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The first Jewish president? Lincoln, in the Abrahamic tradition

by Tom Teicholz

November 14, 2012 | 12:13 pm

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln.”  Photo by David James, DreamWorks

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln.” Photo by David James, DreamWorks

Abraham Lincoln has been dead for almost 150 years, yet suddenly he’s everywhere. At the Skirball Cultural Center, you can see an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, amid an impressive array of founding American documents. The Huntington Library is host to two stunning and deeply engrossing Civil War exhibitions, “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War” and “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War.” And on screens everywhere, there’s Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

After visiting the exhibitions, watching “Lincoln” was almost surreal — photographs I had just seen and documents I had just read came to life. Daniel Day-Lewis, for his part, seemed to embody Lincoln so completely at certain moments, it was as if he, too, were convinced he actually was Lincoln. At the same time, Spielberg’s Lincoln is portrayed in more personal and intimate terms than ever before on film: shown speaking to soldiers, to the war wounded, to family members and advisers; shown being both compassionate and passionate in his advocacy; and seeming something of a sly fox — always with a story, anecdote or joke at the ready to liven a room, make a point or close a deal.

After seeing the movie, I got to thinking about whether this Hollywood studio film, which was written and directed by Jewish-Americans (Tony Kushner and Spielberg, respectively), and which depicts the quintessential American as portrayed by Day-Lewis (whose mother is Jewish), is, in fact, a Jewish version of history in and of itself, a throwback to the days when Hollywood’s moguls, themselves Jewish-Americans, made movies about a seemingly non-Jewish America through the filter of their own very Jewish perspective.

Which raises the question: Has Spielberg given us a Jewish Lincoln? Or is it that Lincoln was “Jewish” in his temperament, values and actions: consumed by social justice in his fighting a war to abolish slavery; Moses-like in leading a people to freedom; talmudic in his use of disputation among a “team of rivals” to lead the nation; alternately morose and jovial (who doesn’t know that type?)? Add to all this that he died during Passover.

Set during the first four months of 1865, and centered on January, the month during which Lincoln lobbied the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, the film depicts a Lincoln more human, more flawed than we have ever seen on screen. Spielberg and Kushner contrive to show where Lincoln may have overstepped his authority, suspending habeas corpus and acting by executive fiat, yet the president is allowed to argue in his own defense the legality of his actions. This Lincoln is driven to incorporate the prohibition of slavery into the Constitution because he knows the legal importance of that document and because he fears what will follow if he doesn’t accomplish this before the war ends. We also see Lincoln’s failings — as a father, husband and friend, as well as in his anger when it flares.

Compassion, charity and the pursuit of  justice — these values, which we identify as Jewish values — are what inform the Spielberg-Kushner Lincoln: This is a president who seeks freedom for the slaves, who wants to heal the nation, is devoted to his young son, who visits the sick and mourns the dead. Sound familiar? While they might also be described as American values, even Christian values, it is understood that Spielberg and Kushner know them as the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charitable giving), bikur holim (visiting the sick) and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness). 

Amendment

“Joint Resolution Submitting 13th Amendment to the States, signed by Abraham Lincoln and Congress.” Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

There is one more way that this “Lincoln” conforms to an “Old Hollywood” tradition of Jews using the movies to redefine American history: The film contains no mention of Jews or Judaism.

It is historical fact, however, that Lincoln was very much a friend of the Jews, and he was much loved by the Jewish community, both in his day and after his death. There is even some reason to believe that Lincoln himself had Jewish forebears.

In Illinois, Abraham Jonas, the first Jewish settler west of the Allegheny Mountains, served in the Illinois legislature with Lincoln and was, in Lincoln’s words, his “most valued friend.” Louis Dembitz Brandeis, a Jew from Kentucky, was a Lincoln delegate to the 1860 Republican Convention and was reportedly the first to vote to nominate Lincoln for president. As president, Lincoln appointed the first Jew to serve as a foreign consul. More important, Lincoln was the first and only president to revoke an official U.S. act of anti-Semitism, canceling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s order barring Jewish peddlers from selling to Union troops. In Washington, one of Lincoln’s best friends was Isachar Zacharie, a Jewish doctor from England who treated him and became his friend. His photographer, Samuel Alschuler, was Jewish. And, according to the Rosewater Family papers donated to the American Jewish Archives, Edward Rosewater, while serving as a telegrapher in the War Department in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, came to know Lincoln, who would often come to Rosewater to dictate and receive communications. It was Rosewater who dispatched the Emancipation Proclamation to the world.

Even more intriguing was the claim that Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, author of the Union Prayer Book and founder of Hebrew Union College, delivered in his funeral address for Lincoln in Cincinnati in 1865: “Brethren, the lamented Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence. And, indeed, he preserved numerous features of the Hebrew race, both in countenance and character.” 

Lincoln, really Jewish? There are some tantalizing clues. He was named Abraham, for his grandfather, Abraham, who died when Lincoln’s own father was quite young; his paternal great-great-grandfather was named Mordecai, as was his uncle. Their last name derives from the city from which they emigrated, Lincoln in England (many Jews adopted as family names the city they hailed from). The city of Lincoln, it is interesting to note, is famous for being home to one of England’s oldest and most important Jewish communities, as well as for saving its Jews during the 12th century Crusader riots. However, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert denied that his family was of Jewish ancestry, saying that his father was merely jesting when he spoke with Rabbi Wise.

Still, it is not so hard to believe that Lincoln, who never professed a faith other than citing the Ten Commandments in Exodus, saw himself as a descendant of Jewish tradition, for where did his sense of justice and fairness come from if not from Mosaic law, or his belief that a mere amendment to the Constitution would do more than an army to win a war?

Although some historians have suggested that Lincoln suffered from depression, in Spielberg’s rendering he is not so much depressed as hobbled by the weight of the war, the war dead and the wounded veterans he has met; his wife (in a powerful performance by Sally Field), besotted by grief for a dead son and fearful of losing another to the war, both prods him and adds to his burden. All these factors contribute to Lincoln’s urgency to end slavery by passing the 13th Amendment before the war ends with the South. To do so, Lincoln uses every arrow in his quiver — cajoling, strong arming and making personal appeals to get the votes he needs. We see politics in action and understand that great change comes from great will — knowing when not to compromise — and always at some cost. 

In press notes for the film, Kushner describes Spielberg and his decision to narrow the focus of the film to the passage of the 13th  Amendment: “We both felt it was incredibly timely, because in this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance it’s a story that shows you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system. That month was also a lens though which you could see Lincoln with real clarity. It had all the ingredients that characterize him — his family life, his emotional life and his political genius.” Spielberg, who very much wanted to show both the leader and the man, describes Lincoln as someone “who was continually looking inside himself.”

The Lincoln of Spielberg’s film is very much in evidence in both the Skirball and Huntington exhibitions — which together include more important U.S. historical artifacts and documents on display than anywhere in the world outside Washington, D.C., and more than have ever been seen here before. The exhibitions include rough drafts and original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), as well as one of the largest displays of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner’s haunting photos of the Civil War dead, and original materials relating to the end of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln and his funeral procession. 

“Creating the United States,” at the Skirball through Feb. 17, illustrates the process by which the U.S. became a functioning democracy. We are treated to original publications by Benjamin Franklin from as early as 1750, suggesting a confederation of states; engravings by Paul Revere (yes, the silversmith midnight rider); and original correspondence by John Hancock, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (along with a facsimile of Jefferson’s signing desk). There before your eyes are the Stamp Tax, a tea box, an engraving depicting the Boston Tea Party and Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. 

A second section documents how the Constitution came into being, even how its iconic preamble, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union,” was composed; a third section is devoted to the Bill of Rights; and a final fourth section highlights how the political conversation begun in these documents continues throughout the history of this country. It is humbling to stand before an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, as well as a copy of the 13th Amendment and the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Reading these documents, it becomes “self-evident” that the argument over slavery began before there even was a United States (Franklin urged that the Republic not countenance the practice). And yet, slavery remained unresolved until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, followed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Lincoln is shown as just part of a long line of leaders who fostered, interpreted and extended the meaning of that singular phrase, “all men are created equal.”

At the Huntington, the focus is more specifically on the Civil War, with two exhibits  featuring rare documents and photographs from the library’s collection: “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War,” which runs through Jan. 7, and “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War,” which will close Jan. 14. 

“A Just Cause,” whose title is drawn from a letter Lincoln wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, includes letters, diaries and other writings by Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Frederick Douglass, as well as from Union and Confederate soldiers and their families. The Civil War was, one veteran said, “a battle of ideas punctuated by artillery.” The exhibition demonstrates the complexity of a conflict in which each side felt it was fighting with God on its side. The South felt that States should have the right to secede; to them the issue was not slavery but abolition. The North tried just as hard to say that slavery was not the issue, it was the South attempting to secede and their rebellion that they were fighting. Yet it was slavery that stood at the center of the rift, not just its morality, legality or its role in the economy of the South, but also whether a nation could be half-free and half-not. The Civil War was so devastating that after the first years, many people were no longer sure what they were fighting for — their states, their livelihoods, their way of life or the abolition of slavery. Passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865, heralded the surrender of the Confederate troops a few months after.

“A Strange and Fearful Interest” includes rare photographs of the Civil War and, most hauntingly, of Civil War dead. Image after image shows slain soldiers abandoned like deadwood on the battleground. When these images were first shown in New York during the war, they drew huge crowds — and provoked editorials about how distanced the general population was becoming from the war. 

Although Lincoln is not present in most of the images, his presence remains at the center of it all. To some, in both the North and South, he was seen as a tyrant, abusing executive privilege, bypassing Congress by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, violating the law, obsessed with ending slavery at any cost, including the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers; in the South, the problem was not slavery, but abolition. To others, however, Lincoln was a great man, the moral force, the father of the nation. 

Also among the Huntington’s artifacts are engravings that speak to the assassination of Lincoln, including a rare handbill offering a reward for information leading to the capture of the conspirators in his assassination, as well as photos of their hanging and pictures of the grieving crowds watching Lincoln’s funeral procession, from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill. These images offer a deep sense of Lincoln’s canonization and show how a figure so controversial in life became revered in death.

Taken together, the Lincoln that emerges from the film and these exhibitions is well read, deeply versed in the Old Testament, self-taught, someone who has both a deep belief in the legal system and the rule of law, so much so that he understands that a nation is made more robust by challenges and emendations to those laws. Lincoln tended to be a loner, prone to solitary contemplation, who nevertheless maintained deep friendships, was curious about people from all walks of life as well as all political bents and all races, and could be as gregarious as he was at times taciturn. He loved jokes and off-color stories and told them with great relish. He was, in all respects, a mensch.

No one should miss the chance of seeing, in tandem, these rare documents and photos telling our history, and the film, depicting a Lincoln who, if not our co-religionist, was most certainly a man with whom we share a common heritage. 

For evidence, you need look no further than the prayerful words with which Lincoln concluded his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, just weeks after the passage of the 13th Amendment, days before the end of the Civil War and a mere few weeks before his own death:

 “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” 

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” opens on screens nationwide Nov. 16. For more information on the Huntington and Skirball exhibitions, visit www.huntington.org and www.skirball.org.


Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.

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