Jews and President’s Day

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Next week is President’s Day, an amalgamated birthday celebration for two of our three greatest presidents: George Washington (Feb. 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12, 1809). We measure presidential greatness by combining challenges each leader faced and his successful resolutions. By this standard, both Washington and Lincoln are always numbered among the Top 3 — along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

For Jews, President’s Day has a special meaning. Both Washington and Lincoln were remarkable friends of American Jews, and their lives and careers still resonate as models for religious liberty and the treatment of minorities in our nation.


From the moment of Independence until the end of the Lincoln administration, the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, with few Catholics and even fewer Jews. In 1776, there were no more than 2,500 Jews. When the Civil War began, Jews comprised about one-half of 1 percent of the population, or roughly 200,000 of the total 31.5 million.

Numerically, Jews were insignificant. They were easily ignored, and the Protestant majority was either hostile or indifferent toward them. In 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written, Jews were prohibited from holding public office in 12 of the 13 new states. Before the Civil War, Pennsylvania refused to exempt Jews from jury service or from testifying in court on Saturdays, even though courts were closed on Sundays for Christians.

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When Lincoln took office, there was little formal discrimination against Jews, who by this time had served in the U.S. House and Senate and in many state and local offices. But prejudice was common in much of the nation.

During the Revolution, Washington accepted Jews as comrades and officers without a second thought. Lt. Col. David Salisbury Franks served on Washington’s staff during the war, and as a diplomat afterwards. At the time, he could not have served as an officer — much less on the staff of the general-in-chief — in the British, French or Spanish armies. Franks was not the only Jewish officer in the American army. Among others, Major Solomon Bush was the deputy adjutant-general of the Pennsylvania state militia.


In August 1790 the new president wrote his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I, affirming religious liberty in America:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

The language here is instructive. Washington rejected the concept of “toleration” — that the majority should give an “indulgence” or gift to the minority. Instead, he asserted that the United States would reject all religious bigotry and refuse to aid in any religious persecution. Jews would be free to practice their faith on equal terms with other Americans. This letter signaled a dramatic change in how most Western countries treated Jews. It set the stage for the United States to ultimately become the destination for millions of Jews escaping the “bigotry” and “persecution” Washington promised would not be supported by the new nation.

Even more than Washington, Lincoln was a friend of the Jews. Unlike Washington, or indeed any other previous president, Lincoln had a number of close friends who were Jewish. In the 1850s, he had Jewish clients and Jewish associates in Illinois and Kentucky. He openly and vigorously opposed the Know-Nothing Party, which would have restricted non-Protestant immigration. While aggressively anti-Catholic, the Know-Nothings were unconcerned that their anti-immigration platform would also harm Jews.

In 1852, President Millard Fillmore had signed a treaty that discriminated against American Jews who traveled to Europe. When Jews protested the treaty, Fillmore ignored them. In 1856, Fillmore was the Know-Nothing candidate for president.

Lincoln, on the other hand, like Washington, would give “bigotry no sanction” and “persecution no assistance.” At the Republican Convention in 1860, Lewis Dembitz, the uncle of Louis Dembitz Brandeis, supported Lincoln’s nomination.
As president, Lincoln supported the rights of Jewish soldiers to have chaplains of their own faith, promoted Jews to important political and military positions, and quickly and vigorously overruled Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous order expelling Jews from his military district.

The chaplain issue seems quaint today, but when the Civil War began, federal law required that every chaplain be an “ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” This discrimination created a political issue in September 1861, when a Protestant visitor to a military camp complained that a Pennsylvania regiment, under the command of a Col. Max Friedman, had chosen a Jew as its chaplain.

In his annual message to Congress in December, Lincoln urged Congress to allow Jewish as well as Catholic chaplains. The next July, Congress passed the appropriate legislation, and Lincoln signed it.

Jewish officers served in the Army and Navy since the Revolution, but Civil War politics expanded opportunity. Noting that the administration “had not yet appointed a Hebrew,” Lincoln intervened to secure a captaincy for one Jewish man. Many other Jews served as majors and colonels.

By the end of the war, a handful of Jews has become generals, including Maj. Gen. Frederick Knefler. Lincoln personally approved the promotion of Leopold Newman to brigadier general, but Newman died of battle wounds before the order reached him. He was promoted posthumously. Lincoln also appointed Frederick Salomon as a brigadier general. His brother, Lt. Col. Charles Salomon, reached that rank after the war. A third brother, Edward Salomon, was the governor of Wisconsin during the war and a political ally of Lincoln. Gov. Salomon is often confused with Brig. Gen. Edward Selig Salomon, a Lincoln ally from Illinois, whom President Grant appointed governor of the Washington Territory in 1870.

Lincoln also appointed Jews to various patronage offices, starting with his friend Abraham Jonas, who became the postmaster of Quincy, Ill., shortly after Lincoln took office. In Louisiana, Lincoln supported Michael Hahn, who became governor after the United States defeated Confederate forces there.

The most infamous official act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history took place in December 1861 when General Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his military district in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. The order was blunt: “The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, and are hereby expelled from the Department.”

This was not an act of “legislation,” as some scholars mistakenly claim, but an order by a military commander in a war zone. It was not official U.S. policy, and the president knew nothing about it.

Immediately, Cesar Kaskel, a leader of the Jewish community in Paducah, Ky., and an acquaintance of the president, went to Washington to protest the order. He arrived on Jan. 3, 1862, and met with Lincoln. The next day, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck telegraphed Grant, telling him, “If such an order has been issued,” it “will be immediately revoked” at the direction of the president.

The language of the revocation helps explain why it took a personal audience with the president to achieve this result. Jews in Kentucky, Mississippi and elsewhere had sent letters and telegrams to the administration, protesting the order, but the War Department and the White House had not believed such an order existed. When Kaskel showed Lincoln the order, the president immediately overruled Grant.

Both Washington and Lincoln built strong records of judging people by their abilities and their contributions to the nation, and not by their religion.

From the Revolution to the Civil War, when anti-Semitism was not only common, but rarely condemned, Washington and Lincoln stand out for their courage and their common sense. They make President’s Day an especially important holiday for Jews.

Paul Finkelman is the president of Gratz College outside Philadelphia.

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