This is funny/tragic. I may not get the whole story, but it’s the blogosphere, and sometimes you just have to lift a corner of the rock.
A week ago Andrew J. Shapiro, an assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, served up a warm bucket of historical-Zionist U.S. affinity in a speech at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution:
The idea of a Jewish homeland dates back to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and can be traced through the letters of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt.
I was intrigued by the Lincoln. I have his letters. But I couldn’t find any reference to the Jewish homeland, and I asked the scholar David Bromwich, who has studied Lincoln, what he knew. Bromwich said that Shapiro may have been channeling a recent speech by Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele (!):
"From the earliest moments of American history, before there was a political state of Israel, Americans were dreaming dreams of a Jewish homeland. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, ‘I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.’ In another letter he wrote, ‘I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.’ Abraham Lincoln, responding to a friend proposing a homeland for the Jews in the Holy Land, said, ‘This was a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.’"
A little later, having done more research, Bromwich said that the Lincoln quotation doesn’t come from a "friend" of Lincoln’s "but a one-time visitor to the White House." He pointed me to Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., whose book Power, Faith and Fantasy mentioned the key quote.
I dug out my dogeared copy of Oren’s 2007 fantasia, whose highly-tendentious theme is that Americans have been Zionists from the gitgo, so the Israel lobby has nothing to do with American support for the Jewish state, it’s in our blood as Americans. Page 221:
In a meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the leading Canadian churchman Henry Wentworth Monk protested the fact that Jews, unlike Negroes, had yet to be emancipated. "There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations … atone … for their two thousand years of persecution (of the Jews) by restoring them to their national home in Palestine," the reverend posited, and though never known for his piety, the president readily agreed. "Restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine… is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans," he said, adding that once the war was won, Americans would again be able to "see visions and dream dreams" and lead the world in realizing them.
Pretty explicit, huh? But Oren’s footnotes sent me to Peter Grose’s excellent book Israel in the Mind of America, where he gives a, er, slightly different version of the tale:
Lincoln was personally confronted with the notion of restoring the Jews to Palestine during a brief encounter in March 1863. A wide-eyed mystic named Henry Wentworth Monk was lingering near the back of the throng crowding the President’s office during one of the public audiences which Lincoln held three times a week even at the height of the war. When the presidential eyes happened to fall on him, Monk stepped foward to introduce himself as a visitor from Canada….
"Why not follow the emancipation of the Negro by a still more urgent step, the emancipation of the Jew?" Monk began.
"The Jew–why the Jew?" Lincoln replied . "Are they not free already?"
"Certainly, Mr. President, the American Jews is free, and so is the English Jew, but not the European. In America we live so far off that we are blind to what goes on in Russia and Prussia and Turkey," Monk said. "There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations… atone for what they have done to the Jews–for their two thousand years of persecution–by restoring them to their national home in Palestine."
Now here, per Oren, comes Lincoln’s ready agreement, remember?
This was not the kind of comment Lincoln was accustomed to hearing in his wartime audiences, and he turned it off in genial noncommitment. "That is a noble dream, Mr. Monk," he replied, "and one shared by many Americans. I myself have a high regard for the Jews… But the United States is, alas, at this moment a house divided against itself. We must first bring this dreadful war to a victorious conclusion… and then, Mr. Monk, we may begin again to see visions and dream dreams. Then you will see what leadership America will show to the world!"
So Oren misrepresents his own source. Grose, a former New York Times reporter, says in his footnotes that the only place he found the story of this "strange, but not implausible encounter" was in Richard Lambert’s book, For the Time Is at Hand (London, 1947), an account of Monk’s "prophesies" based on his own writings.
A prophet and a wide-eyed lingering mystic, huh? But Ambassador Oren styled him a leading Canadian churchman!
Bromwich says that Monk was a "visionary and probably lunatic Canadian Christian Zionist, whose fame now mainly rests on his having been painted by William Holman Hunt and having had [John] Ruskin as a patron for a time. He did apparently visit the White House; he also suffered a near-drowning at sea shortly after which impaired his memory."
Bromwich pointed me to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography on-line, which states:
Despite his support, [John] Ruskin nevertheless maintained a critical distance, demanding that Monk prove his prophetic credentials. In 1862 he financed Monk’s return to Upper Canada, setting as a “test” the prophet’s ability to end the American Civil War. Monk proposed a peace based on the North’s allowing the South to secede on condition that the South abolish slavery. In March 1863 he visited a bemused President Abraham Lincoln but he failed to gain access to Confederate territory. After this débâcle, Monk returned to London, and then to Jerusalem where he found the Ourtass colony dispersed. After addressing appeals to wealthy Jewish and Christian leaders, he sought to return to Upper Canada. His ship was wrecked off Massachusetts on 24 March 1864. The sole survivor, Monk underwent great hardship and probably a partial loss of memory. He eventually found his way to Ottawa, where his family nursed him back to full health. A return to farm work restored his vigour but he was given to “various personal eccentricities”: a continuing refusal to cut his hair or beard, a strong fear of contamination by germs, a desire to perform outdoors as many routine functions (such as eating and sleeping) as possible, and a habit of relieving severe pains in his head by “plunging his whole head into ice-cold water.”
This is lumpen-history. The story is nowhere in the reliable literature on Lincoln; the recent biographers Allen Guelzo and Richard Carwardine who have a particular interest in Lincoln and religion don’t include a trace of it; nor is there an entry in the Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, which catalogues and rates A through F hundreds of reliable and semi-reliable accounts of supposed personal encounters.
Something demoralized and stupefying about a high-ranking official of the State Department dipping into this swill and ladling it out as respectable history; giving Americans a sort of philosemitic white magic, the Protocols of the Elder of Ottawa; and, on the way, saddling Lincoln with a cornball line every decent historian has had the horse-sense to reject.
PS. I called Shapiro’s office, and emailed this post to an aide, asking what’s Shapiro’s source for Lincoln? No response so far.