Ulysses S. Grant’s Notoriously Anti-Semitic Order and How It Changed the Lives of Jews in America

Then, again.
March 13 2012 7:00 AM

When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews

How a notorious anti-Semitic order changed the course of Jewish life in America—ultimately, for the better.

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Unfortunately, those opportunities did not last. Reconstruction proved to be an “unfinished revolution” for black Americans and so it was (albeit not nearly to the same extent) for Jews. In 1877, the same year that Grant left the White House, his friend, banker Joseph Seligman was excluded from the Grand Union Hotel as an “Israelite.” Four years later, the great Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise complained that “we poor optimists are sadly disappointed and made false prophets.” Across the United States, anti-Semitic restrictions and quotas led to a substantial decline in Jews’ social status. The “golden age” of the Grant years had, by then, become a distant memory. By 1897, professor Richard Gottheil of Columbia University felt that “gradually, but surely, we are being forced back into a physical and moral ghetto ... our social lines run as far apart from those of our neighbors as they did in the worst days of our European degradation.”

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Ulysses S. Grant was as popular as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the late 19th century, but in the 20th his reputation fell under withering assault. Historians, many of them southerners critical of his benevolent policy toward black people, criticized both the way he waged war and the way he forged peace. They blamed him for the Civil War’s high death rate, for the failures of Reconstruction, for the corruption of his underlings, and for his personal failings. They derided him as a butcher and a drunkard. Historians ranked him close to the bottom among all American presidents.

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In recent years, however, a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of Ulysses S. Grant has taken place. “Though much of the public and even some historians haven’t yet heard the news,” historian Sean Wilentz observed in the New York Times, “the vindication of Ulysses S. Grant is well under way. I expect that before too long Grant will be returned to the standing he deserves—not only as the military savior of the Union but as one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history.” A fresh look at Grant’s relationship with the Jewish community reinforces this view. It shows how General Orders No. 11 and its aftermath transformed Grant’s career—sensitizing him to prejudice and teaching him to treat members of minority groups as individuals responsible for their own actions.

General Orders No.11 also greatly strengthened America’s Jewish community. The successful campaign to overturn the order made Jews more self-confident. The tempestuous 1868 election, where so much ink was spilled concerning the “Jewish vote,” taught them much about politics, and about the power—real and perceived—of a well-organized minority group . The fact that Ulysses S. Grant selected, for the first time, a Jewish adviser (Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia Simon Wolf), appointed a series of Jews to public office (including Edward S. Salomon, governor of Washington Territory, and Dr. Herman Bendell, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Arizona Territory), and, as president, attended the dedication of a synagogue further enhanced Jews’ self-confidence.

It is always easy to exaggerate the political impact of a religious or ethnic minority, and Jews would have many occasions in the post-Grant years to learn the limits of their ability to win political appointments and effect public policy. Nevertheless, General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history. Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.

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.

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