We Called Him Father Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, A Documentary History. By Gary Phillip Zola. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2.014. xiv + 457 pp.
Is there need for another beefy book (457 pages!) that explores the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and American Jewry? Can it reveal anything new about a president who has had more books written about him (over 15,000) than any historical figure save Jesus? Or is We Called Him Father Abraham a hagiographie project, another brick added to the already impressive shrine that American Jews began to construct to the martyred president not long after his assassination?
The first chapter, which scrupulously describes sundry Jews who knew Lincoln prior to his presidency, and the second, which adds fresh detail to his relationship with his foot doctor, might offer grist to the mill of those seeking to dismiss this book as an exercise in ethnic self-congratulation. True, these early chapters might have been strengthened by some additional contextualization, even if they do offer a compelling explanation as to why Lincoln was particularly responsive to Jewish concerns once in the White House. It is difficult to assess Lincoln's Jewish friends, whose biographies are described in fine detail, without knowing more about the scale and nature of his friendship circle. Certainly many of his Jewish acquaintances described him as a friend, but this might have been more the mark of a gifted politician (and one able to confer favors once in office) than of a man who befriended every haberdasher he met.
Likewise, we need to learn more about the relative role of Lincoln's Jewish backers to understand their significance. Were Jews well represented among his earliest boosters? Was it unusual for Jews to engage with gusto in party politics? Did they, as immigrants unaccustomed to counting in the political calculus of their former homelands, particularly relish the intimacy of American political life and the accessibility of Lincoln? And were the majority of Jews inclined to support Lincoln in the election of 1860, or, as other evidence in the book seems to suggest, were they more typically attuned to Stephen Douglas? Might they have had particular reason to fear the consequences of Lincoln's election, both because it would upset a status quo that had attracted them to the United States in the first place, and because his party drew conspicuous support from many of those who had recently...