Presidents Day and Purim

Aaron Zelinsky Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Law

For American Jews, this week contains a holiday double-header. On thispast  Monday we observed Presidents Day. This Saturday night and Sunday we celebrate Purim, commemorating the Jews' salvation from genocide as recounted in the Book of Esther.

Presidents Day rarely falls near Purim, - it won't again for almost 40 years. But these disparate holidays have much in common.

For starters, our early presidents were fans of the Purim story. Many of them, including Washington and Lincoln, referenced Purim in writings, and were familiar with the Book of Esther. The characters of the story — Haman the villain, Achashverosh the bumbling king, and Mordecai and Esther, the improbable heroes — were part of their literary traditions. Some examples:

On December 17, 1778, (then General) George Washington wrote from his winter quarters in Middle Brook, New Jersey, to the newly-elected President of Pennsylvania, Joseph Reed. Washington lamented rampant war-profiteering, declaring: "I would to G‑d that one of the most atrocious of each State was hung in Gibbets upon a gallows five times as high as the one prepared by Haman."

While Washington's successor, John Adams, never mentioned Purim in writing, his equally literate wife, Abigail, did. In a letter to her husband on May 4, 1775, she wrote of the "wretched" former royal Governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Hutchinson, on whom she wished "the fate of Mordecai." Because Mordecai is the hero of the Purim story, most historians believe Abigail made a mistake, and wished that Hutchinson follow the fate of Haman.

Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the biblical studies department, deployed the Book of Esther in a letter to Maria Cosway, penned in Paris during October, 1786. Jefferson wrote, "If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its head instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman's."

John Quincy Adams — righting his mother's error seven decades earlier — got the Mordecai-Haman relationship straight in his July 19, 1840 diary entry. Adams recounted a preacher's sermon in the House of Representative which described "[T]he hanging of Haman on the gallows, fifty feet high, which he had erected for Mordecai the Jew" as an "example that the battle is not always to the strong."

Andrew Jackson, seldom counted among our most literary presidents, reportedly referenced the story of Purim weeks before his death in 1845. When asked what he would have done had South Carolina continued to resist federal laws in 1832, Jackson supposedly replied, "Hanged them, sir, as high as Haman. They should have been a terror to traitors to all time."

Honest Abe referenced the Book of Esther twice. On June 12, 1848, Lincoln detailed how the Whig's nomination of Zachary Taylor, a war hero, would hurt their rivals, the Democrats: "The war is now to them the gallows of Haman, which they built for us, and on which they are doomed to be hanged themselves." Seven years later, Lincoln wrote to his old friend, Joshua Speed, about Kansas's constitution which allowed authorities "to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his [freedom]." Lincoln remarked that "If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate."

Lincoln didn't just refer to the story of Purim. On at least two occasions, Lincoln was compared to one of its protagonists. As Richard Carwardine relates, a group of Chicago ministers met with Lincoln on September 13, 1862 to encourage him to emancipate the slaves. At the close of their remarks, the ministers explicitly compared Lincoln to Queen Esther, who hesitated to proclaim her identity as a Jew (and thus save her people) when Mordecai called upon her to do so. Like Esther, Lincoln ultimately did what he knew to be right. Nine days later, following the Union victory at Antietam, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Lincoln-Purim connection doesn't stop there. Months after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11, expelling all Jews from areas under his military control. As Jonathan Sarna recounts, the Jewish newspapers quickly compared Grant to Haman, and a delegation of Jewish leaders visited the White House to plead with Lincoln, who quickly revoked Grant's order. (Grant publicly apologized for the order in 1868, appointed more Jews to his cabinet than any of his predecessors, and a Rabbi served as one of his honorary pallbearers. Grant acted poorly in issuing Order No. 11, but he was no Haman).

What can we learn from these seemingly disparate invocations of the Purim story by so many presidents?

First, these presidents understood that the plans of the wicked often bear within them the seeds of their own destruction. Think of Hitler's overreach in attacking the Soviet Union, Qaddafi's hollowing out of Libyan society to maintain control, or Assad's violently cracking down on early street protesters. Purim tells us that even as we resist evil, we can take solace in the fact that human rights and the rule of law have structural advantages over totalitarianism and oppression.

Second, our Founding Fathers and their successors understood the importance of accountability. It was not enough to defeat Haman. He didn't live happily ever after with a large foreign bank account he had socked away. Haman was quickly and publicly punished for his crimes. Nowadays I'd prefer some sort of judicial process - we made some advances in the past 3000 years — but accountability is no less necessary today than it was then. We have to dissuade those who would commit genocide in the future by administering justice in the present. This means more support — logistical and political — for efforts to bring grave human rights violators to justice.

Third, our early presidents realized that evil wasn't a thing of the past, relegated to myth and history. They understood that Hamans appear throughout the ages, and that it was — and always will be — the task of free peoples to oppose Hamans at every turn.