When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews
How a notorious anti-Semitic order changed the course of Jewish life in America—ultimately, for the better.
Later on, in 1868, when Grant ran for president, the memory of General Orders No. 11 sparked passionate debates between Jews who extolled Grant as a national hero and those who reviled him as a latter-day Haman, the enemy of the Jews from the Book of Esther. The issue thrust Jews, for the first time in American history, into the center of the political maelstrom. The excruciating question that Jewish Republicans faced—should they vote for a man who was good for the country, even if they thought he was bad for the Jews—prefigured a central conundrum of Jewish politics, the question of multiple loyalties. Those who injected General Orders No. 11 into the presidential campaign plainly sought to appeal to Jewish voters on the basis of their religions. But was it legitimate for Jews to base their vote on such considerations? Or should they cast aside their special interests and consider only the national interest? Should General Orders No. 11 single-handedly determine how Jews vote, or ought they, as responsible citizens and voters, weigh the totality of issues facing the country before making up their minds?
Still later, during the eight years of Grant’s presidency, memories of General Orders No. 11 surfaced repeatedly. Eager to prove that he was above prejudice, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors, and, in the name of human rights, extended unprecedented support to persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania. Time and again, partly as a result of his enlarged vision of what it meant to be an American and partly in order to live down General Orders No. 11, Grant consciously worked to assist Jews and secure them equality.
Nevertheless, the memory of what his wife, Julia, called “that obnoxious order” continued to haunt Grant to his death in 1885. Especially when he was in the company of Jews, the sense that in expelling them he had failed to live up to his own high standards of behavior, and to the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold, gnawed at him. He apologized for the order publicly and repented of it privately. He consciously excluded any mention of it from his acclaimed Memoirs. He gloried in the fact that, on his deathbed, Jews numbered among those who visited with him and prayed for his recovery. Jews also participated wholeheartedly in the national mourning that followed his death in 1885, and later in the dedication of his tomb. They did so in spite of General Orders No. 11, recognizing, as the Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise noted at the time, that Grant had “often repented” of his order, and “that the wise also fail.”
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The story of General Orders No. 11 and its lingering impact fills in a missing and revealing “Jewish” chapter in the biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The order and its aftermath also shed new light on one of the most tumultuous eras in American history, the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. During these years—America’s “Second Founding” as one historian terms it—the definition of what America is and who “We the People” should include convulsed the country. Most of the debate naturally centered on the status of black people, but there was likewise substantial debate concerning the Jews. Though they formed less than 1 percent of the population at that time, Jews were by far the most significant non-Christian immigrant group in the nation and their numbers had been increasing rapidly—from about 15,000 in 1840 to some 150,000 on the eve of the Civil War. General Orders No. 11 implied that these Jews formed a separate “class” of Americans, distinct from their neighbors, and subject, especially when suspicions of smuggling fell upon them, to collective forms of punishment, including expulsion. The National Reform Association, which was particularly active during the 1870s, went further, seeking to “declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ.” A “religious” amendment, proposed repeatedly during the Grant years, on the theory that the Civil War was punishment for “the absence of any adequate recognition of God” in the nation’s founding documents, looked to write Christianity directly into the Constitution itself.
Against this backdrop, Ulysses S. Grant’s surprising embrace of Jews during his presidency takes on new significance. Through his appointments and policies, Grant rejected calls for a “Christian nation,” and embraced Jews as insiders in America, part of “We the People.” During his administration, Jews achieved heightened status on the national scene. Judaism won recognition (at least from him) as a faith co-equal to Protestantism and Catholicism (”the [P]rotestant, the Catholic, and the Jew appointed days for universal prayer in my behalf,” he boasted to his eldest son on his deathbed). Anti-Jewish prejudice declined. And Jews looked forward optimistically to a liberal epoch characterized by sensitivity to human rights and inter-religious cooperation. In the president’s mind, a direct parallel existed between the treatment of blacks under Reconstruction and the treatment of Jews. Indeed, he described “respect for human rights” as the “first duty of those set as rulers over nations,” and specifically included both blacks and Jews as being among the unfortunates whom “those in authority” should go out of their way to protect, “to rescue and redeem them and raise them up to equality with the most enlightened.” He sought to create new opportunities for members of both minority groups.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. This article is adapted from his new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.