“Isaac Mayer Wise on the Civil War” by Bertram W. Korn

Reference: American Jewish Archives

In 1861 there were nine Jewish periodicals published in the United States; seven were written in English, two in German. Of these, Isaac Mayer Wise’s The Israelite was the second oldest in continuous existence and the oldest weekly publication; its influence was strongest in the middle west and in the south. Galvanized by Wise’s dynamic energies and exciting ideas, The Israelite exerted a powerful force in the formation of Jewish public opinion on Jewish and national problems. A study of its editorial policy, especially during the early years of Wise’s editorship, when it claimed a great deal of his attention, is interesting and rewarding, because such a study reveals not only the thought and psychology of its editor, but also the ideas and attitudes which were transmitted to American Jewry. This paper will constitute an examination of Dr. Wise’s editorial policy during and concerning the Civil War.

When the war broke out in April, 1861, Wise published his decision to refrain from comment on the war, in the following editorial:

“Silence Our Policy”

“The excitement runs high, very high, wherever we turn our eyes. They say civil war is commenced. We are the servant of peace, not of war. Hitherto we sometimes thought fit to say something on public affairs, and it was our ardent hope to assist those who wished to prevent civil war; but we wasted our words. What can we say now? Shall we lament and weep like Jeremiah over a state of things too sad and too threatening to be looked upon with indifference? We would only be laughed at in this state of excitement and passionate agitation, or probably abused for discouraging the sentiment. Or should we choose sides with one of the parties? We can not, not only because we abhor the idea of war, but also we have dear friends and near relations, beloved brethren and kinsmen in either section of the country, that our heart bleeds on thinking of their distress, of the misery that might befall them.

“Therefore silence must henceforth be our policy, silence on all the questions of the day, until a spirit of conciliation shall move the hearts of the millions to a better understanding of the blessings of peace, freedom, and union. Till then we might stop publishing The Israelite if our friends say so, or continue as usual, if we are patronized as heretofore. But we shall be obliged to abstain entirely from all and every commentary on the odd occurrences of the day.

“In writing these lines we feel as sorrowful and disheartened as we only once before felt–on leaving our native country. The land of our choice and adoption thus in a destructive commotion is much more than common misery to us. Still the will of God be done.”1

But Wise was not telling the entire story in this brief editorial. He was not a neutral, a mere spectator, a fence-sitter, as his words might lead one to believe. He was a Peace Democrat,2 like so many of his fellow-citizens in the border-states, the “border-state eunuchs,” as Henry Ward Beecher called them. He was opposed to the ideas of both the extreme abolitionists and of the extreme secessionists. The Republican victory in the fall of ’60 was, to his mind, a national calamity. The Republican radicals and the southern radicals would, together, tear the country apart. “Here is the house divided against itself,” he said, “the irrepressible conflict.” “Either the Republican party must be killed off forever by constitutional guarantees to the South, to make an end forever to this vexing slavery question, or the Union must be dissolved.”3 Peace and Union at any cost were his objectives in the weeks before the outbreak of war, even if the price involved the everlasting legalization of slavery. He published only pro-peace sermons and letters in The Israelite; who can say whether these were the only ones he received, or the only ones he could conscientiously publish? There were sermons by Szold, DeCordova, and Hochheimer, pleading for moderation as Wise did; letters from “Scrib” and “Millotiz” in favor of any compromise on the slavery issue, any revision of the constitution, to effectuate a peaceful solution, matching Wise’s editorials; even advertisements by M. Loth favoring “Union Forever” in the place of his usual offerings of merchandise. And Wise was confident, for a while, that the counsel of moderation and compromise would win out, counsel such as his, that “a second sober thought of the people will decide in favor of union at any risk.” Once South Carolina seceded, however, to be followed in rapid succession by the other slave states, Wise gave up hope altogether. He believed that every state had the right to secede; and further, that a resort to arms was illogical: “Force will not hold together this Union; it was cemented by liberty and can stand only by the affections of the people.” What, then, could a Peace Democrat do but lapse into a resentful silence when the extremists on both sides achieved their goals?4

If Wise, then, was prepared to see slavery established as a permanent American institution, to save the Union, was he pro-slavery, as he has generally be regarded?5 The answer is “no” if it must be stated in one word. But it cannot be stated in one word, for the slavery issue itself was such a complex of ethics and politics that only the extremists on both sides could answer in one word. Many of the rabbis declared themselves to be abolitionists or pro-slavery men; Wise did not. In fact, he avoided discussion of the question on a political plane, since it was obvious to him that the political and economic aspects of slavery were paramount in most discussions.6 As a rabbi, he said, he had no right to use his religious office, or his religious journal, for political purposes; and we shall see that he attacked the abolitionist clergymen for what he thought was their degradation of religion into a political tool. After the war ended, Wise was willing to admit that the abolition of slavery had been a desirable and progressive step; but he never supported it as a reason for going to war with the South.

On an ethical and moral plane, however, Wise was obviously not pro-slavery, although he never reached such heights of moral indignation as the leaders of the abolition movement. Far from approving the stand taken by Rabbi Raphall in his famous “Bible View of Slavery”7 sermon, as he has been charged, Wise refuted several of the Biblical arguments for slavery which were used by Raphall and other pro-slavery divines. “Among all the nonsense imposed on the Bible,” he wrote, “the greatest is to suppose the Negroes descendants of Ham, and the curse of Noah is applicable to them…Canaanites are never mentioned in the Bible as men of color…Besides we can not see how the curse of Noah could take effect on the unborn generations of Canaan…when the Bible teaches that God visits the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation only and [upon] those who hate Him?”8 When Raphall died in 1868, Dr. Wise, perhaps using hind-sight, wrote that Raphall had given “a divine sanction to an inhuman institution,” and “this was a great blunder.” Wise even tried to clear the pro-slavery blot off of Raphall’s name by recording that “in a subsequent thanksgiving oration he attempted to correct his error, but it was too late, the impression of his first sermon on the subject was firmly seated among friend and foe.”9

Wise was always horrified at the thought of a reopened slave-trade. He believed that this was the intention of the extreme southerners, and hoped this could be avoided in a compromise settlement before the war. During the war, he broke his political silence once to warn of another possibility of the same thing. In late ’61 he became convinced that the European Confederate agents would be successful in aligning France and Spain against the north, that Spain would invade Mexico and place a Spanish monarch on the throne, and that Mexico would then join hands with the Confederacy. The idea of a European monarch transplanted to the western hemisphere was a frightening one to him; he wanted America to bring democracy to Europe! His youth in Austria left him with only hatred for monarchy. So he appealed for an immediate drive to crush the rebellion, or, if this was impossible, a compromise peace with the South. But a secondary reason for his fear of a European invasion of Mexico was that “Spain is the only slaveholding power of Europe…the only power that has not prohibited the slave trade.” If a juncture were effected between Mexico and the Confederacy, then the slave-trade, with all its horrors, would begin anew. The war and the abolition of slavery were unimportant to him, when there was, to his mind, a real danger that the greater evil of the slave traffic would be reinstituted.”10

Long after the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Wise finally gave an expression of his views on slavery in the Bible. He showed no unwillingness to state his beliefs once slavery had ceased to be a political issue. They are, of course, the ideas of a man opposed to slavery. In a series of articles in late ’64, he made a thorough survey of the Biblical laws and concluded that Moses had attempted to abolish slavery “by indirect-direct laws which rendered its existence impossible.” “It is evident,” he claimed, “that Moses was opposed to slavery from the facts: 1. He prohibited to enslave a Hebrew, male or female, adult or child. 2. He legislated to a people just emerging from bondage and slavery. 3. He legislated for an agricultural community with whom labor was honorable. 4. He legislated not only to humanize the condition of the alien laborers, but to render the acquisition and the retention of bondmen contrary to their will a matter of impossibility.” So much for the Biblical view of slavery.

Then he offered a few general comments of his own. “We are not prepared, nobody is, to maintain it is absolutely unjust to purchase savages, or rather their labor, place them under the protection of law, and secure them the benefit of civilized society and their sustenance for their labor. Man in a savage state is not free; the alien servant under the Mosaic law was a free man, excepting only the fruits of his labor. The abstract idea of liberty is more applicable to the alien laborer of the Mosaic system than to the savage, and savages only will sell themselves or their offspring.” Wise was still unwilling to come to grips with the evils of southern slavery which so infuriated the north, or with the economic conditions which perpetuated those evils. He even bespoke an idea which had long motivated the program of the American Colonization Society which had, since 1821, colonized freed Negroes in Liberia: “Negro slavery, if it could have been brought under the control of the Mosaic or similar laws, must have tended to the blessing of the negro race by frequent emigration of civilized negroes back to the interior of Africa.”11

But nowhere in his writings on slavery does he approach the radical and violent anti-slavery position of the abolitionists. Actually he was constitutionally unable to adopt a radical attitude on any issue. Passionate and vehement he was many times, but never radical. In a very revealing editorial on “Radicalism and Reform,” published before the war, Wise expressed his utter opposition to radicalism in politics and religion. “The present state of political affairs should convince every sober-minded and well informed man that radicalism will not do in any province of human activity. There are no leaps in human history…Radicalism will not do in politics, because there are historical rights, inveterate views and habits, thousands of interests connected with the existing state of affairs which will not yield to theories. It is easy for agitators to excite the passions of the populace, make friends and arm defenders for any theory; but it is impossible to revolutionize radically all historical rights.”12

It was no coincidence that the two leading lights of the American Reform movement were at odds in both religion and politics. Rabbi David Einhorn the abolitionist, who almost paid for his political radicalism with his life, was a radical in religion as well. Wise opposed him in both.


  1. VII #42, p. 334, April 19, 1861. All references, unless otherwise noted, are to volume and number of The Israelite.
  2. See Jacob R. Marcus, The Americanization of Isaac Mayer Wise, Cincinnati 1931, pp.10-18, for a detailed treatment of Wise’s political ideas. Wise probably voted for Stephen Douglas in the election of ’60, although he supported no candidate in the columns of The Israelite. His bitter euology of Douglas seems to indicate this: “This is one of our national sins, the bitter consequences of which we now suffer; all parties in this country committed the same sin–they killed their greatest men, and elevated imbeciles to the highest stations of honor…Douglas is dead, and his most bitter enemies must admit that the country has lost a great man.” VII #49, p. 386, June 7, 1861. On Sept. 5, 1863, Wise himself was nominated for the office of State Senator by the Democratic Party convention at Carthage, but he declined the nomination at the behest of the officers of his congregation and of the Talmud Yelodim Institute. The letter he wrote on that occasion was full of regret: “I certainly feel obliged to decline a nomination so honorably tendered, notwithstanding my private opinion, that I might render some services to my country, not altogether unessential, especially as those who nominated me know well my sincere attachment to this country and government. X #12, p.9-3, Sept. 18, 1863.
  3. VII #26, p. 205, Dec. 28, 1860.
  4. VII #27, Jan. 4 to #32, Feb. 8, 1861.
  5. Max Kohler (Jews and the Anti-Slavery Movement, PAJHS, V, p.150) and Philip S. Foner (The Jews in American History, 1654-1865, N.Y. 1945, p. 60) state erroneously that Dr. Wise endorsed the pro-slavery sermon preached on Jan. 4 1861 by Rabbi Morris J. Raphall.
  6. IX #34 p. 268, Feb. 27, 1863.
  7. Included in the collection, Fast Day Sermons, N.Y., 1861. Among other things, Raphall insisted that the Bible favored the institution of slavery, and that no Biblical passages could be furnished to defend an abolitionist viewpoint. On the other hand, he was fully aware of the differences between the Biblical conception of the slave as “a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected” and “the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South [which] reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights.” Raphall was a defender of slavery, but not a defender of Southern slavery!
  8. VII #29, p. 230, Jan. 18, 1861. Dr. Wise knew, however, that arguments from the Bible are dangerous. Proofs could be cited for almost any point of view. So he also cited refutations of abolitionist arguments based on Biblical passages and events. He believed, for instance, that “the Hyksos of Manetho, who oppressed the Israelites in Egypt, were Negroes.” See VII #38, p. 300, March 22, 1861, which concludes with the amazing statement that “the unity of the human race can not successfully be defended either biblically or scientifically.”
  9. XIV #52, p. 4, July 3, 1868. Wise was quite unsuccessful. No writer on the subject has ever regarded Raphall as other than a convinced pro-slavery adherent. As late as 1897 Wise himself was forced to print a formal denial that he “shared the opinion of Dr.Raphael…that slavery was a divine institution, sanctioned by the Old Testament Scriptures, or that there is on record one paragraph to show that the said Isaac M. Wise ever was a pro-slavery man or favored the institution of slavery at any time.” LXVIII #52, p. 4, June 24, 1897, answering the London Jewish Chronicle.
  10. VIII #25, p. 196, Dec. 20, 1861.
  11. XI #20, p. 156, Nov. 11, 1864, to #26, p. 204, Dec. 23. The series is entitled “On the Provisional  Portion of the Mosaic Code, with Special Reference to Polygamy and Slavery.”
  12. VII #28, p. 221, Jan. 11, 1861. Wise continues, applying this reasoning to religious radicalism, “As easy as it is by stringent conservatism to drive the intelligent from the Synagogue, so easy it is by radicalism to deprive a man of religion…Support the spirit of progress by rational reforms. But forget not, that religion is the most sacred boon God has granted to man and play not with it as a child does with the ball…Let us be reasonable in piety and pious in our reasoning. Let us be progressive in improvements and conservative in principles.”

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