Skip to comments.When General Grant Expelled the Jews
Posted on 05/14/2012 3:32:31 AM PDT by Kaslin
IN DECEMBER 1862, from his military headquarters in Mississippi, Major General Ulysses S. Grant issued a directive expelling "Jews as a class" from the immense war zone known as the Department of the Tennessee. General Orders No. 11 was the most notorious anti-Jewish edict ever issued by an official of the US government, and it was overruled by the commander-in-chief -- President Abraham Lincoln -- as soon as he learned of it in Washington.
Notwithstanding its sweeping terms, the order turned out to have little immediate impact on the thousands of Jews living in the area under Grant's command. Only about 100 Jews were uprooted, primarily in northern Mississippi and in Paducah, Kentucky. Grant's expulsion order had no discernible effect on the war or on his own military career, either. Lincoln later promoted him to lieutenant general -- a rank previously held only by George Washington -- and named him commander of all Union armies. Grant became a national hero, and was twice elected president.
And yet General Orders No. 11 proved to be far more than merely an interesting footnote to the Civil War. As Jonathan D. Sarna recounts in When General Grant Expelled the Jews, his engaging and splendidly researched new book, the ugly episode reverberated for decades. The expulsion order galvanized American Jewish politics and played a prominent role when Grant ran for the White House in 1868. "The issue thrust Jews, for the first time in American history, into the center of the political maelstrom," writes Sarna, Brandeis University's distinguished historian of Jewish life in America.
More striking by far was the order's long-term effect on Grant himself. He came to deeply regret what he had done, and went to great lengths to make amends -- so much so that the eight years of the Grant administration would prove to be the first golden age for American Jewry. As president, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors and displayed remarkable sensitivity to the plight of persecuted Jews abroad. At his death in 1885, Grant was fervently mourned in the nation's synagogues. "Seldom before," one Jewish newspaper remarked at the time, "has the Kaddish been repeated so universally for a non-Jew as in this case."
Ulysses Grant, a hero of the Jews? Nowadays -- when the 18th president is caricatured as a corrupt and brutal drunkard, and when his entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica begins by noting that "Grant's name has been linked irrevocably with anti-Jewish prejudice" -- such a characterization might strike many as startling. In the 1860s it would have been flatly unthinkable. To the nation's tiny Jewish minority -- Jews were then about 0.5 percent of the American public -- General Orders No. 11 echoed some of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history, when "Jews as a class" were expelled en masse from lands where they had lived for generations. Grant was "compared, in some Jewish circles, to historic enemies of the Jewish people," Sarna writes -- especially to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, who schemed to destroy the Jews, only to be destroyed himself when the king overturned his plans.
Yet the expulsion order had less to do with anti-Semitic hostility than with Grant's seething frustration at the smugglers and profiteers who were undercutting Union efforts to suppress the black market in Southern cotton. Some of the speculators were certainly Jews -- enough so to feed a popular stereotype that "Israelites" were the worst offenders. Upon learning that his own father had teamed up with three Jewish traders from Cincinnati in a scheme to procure cotton at a discount, the general lashed out in anger, and issued the order expelling all Jews "within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order."
Resistance to Grant's directive sprang up at once. When Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, a Jewish businessman and avid supporter of Lincoln and the Union, was handed a copy of the "scarcely-to-be-believed order," he set off for Washington as quickly as possible, hoping to get the order rescinded by the president. He wasn't the only one. "Deputations of Jews are arriving here to solicit the President to countermand or modify the order of Gen. Grant excluding Israelites from his lines," the New York Tribune reported from the capital. Jews elsewhere lobbied in the court of public opinion. The Missouri lodges of B'nai B'rith publicly petitioned Lincoln "to protect the liberties even of your humblest constituents," who had been "driven from their homes, deprived of their liberty, and injured in their property without having violated any law or regulation."
Lincoln acted with gratifying speed. Learning from Kaskel of General Orders No. 11 on January 3 -- two days, it so happened, after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect -- he immediately revoked it. In one account, probably apocryphal, the president invoked biblical language in his meeting with Kaskel:
LINCOLN: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?
KASKEL: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham's bosom, asking protection.
LINCOLN: And this protection they shall have at once.
Grant accepted Lincoln's revocation of the order without protest, and made no attempt to defend his actions when Congress debated the incident. Nor did he comment as editorials about it appeared in the press. Even in newspapers sympathetic to Grant, writes Sarna, the dominant view was that Jews should have been treated as individuals and not stigmatized as a class. "All swindlers are not Jews," observed The New York Times. "All Jews are not swindlers."
THAT might have been the end of the matter had Grant not run for president in 1868. Democrats, eager to diminish Grant's heroic stature, played up the story of the scandalous wartime order. Never before had a significant "Jewish issue" been involved in a national political campaign, and never before had American Jews had reason to fear that a presidential nominee was overtly anti-Semitic.
For Jews who supported the Democratic Party, such as Cincinnati's celebrated Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the decision to denounce Grant -- and to make General Orders No. 11 an explicit campaign issue -- was easy. "We will consider it our duty to oppose him and the party nominating him," he wrote. "Worse than General Grant none in this nineteenth century in civilized countries has abused and outraged the Jews."
But for the many Jews who shared the Republican Party's anti-slavery principles, the memory of what Grant had done six years earlier posed a vexing quandary. The election of 1868 was shaping up as a national referendum on Reconstruction and black suffrage, with Democrats determined to crush any hope of equality for the freed slaves. Sarna closely explores the dilemma Jewish voters confronted: "Should they vote for a party they considered bad for the country just to avoid voting for a man who had been bad to the Jews?" It was a problem made more acute by the fear of being charged with dual loyalties. A prevalent belief at the time was that Jews in a democracy were obliged to vote in the best interest of the nation, without regard to their own parochial sentiments.
Just how far this conviction could be taken was illustrated by another notable rabbi of the time. Liebman Adler, the spiritual leader of Chicago's oldest synagogue, insisted that if the political party that he deemed best for "the welfare of the country, so far as the advancement of human rights was concerned" were to nominate the odious Haman himself, "I should say, 'Prosper under Haman, my fatherland, and here you have my vote, even if all the Jew in me mourns.'"
Amid journalists' overblown estimates of the Jewish vote and the impact it might have in November, the Grant campaign -- through an indirect choreography that by 21st-century standards seems wonderfully quaint and restrained -- put out the word that the nominee repudiated General Orders No. 11. After the election was behind him, Grant made his disavowal explicit. "I do not pretend to sustain the Order," he wrote in a letter released to the public. "[It] was issued and sent without any reflection . I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit."
That may have sounded like self-justifying boilerplate. But Grant meant it. He had come to regard his order expelling the Jews as a blot on his reputation. It embarrassed him profoundly. Throughout his presidency and beyond, he would never stop reaching for opportunities to atone for having "failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American."
IN THE END, as nearly half of Sarna's book persuasively documents, Grant turned out to be one of the most important allies of the Jewish people ever elected president. He appointed Jews to government positions they could never before have aspired to, such as governor of Washington (then a federal territory) or recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (a post that would later be held by Frederick Douglass). He opposed a campaign to amend the Constitution so as to explicitly acknowledge "the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations." And, breaking with precedent, Grant publicly condemned the mistreatment of Jews overseas. "The sufferings of the Hebrews of Roumania profoundly touches every sensibility of our nature," he said in 1870 -- a sensibility he underscored by the unprecedented selection of a Jewish consul-general to Bucharest.
Late in his second term, Grant became the first American president to attend the dedication of a new synagogue, Washington's Adas Israel. His appearance was a powerful symbol of Judaism's acceptance in American life. "The man who had once expelled 'Jews as a class' from his war zone personally came to honor Jews for upholding and renewing their faith," writes Sarna. For good measure, he made a substantial personal contribution to the new congregation's coffers. More impressive: He remained through the entire three-hour ceremony.
When General Grant Expelled the Jews is a compelling, even inspiring, tale of redemption. "Akin to the biblical seer Balaam," Sarna remarks, "he had been expected to curse the Jews and ended up blessing them." This fine work is a heartening reminder that even politicians are sometimes touched by the better angels of their nature, and a welcome revision to the 18th president's place in American and Jewish history.
Still not voting for Romney. He has not repudiated his past, nor the evil laws he signed into force.
Surprising, (to me), the biblical references are accurate. He didn’t give Esther and Mordecai any credit, in the matter of Haman but it was still accurate.
We had some good people back then.........
To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
The more you hear about George. The more you like him.
The Truro Synagogue in Newport, RI is still thriving, under its own fig tree. Newport is definitely worth a visit, if you’re in the neighborhood.
What does this article have to do with Mitt Romney, 0bama, Ron Paul or any of the third party candidates? *rme*
I don’t know why he even brought Mitt Romney up. The author doesn’t even mention him
It’s a good article I think
I read this and was actually going to post it this weekend, but I got involved with other stuff.
It’s very interesting, thanks for putting it up.
Totally agree. And when in the area don’t miss the opportunity to take the tour bus. There’s a lot of fun dirt to hear about a community that was once America’s hotspot for the rich and famous.
If youd like to be on or off, please FR mail me.
Oh, I do too. Just a bit pleasantly surprised that an author uses biblical references accurately.
I am sure, most had no knowledge about it, I among them.
Esther 8 V. 17 (K.J.V.)
And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.
I’ve heard of this. From what I can remember, Grant’s father was part of a group of men who had hoped to take advantage of business opportunities in Union, newly occupied areas. Since Grant was the commanding authority, these men hoped their attachment to Grant’s father would give them an advantage. The senior Grant, pressured Ulysses to issue this Order. Apparently, these men felt threatend by the primarily Jewish merchants and businessmen who would have the inside track on the spoils of war. Their anti-semitism, as well as the senior Grant, was the driving force behind this action.