Grant Expels the Jews
On Dec. 17, 1862, . . . Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued the most notorious anti-Jewish official order in American history: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Known as General Orders No. 11, the document blamed Jews for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that affected the area under Grant’s command . . . from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. . . .
In the end, only a small number of Jews were seriously affected. . . . Within hours of its issuance, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest staged a daring raid that tore up rail and telegraph lines around Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Miss. The resulting breakdown in communications meant that news of General Orders No. 11 spread slowly.
Eleven days later, . . . one of those affected, Cesar Kaskel, rushed to Washington to protest. [H]e was able to see Abraham Lincoln at once. . . . Lincoln [ordered the Order countermanded.]
In a follow-up meeting with Jewish leaders, Lincoln reaffirmed that he knew “of no distinction between Jew and Gentile.” “To condemn a class,” he emphatically declared, “is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” In short order, attention returned to the battlefield, where, within a year, Grant’s victory at Vicksburg elevated him to the status of a national hero.
But . . . [the order had] lingering effects. In the short term, it brought to the surface deep-seated fears that, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jews might replace blacks as the nation’s most despised minority. . . .
[D]uring the eight years of Grant’s presidency, . . . [e]ager 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. . . .
. . . The order and its aftermath also shed new light on . . . the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. During these years . . . 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. . . .
. . . 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. . . . [Grant] . . . included both blacks and Jews as being among the unfortunates whom “those in authority” should go out of their way to protect. . . .
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. . . . 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. . . .
Ulysses S. Grant was as popular as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the late 19th century, but in the 20th . . . [h]istorians ranked him close to the bottom among all American presidents.
In recent years, however, a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of Ulysses S. Grant has taken place. . . . [H]istorian 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.” . . . 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 fact that Ulysses S. Grant selected, for the first time, a Jewish adviser . . . appointed a series of Jews to public office . . ., and, as president, attended the dedication of a synagogue further enhanced Jews’ self-confidence.
. . . 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.”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director
This excerpt from Professor Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews, published in March 2012, is gratefully used with the author’s and publisher’s permission.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History.
“When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews,” by Jonathan D. Sarna, Slate.com