside on the very day his father died.  As he later wrote with a thankful heart, “in time to be recognized and welcomed by him.”  In one final act of friendship, President Lincoln appointed Mrs. Jonas to serve out her husband’s unexpired term as postmaster ofQuincy.

President Lincoln had a number of Jewish friends and advisors, but none had such a long relationship with him as Abraham Jonas.  While we will never know what kind of influence this relationship had upon President Lincoln, we do know that he was the first president to appoint rabbis as chaplains in the Army and that upon learning of President Grant’s infamous General Order 11 which briefly expelled all Jews from the Department of Tennessee, he immediately revoked it.  Just as Eddie Jacobson’s friendship with President Truman may, in some way, have secured theUnited States’ recognition ofIsrael, so Abraham Jonas’ friendship with President Lincoln may have secured the President’s felicitous attitude towards his fellow Jews.

Do we learn anything from this history lesson that can profit us today?  Of course we do.  Certainly, it is in our interest to be active in both major political parties and to cultivate and befriend potential candidates whenever and where ever we find them.  We cannot be so parochial as to insist that there is only one political party for which Jews should vote.  While there may be a “Jewish vote” today, it is never in our interest to put all our proverbial eggs in one political basket.  That is a lesson we should take to heart. 

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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