One hundred fifty years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. First issued by President Lincoln following the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where General McClellan stymied the Army of Virginia’s northern advance on September 22, 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps the most revolutionary document enacted by a sitting president in our history. President Lincoln, acting upon his own authority, issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that “all slaves in the rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free.” Despite its profound psychological and emotional impact upon millions of Americans, the Emancipation Proclamation had limited effect. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union and left slavery untouched in the Border States that had remained loyal to the Union, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland. It also had no effect upon slavery in the areas of the Confederacy then occupied by Federal forces. Significantly, it opened up enlistment in the Army to former slaves. Prior to this, former slaves were limited to serving in the Navy. Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation enabled 200,000 black soldiers and sailors to fight for the Union cause.
Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation was predictably mixed. Most Republicans and Abolitionists were delighted and slave owners and Democrats were outraged. It did strengthen Northern resolve by adding a moral force to the war to the preserve the Union. Suddenly, the Civil War became a war for freedom.
The reaction among the Jewish community was as mixed as that of the general public. There was no “Jewish vote” in 1862-63. There were approximately 200,000 Jews in the United States, the vast majority in the North. Some 6,000 Jews fought for the Union and another 4,000, often from the same family, fought for the South. Some rabbis were determined opponents of slavery and preached against it at every opportunity while others preached as vociferously in favor of the detested institution. Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai was literally run out of town because of his abolitionist views while Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, the most well known rabbi in the country who later founded the HebrewUnionCollege and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was decidedly neutral. Rabbi Morris Raphall, a prominent New York rabbi, preached vehemently in favor of preserving the institution. While individual Jews had differing opinions on slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, there was not a “Jewish” reaction to it.
As I noted earlier, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the border states. That was accomplished by each individual state in their respective constitutional conventions. For the next few minutes, I will tell you about one Jew who had more to do with abolishing slavery in Missouri than practically any one else.
Isidor Bush fled to this country from his native Germany in 1948, one of thousands of political refugees who left after the collapse of the revolutionary movements in Central Europe. He became a bookseller and publisher of the German language weekly, Israel’s Herold, which failed after three months. He soon moved to the thriving city of St. Louis where his entrepreneurial skills were put to good use. “At various times he was a grocer, real estate promoter, banker, actuary, hardware dealer, soldier, and railroad executive. His major interests, however, were communal and political. He was a founder of Congregation Beth El and a leader in B’nai Brith. He served as a St. Louis alderman and as president of the St. Louis German Immigration Society. He is most noted as a Republican member of the Missouri state constitutional conventions during the Civil War in which he fervently embraced the Union cause, an unpopular stance given the numbers of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. He served with distinction in the 1861 and 1862 sessions of the Missouri constitutional convention, so much so that he was one of nine elected to the important Committee on Emancipation in the 1863 session. When the Committee on Emancipation voted to emancipate Missouri’s slaves in 1876, Bush presented an impassioned minority report of one. This long document, which I will not repeat in toto, is accounted by some as leading to the emancipation in Missouri on January 1, 1865, a month before the historic vote in Washington, D.C., during which the House of Representatives voted on behalf of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery in the re-united United States of American on December 6, 1865.
Bush said, “The people of this State have to take a stand on one side or the other…to place ourselves on the middle ground between the contending parties is to be destroyed by both fires. When they decided to stay in the Union, to fight with the North in this struggle to maintain our national existence, this question was virtually decided. You had only to draft the deed and to acknowledge it. You ought to have declared simply that we will cheerfully sacrifice the institution of slavery, whose value has already been destroyed by this rebellion to our country…the great majority of people are in favor of emancipation…still you hesitate…Now, as the abolishment of slavery in Missouri cannot be avoided, does anyone on this floor really believe that slavery can exist until 1876 or 1870?…Some of the members of this Convention have drawn so horrible a picture of the evils resulting from emancipation the Negroes and leaving them afterwards free among us…they tell us that the Negroes would be but one great band of idlers and vagabonds, robbers, murderers, and thieves. If this be true, I ask these gentlemen “Are these the boasted blessings of Christianity which you have claimed to have given these poor Africans in return for their freedom?” I have no words for such slanders against poor human beings, so much sinned against. It is not enough that you must charge them with crimes they never committed and never dreamt of. I pray you have pity for yourselves, not for the Negro. Slavery demoralizes, slavery fanaticism blinds you; it has arrayed brother against brother, son against father. It has destroyed God’s noblest work- a free and happy people. I am done and I move that this convention now adjourn without delay.”
Isidor Bush had a short lived, but crucial role, in the extension of civil rights and human freedom to African-Americans. His speech moved the Missouri Constitutional Convention to free Missouri’s slaves with little delay. There are few less well known than Isidor Bush who have made such a great contribution to this country and the honor of the Jewish people. He died in St. Louis in 1898, six months after his 76th birthday. May his memory always be a blessing and may Isidor Bush rest in peace.
Amen and Shabbat shalom