Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

October 18, 2020
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Throughout its history, the United States has been home to individuals of varied religious backgrounds, but acceptance and tolerance toward different religions has waxed and waned. The Civil War era was no different. In the 1850s, nativism was fueled by prejudice against Irish Catholics immigrating to the United States. Antisemitic views were also common and Jewish Americans were frequently scapegoated during the war, especially when controversies arouse around illegal smuggling and the black market. At the same time, some Americans put forward a vision of religious tolerance and advocated for religious pluralism (the idea that the nation benefited from a diversity of religions). Abraham Lincoln was one who embraced this notion of religious pluralism. In this module, teachers will be introduced to learning activities that allow students to explore Lincoln’s words and actions related to religious tolerance and learn more about this important dynamic in U.S. history.

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Primary Sources

Section 2/3

Lesson Plan for 11th Grade U.S. History

Lesson Plan for 11th Grade U.S. History

Lesson Length: One 90-minute period or two 45-minute periods

Compelling Question: What were Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes toward religious minorities such as Jews and Catholics and how did it differ from others at the time? 

Materials needed: 

  1. Primary sources (below)
  2. Primary source analysis sheets: (one per student)
  3. Large poster board (alternatively, exhibit can be taped to the wall or whiteboard)
    1. Alternative: the assignment could take the form of a digital exhibit or digital story. Students can use websites like Padlet or Google Slides to create a digital exhibit. They may also take video of their sources and provide voiceover readings of their captions in a digital story or documentary.  
  4. OPTIONAL: Gettysburg Address


  1. Bell ringer: Students examine source Abraham Lincoln letter to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855
    • In particular students should read and analyze this passage: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
    • Teacher models primary source analysis and fills out sheet with class. When done, the teacher informs the class that Abraham Jonas was a close friend of Lincoln’s and was Jewish. 
    • Students may need to review or clarification on some of the terms Lincoln uses:
      1. Know Nothing – A political party that existed in the United States in the 1850s. Know Nothings were against immigration in general and in particular opposed to Catholic immigrants from Ireland. They were called Know Nothings because they began as a secret society whose members weren’t allowed to talk about their activities. 
      2. Despotism – A form of government based on absolute power. This kind of government tends to take away freedoms, such as religious freedom.
  2. Teacher informs the class that they will be planning exhibits for an Abraham Lincoln historic site. The exhibit will be about Lincoln’s attitudes toward religious minorities, such as Jews and Catholics. To begin, students should think about what they know about attitudes at the time toward these groups. They may recall (or be introduced to) the Know Nothing party or the concept of nativism (anti-immigration). They may also recall that the population of the United States at the time was mostly Protestant.
  3. Analyzing the sources:
    • Group students into groups of three. 
    • Give each group a selection of below sources either printed out or via links if students have access to a tablet or laptop. Tell students that these sources will help answer supporting questions such as:
      • What relationships did Abraham Lincoln have with Jewish individuals?
      • What kinds of discrimination did Jewish and Catholic Americans face at the time of Civil War?
      • What actions did President Lincoln take with regard to Jewish-Americans?
      • OPTIONAL: How did Lincoln’s treatment of Jewish-Americans relate to his beliefs on equality as expressed in the Gettsburg Address?
    • Formative assessment: Each student completes a Primary source analysis sheets on one source. Students may help each other but each student should complete a sheet. These sources will be used to create the exhibit.  

4. Creating the exhibit:

    • Each student takes turns sharing the source they analyzed in Step 3 with their group, summarizing what the source is and why it’s important. 
    • Students then write captions for their source to appear on their exhibit. The caption should both describe the source and explain why it’s important in under 50 words. Students should choose their words carefully and read each other’s captions to offer suggestions. A good caption will be accurate, clear, and explain why a source is important.  
    • Students can then plan out their exhibit, which should include a title and a sub title that introduces their topic. Think both about how your design might draw visitors to your exhibit and how to arrange your sources and title to best communicate your thesis. 
    • Students present their exhibits to the class or do a gallery walk.
    • OPTIONAL: The class can read the Gettysburg Address as a class and discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s treatment of Jewish Americans relates to his views on equality as expressed in the speech. Students can think about what quote or line from the speech might make a good addition to their exhibits.

Credits: Primary source analysis sheet from the National Archives. Lincoln letter to Speed from Abraham Lincoln Online. Gettysburg Address transcript from Cornell University Library.

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