PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — During Black History Month, we recognize the historical importance of President Abraham Lincoln as the foremost figure in the battle to abolish slavery. But even as Lincoln, whose 210th birthday we mark on Feb. 12, is widely known for his role fighting for equality, he may still be underappreciated. In fact, as a moral compass and a role model for liberty, his influence extends far beyond the specific events for which he is most well-known.
In Lincoln’s time, like today, the issue of equality was relevant to many minority groups. While Jews had been living in America for centuries by the time of Lincoln’s presidency, anti-Semitism was widespread, even among the abolitionists.
While the Civil War raged in late 1862, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wanted to stop the trade of Southern cotton. A number of Jews were involved in the cotton trade, including some in black market activity, and on Dec. 17, Grant issued a shocking order calling for the expulsion of all Jews from a wide swath of the South.
Fortunately the order had little impact because of faulty army communications – and to President Lincoln. When Lincoln heard that Grant was attempting to banish Jews, he quickly reversed the order.
“To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad,” Lincoln said. “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
To Lincoln, prejudice was abhorrent, and expelling one minority while fighting for the rights of another was unthinkable. It’s noteworthy that Grant, who made the order banishing Jews from the area he commanded, regretted his actions later in life. In fact, when he served as president, Grant actively worked to promote Jewish interests in the United States and abroad, bringing Jews into the federal government at an unprecedented rate. Grant later indicated that he had issued the order without fully thinking it through, but his pro-Jewish actions later in life can perhaps be attributed in part to the moral leadership Lincoln displayed in rejecting the order.
On a deeper level, Lincoln can also be seen as the man who truly deserves credit for upholding the idea that “all men are created equal.” While Thomas Jefferson first expressed the sentiment in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, for some 90 years the principle was selectively applied at best. But Lincoln didn’t just speak this value, he practiced it.
In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln emphasized how applying exceptions to the phrase “all men are created equal” is a logical fallacy.
“If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book in which we find it and tear it out!” he said.
The notion of limiting equality was, to Lincoln, a clear rejection of the phrase’s keyword: “all.”
The message of equality that Lincoln fought for was instrumental in abolishing slavery. But it was also a major factor in shaping America into a country that held freedom as a value worth fighting for.
And over the following decades, generations of Americans absorbed the values that Lincoln championed and Grant came to appreciate: That oppression against minorities was intolerable, regardless of the minority.
The fight to defeat the Axis powers in World War II is often called “The Good War” because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the widespread understanding that the war was a battle for justice. While it’s true that the America of the 1940s was far from reaching true equality, the underlying values Lincoln stood for were embedded in the hearts of American soldiers.
Take the story of Leon Bass, an African-American native of Philadelphia, who served in a segregated unit during World War II. He was conflicted about being asked to risk his life for a country where he only held second-class status. But when Bass liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp with the American troops, he felt compassion for the prisoners he encountered.
“I began to realize,” Bass later said, “that human suffering is not relegated just to me and mine. Human suffering touches everybody.”
Meeting victims of Nazism transformed Leon Bass from a man who was understandably conflicted about his situation to a leader who advocated for social justice for all oppressed people. After the war, Bass spent decades lecturing to audiences about his experiences in the war and the importance of defeating tyranny and hatred.
When the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza – a new public plaza devoted to Holocaust remembrance – opened in Philadelphia several months ago, Bass’ story was included on its Six Pillars, which contrast themes of the Holocaust with American constitutional protections and values.
Just one foot away from the pillar devoted to Leon Bass and “Liberation” stands another pillar, which is inscribed with the Declaration of Independence’s powerful statement that “all men are created equal.” In the 1850s and 1860s, President Lincoln served as a bridge between the Declaration and Americans who fought the Nazis in the 1940s. In the 19th century, Lincoln underscored the 18th-century Declaration’s call for equality, giving 20th-century American soldiers the passion to fight to liberate the oppressed.
While many Holocaust survivors may not have heard of President Lincoln when the war ended in 1945, there is no doubt that they benefited from the great strides he took in the cause for liberty.
Lincoln may already have his place on Mount Rushmore, but we should also be sure to include him in the pantheon of global leaders who persisted in the cause of freedom. Because if we embrace the spirit of Lincoln, we can hold out hope that government of the people, by the people, for all people, will not perish from the earth.