In 1862 Union General Ulysses S. Grant perpetrated one of the worst acts of antisemitism in United States history. He ordered the expulsion of Jews living in the area under his command in Kentucky and Tennessee. The reasons for his order are hotly debated. Grant had flirted with Know Nothingism in the 1850s and had made remarks against Jews in the months before the order. His father had been involved in some unsavory cotton trading with a Jewish firm shortly before the order was issued. While we are unlikely to know the real motives behind Grant’s order, it was quickly rescinded at President Lincoln’s behest.1
In the years immediately following the issuance of the “Infamous Order Number 11,” as it came to be known, Grant neither defended what he had done nor tried to explain it. No apology was offered to the outraged American Jewish community, nor did he try to capitalize on his order’s appeal to American anti-Semites. He had accepted Lincoln’s revocation of the order in silence and he did not break that silence for years.2
Grant’s wife was troubled by her husband’s issuance of the expulsion order. She would later write that the expulsion of the Jews was her husband’s “obnoxious” order. American Jews regarded it as “obnoxious” and worse. She believed that he “he had no right to make an order against any…sect.”3
When Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army in April, 1865, the controversial Union general became the country’s outstanding military hero. When Lincoln was assassinated a week later, Grant became the greatest surviving engineer of the preservation of the United States as a single country.4
The ascension of Vice President Andrew Johnson to succeed Lincoln after the assassination of the war president was followed by widespread disappointment. The white supremacist Johnson failed to protect the rights of newly freed slaves and was ineffective in governing. Republicans cast about for a candidate to take on the accidental president Johnson in the 1868 election. Some Jewish leaders, who had once called for Grant’s removal from military command, now realized that the man they most feared might soon become the most powerful person in the United States.5
Some Jews campaigned against Grant’s nomination and his candidacy for president in 1868. Mass meetings were held in Jewish communities denouncing his ‘Infamous Order.” A pamphlet, entitled “General Grant and the Jews” gained wide circulation. “As a CLASS, you have stigmatized and expelled us! As a CLASS, we rise up and vote against you, like one man!,” it proclaimed. Some Jewish leaders compared Grant to Haman, the Biblical vizier who plotted to kill all the Jews in Persia.6
When Grant became the Republican candidate, Democratic politicians knew that he would be tough to beat in the November election. Democratic newspapers raised the “Infamous Jewish Order” to dissuade Jews from voting for Grant and to tar him as a Know Nothing bigot. The Flemingsburg Democrat of Kentucky, for example, reprinted Order Number 11 and denounced it, saying that “no order issued during the late war, was less called for, or more wantonly wrong.” Contrary to Grant’s calumnies, the newspaper said that “the Jews, as a class, are the most industrious and peaceable people we have among us.” Even newspapers in cities with few Jews printed articles with headlines like “Grant’s Brutality Towards the Jews.”7
The Democrats tried to paint Grant as a man of medieval prejudices, a fanatical bigot along the lines of the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell. They hoped to peel off liberal, immigrant, Irish, German, Jewish and Catholic support from the general with accusations of bigotry tied to Order Number 11.8
Some Jews feared that if they were seen as voting in a block against the likely next president, they might suffer the same persecutions that they had in Europe. There were anti-Semites enough in the United States already who would love to brand Jews as having a dual loyalty to both the U.S. and the Jewish people. A similar charge had been raised against Irish Catholics. These Jewish leaders hoped to reconcile with Grant before he gained more power. In response to a letter from one Jewish activist attempting a reconciliation, Grant’s secretary Adam Badeau wrote: “General Grant … instructs me to say that the order was, as you suppose, “directed simply against evil designing persons whose religion was in no way material to the issue. When it was made, the guilty parties happened to be Israelites, exclusively; and it was intended to reach the guilty parties, not to wound the feelings of any others. It would have been made just as stringent against any other class of individuals, religious, political or commercial.”9
The letter provided Jewish leaders with a tool to calm fears in their community that a future President Grant might one day expel them from the United States. The handbook distributed to Democratic Party speakers in 1868 scoffed at Badeau’s claim that Grant was merely trying to restrain illegal trading practices. “Violating trade, indeed! Why, that order was violated everywhere.… No; the Jews were persecuted because they were Jews, and nothing else,” the handbook told Democratic surrogates to argue.10
Grant won the election in an electoral vote landslide. After his victory, Grant released documents that he hoped would calm the Jewish community’s fears. Although they plainly distorted the intent of the order, they indicated that Grant was not Haman. Grant released a private letter he had sent to Isaac Newton Morris concerning Order 11. In it he wrote that “I do not pretend to sustain the Order. The order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race… I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”11
As president, Grant would try to atone for the fear he had incited among the country’s Jews. Grant appointed many Jews to government office at a time when some Republicans were pushing for a Constitutional amendment making the United States a Christian country and acknowledging the overlordship of Jesus Christ.12
Grant also used the diplomatic offices of the United States to try to protect Jews in Eastern Europe from discrimination and pogroms. His letter on behalf of his representative to Romania is evidence of his concern for Jews who might suffer there the fate he had once ordered for the Jews of Tennessee:
EXECUTIVE MANSION Washington Dec 8., 1870 The bearer of this letter Hon Benj F. Peixotto, who has accepted the important though unremunerative position of U.S. Consul-General to Roumania is commended to the good offices of all representatives of this government abroad. Mr Peixotto has undertaken the duties of his present office more as a missionary work for the benefit of the people who are laboring under severe oppression than for any benefits to accrue to himself, a work which all good citizens will wish him the greatest success in. The United States knowing no distinction of her own citizens on account of religion or nativity naturally believe in a civilization the world over which will secure the same universal liberal views.113
While President Grant would sometimes evince some nativist sentiments, he also expounded liberal views of the separation of church and state, a crucial issue for the growing Jewish community in the United States. In 1875, at a meeting of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee Grant spoke out for religious freedom: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the Church and State forever separate.” Jews, whose children had been forced to study from Protestant Bibles in public schools, were assured that the president stood with them on this issue.14
At the end of his tenure as president, Grant became the first sitting president to attend the dedication of a new synagogue. Adas Israel was Washington’s first synagogue and his presence there was symbolic of his journey from hated enemy of the Jews to welcome and honored guest after his atonement and reconciliation.15
Video: Historian Jonathan Sarna on Jews and Grant’s Election
The leading work on this subject is When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012). This blog post relies heavily on it.
- When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location; Jews and the Civil War: A Reader by Jonathan D. Sarna NYU Press (2011); American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram Korn published by Atheneum (1951); Anti-Semitism in America by Leonard Dinnerstein published by Oxford University Press (1994); American Judaism by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Yale University Press (2004); Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity by Brooks Simpson published by Houghton Mifflin (2000).
2. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 843-844.
3. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 849-850.
4. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 945-948.
5. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 945-948.
6. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1035-1045.
7. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 978-989.
8. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 980-1500.
9. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1070-1085.
10. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1085-1123.
11. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1370-1381.
12. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1383-1490.
13. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 1951-1954.
14. New York Tribune, October 1, 1875, p. 1 (On September 30, 1975 President Ulysses S.Grant delivered a speech before the convention of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee meeting in Des Moines, Iowa); When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012)
15. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012). Jonathan Sarna, the leading scholar of Grant’s expulsion order, offers this analysis of Grant’s atonement: Grant’s record with respect to Jews now likewise requires revision. During his administration, Jews moved from outsider to insider status in the United States, and from weakness to strength. Having abruptly expelled Jews in 1862, Grant as president significantly empowered them. He insisted, over the objections of those who propounded narrower visions of America, that the country could embrace people of different races, religions, and creeds. He endeavored, as president, to further human rights at home and abroad.