“We Have Not Yet Appointed a Hebrew”

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 17, 2015

Add to History Board Share Print

On November 4, 1862, President Lincoln made an historic appointment. Declaring that “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew”, he named the son-in-law of a prominent New York City rabbi an assistant quartermaster.  Why Lincoln felt he owed something to the Jews, and how, with this appointment, he was courting them still, had largely to do with two men, Abraham Jonas of Illinois, and Issachar Zacharie of New York City.   Jonas, a lawyer, was Lincoln’s best friend; Zacharie, a chiropodist, was Lincoln’s spy and emissary.  Both were Jews.

Whether Lincoln met and befriended Abraham Jonas, an English-born Jew, in the course of Jonas’ Illinois store-keeping, or their mutual lawyering, or through their shared commitment to Whig politics, is unknown, but by 1843, when both took their seats in the Illinois Legislature, their friendship was established for life.  Lincoln, in fact, described their relationship in terms he never used about anyone else:  he was, Lincoln wrote to him, “one of my most valued friends.” But Jonas was more than Lincoln’s intimate; he was instrumental in his political career.  It was at a  meeting in his law offices, in 1858, that Jonas began, in fact, to bang the drum of Lincoln for President, telling Horace Greeley – one of the founders of the Republican Party and a political kingmaker –  that Lincoln ought to be considered a possible nominee for the Republican presidential nomination. Looking to 1860,  Jonas foresaw, too, that the votes of 50,000 American Jews were also up for grabs.  The Democrats, he realized, had so badly mishandled the outrageous Mortara Affair – in which an Italian Jewish boy was secretly baptized and then taken, without protest by Buchanan, away from his parents to be raised as a Christian – that, as Jonas put it, “all my church” was offended. Jews who had hitherto supported the Democratic Party in large numbers now had, Jonas discerned, a special interest in going against it.

To what degree Jews supported Lincoln in that poll-less era cannot now, of course, be determined; but certainly the backing of such politically engaged Jews as New Yorkers Abram J. Dittenhoefer and Sigismund Kaufmann no doubt helped garner Jewish votes in the electorally rich Empire state. Soon another well-connected Jew would be working  for Lincoln in New York, and all over the rest of the country, too.  His name was Dr. Issachar Zacharie, and he did more than swing votes…

Dr. Zacharie, who spelled his name Issachar, Issacher, Issachor, Isachar, Zacharie, Zacharia, and Zachariah, came from London, Richmond, Baltimore, Sacramento, Philadelphia, and/or New York City. Pinning down his age, place of birth, date of immigration, professional antecedents, marital status, political sympathies and loyalties, proves difficult to this day. To assay his purposes would take a clairvoyant.  But the flamboyant, self-publicizing and ingratiating Dr. Zacharie (to use but three of the politer adjectives used to describe him)  was a brilliant “bunionist” and, at the opening of the Civil War, on a martial campaign of his own. He envisioned a corps of corn doctors attending the beleaguered feet of weary Union infantrymen and saw himself, even, as a kind of “Chiropodist-General” in that cause. That he became, instead, a spy and, more particularly, Abraham Lincoln’s confidential agent and trusted friend, is yet another unfathomable aspect of Zacharie’s life.

On the day that Lincoln “appointed a Hebrew”, however, Zacharie had yet to become Lincoln’s secret emissary.  He was instead, remarkably, the recipient of three testimonials to his skill, written by Lincoln within a span of just three days; during which, besides having his corns cut, Lincoln contended with the single bloodiest battle in American history – Antietam – and the reading of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Yet even as these landmark events held sway, Lincoln would seem to have found something compelling in the able, affable, and Jewish doctor. Soon after he had met him, in fact, he wrote to a general praising Zacharie’s intriguing attributes. “First in his peculiar profession and secondly, as a means of access to his countrymen,” Lincoln was careful to suggest but not order, “he might be of service.”

If Lincoln tread cautiously, it was in the sure knowledge that in recommending a Jew, any Jew, to a general, he was liable to come face to face with an unsavory fact. Many of the men he needed most to win the war, were bigots. This, however, did not matter to him. What mattered was that he himself was not – and so, with imperturbable fixedness, he either ignored, or simply counteracted, the virulent anti-Semitism all around him. Generals Butler, Sherman, Hurlbut, McClellan, Gilmore and Grant were, he knew, prejudiced at best, and persecutory at worst.  Butler, especially, bore watching. “The Jews,” that general grandly pronounced, “betrayed their Savior & also have betrayed us.” But even as his top brass evinced degrees of anti-Semitism, it was to Lincoln’s best general, Ulysses S. Grant, to whom went the distinction of having been the author of the single most anti-Jewish order in American history…

Abraham Jonas. Wells Family Collection.

On December 17, 1862 Major-General Grant issued his General Orders #11, banishing all Jews, “as a class”, from the area under his command. Every Jewish man, woman and child, he decreed, was to leave, within twenty-four hours, the Department of the Tennessee. For the first time in U.S. history government officials, at Grant’s direction, forcibly expelled citizens from their homes solely on the basis of their religion. Lincoln, learning of the Order from outraged Jewish citizens, countermanded it, immediately. But the irony of Lincoln’s revocation – coming just two days after his Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves – was not lost: the Memphis Daily Bulletin published the two documents one above the other.

Lincoln’s historic appointment of “a Hebrew” two months before,  had now come full circle with his adamant revocation of Grant’s anti-Semitic Order.

~

Lincoln’s use of the names “Hebrews,” “Jews,” and “Israelites” were, it is worth noting,  in no way derogatory. Rather, all three terms were commonplace in his day, and frequently were used inter-changeably. In Lincoln’s case, whether he wrote about Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites, he never did so in a disrespectful way.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809 – 1865. The 16th President of the United States.