Simon Wolf: Patriot, Activist, and Statesman

October 23, 2022
Add to History Board Share Print
Steel-engraved portrait of Simon Wolf circa 1882, from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Collection

Simon Wolf, a little-known powerhouse of 19th-century American-Jewish history, has been brought back to public consciousness by the Shapell Roster’s revision of Wolf’s epic project: documenting Jewish soldiers in the Civil War in his 1895 book The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and  Citizen.[1] But Simon Wolf was by no means an intellectual recluse confined to the archives. On the contrary, Wolf was a gregarious, high-profile attorney who helped support and advance the American Jewish community for over half a century. His remarkable journey from immigrant to American statesman and unofficial Jewish ambassador is showcased in this curated manuscript collection. But who was Simon Wolf? 

Much of what we know about Wolf’s life and experiences comes from his own writings. As one might expect from a 19th-century person known to be charming and politically well-connected, Wolf was a storyteller. As such, some of his recollections have been challenging to verify. What is important to focus on is what Wolf’s conscious depiction of himself and certain narratives can teach us. In many ways, Simon Wolf was like most American Jews: an immigrant of modest means who made a better life for himself in his adopted country. Originally from Bavaria, he helped sustain his family by reading for illiterate well-to-do neighbors by the age of six. When he was twelve years old, he emigrated to Ohio with his grandparents amidst the upheaval of the failed Revolutions of 1848. There, he began to work in his uncle’s shop. Ohio was a battleground for fierce political rivalry, and Wolf was drawn to politics and the law. At the beginning of the Civil  War, Wolf finished his law degree, and the following year, in 1862, he moved his wife and children to the nation’s capital. Using his Ohio connections, Wolf arrived in the capital with a letter of recommendation from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s former law partner. 

At this juncture, Wolf’s immigrant experience became less typical and more the stuff of the American dream. Despite a minor hiccup of being arrested on suspicion of spying for the South and being personally released by Stanton, Wolf began to find himself in the company of President Lincoln for various reasons. Whether it was intervening on behalf of individuals or being invited to events in his capacity as the head of Jewish organizations, Wolf always saw Lincoln as an ally. [2] In fact, in the spring of 1864, Lincoln specifically issued a pass for Wolf to go to Fortress Monroe in order to confront General Benjamin Butler over an antisemitic statement the General had made.[3] This episode reflects not only Lincoln’s character and the relationship between him and Wolf, but of Wolf’s propensity to be present at historical events, whether by chance or by inserting himself.

Wolf was meant to be at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but because of an illness in the family, he was not in attendance. More remarkably, he spent the afternoon of the assassination with an acquaintance he met in Cleveland: John Wilkes Booth. According to Wolf, Booth invited him for drinks at the Metropolitan Hotel in Washington; he had just been rejected by a senator’s daughter for the third time and needed some company.[4]

Wolf’s personal experience surrounding the Lincoln assassination was even more bizarre: owing to a striking resemblance between himself and Booth, Wolf dared not leave his apartment until after Booth’s arrest. Lest one think his caution was overblown, Wolf claimed that he was actually asked by the painter Theodor Kaufmann to sit as Booth for his “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”[5]

During and after the war, Wolf assisted soldiers and widows with pension claims and sundry other legal issues. Pension documentation became one of the vital resources for the Shapell Roster researchers a century and a half later in order to determine if a soldier was Jewish or not. In 1869, Wolf was appointed by President Grant as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. It’s interesting to think that both his experience in advocating for military pensions and this appointment foreshadowed his later project of sifting through records to document Jewish soldiers of the Civil War. Wolf maintained his position as recorder of deeds for the nation’s capital until 1878, before President Hayes appointed him Justice of the Peace.[6]

Wolf was part of history yet again when President Garfield appointed him as the American Consul to Egypt, at the behest of the Civil War General Carl Schurz. It was to be Garfield’s last official act as President. Wolf describes how he was summoned to the White House on Friday the 1st of July 1881, where he was received by Garfield who wished him a pleasant trip to the land of his forefathers. The following morning being a Saturday, Wolf heard about Garfield’s assassination just before leaving for synagogue. 

The following year, Wolf resigned his post in Egypt and asked President Arthur for his former position of Justice of the Peace, which he received. According to Wolf, his two previous positions as American Consul to Egypt and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia were both appointments that were vocally opposed on account of his Jewish identity. This is another example of a claim that Wolf makes that cannot be confirmed. Wolf created a narrative in which he faced some antisemitism but does not give it much weight. In fact, Wolf gave the benefit of the doubt to both General Butler with regards to his inflammatory comment, and, more significantly, to General Grant, concerning the infamous General Orders No. 11, in which Jews were expelled from his military district. One can only speculate as to why Wolf would depict himself as a victim of minor individual antisemitism and gave Grant and Butler a pass on truly problematic antisemitism that impacted more people. Perhaps he keenly felt aware of and wanted to show, as he noted, the “contrast there was between Germany and the United States as to the status of the Jew,” the latter being a much better place for Jewish people to thrive.[7]

That is by no means to say that Wolf didn’t hurl himself headlong into controversies, and certainly not only for Jews. Wolf consistently advocated for abolition as well as civil rights for Blacks. When Theodore Roosevelt invited Wolf’s counterpart in the black community, Booker T. Washington, to lunch at the White House in 1901, there was an uproar from southern politicians. So great was the enmity towards Roosevelt’s gesture that the White House did not host a black leader again for thirty years. Wolf jumped into the fray, simultaneously defending the President’s actions and praising Washington as a patriot. Wolf also did not limit himself to domestic politics, and advocated for Jewish people in Romania and Russia.

Despite being born in poverty in Bavaria, Simon Wolf could count nine American presidents as intimate acquaintances by the end of his life. On the day of his funeral, the Supreme Court adjourned out of respect for his memory, with the Justices attending his funeral. This curated manuscript collection includes a letter from then congressman William  McKinley, who was unable to attend the wedding of Wolf’s daughter, Wolf’s appointment as Consul General to Egypt, and an inscribed copy of his book The Presidents I Have Known to Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, illustrating the breadth of Wolf’s relationships to some of the most high profile Americans of the late 19th and early 20th century.

  1.  Wolf’s book documents Jewish soldiers who served America going back to the Revolutionary War
  2.  Sarna, Jonathan D., and Benjamin Shapell. Lincoln and the Jews: A History. Thomas Dunne Books, an Imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2015, p. 149
  3.  Wolf, Simon. The Presidents I Have Known From 1860-1918. Byron S. Adams, 1918, p. 8
  4.  Wolf, p.12
  5.  Wolf, p. 14
  6.  David H., and Esther L. Panitz. “Simon Wolf as United States Consul to Egypt.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 47, no. 2, 1957, pp. 76–100. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Sep. 2022, p. 81
  7. Wolf, p.113




Manuscripts Related To This Article