- When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna
The last pages of Jonathan D. Sarna’s fascinating book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, note that Ulysses S. Grant has been moving from rock bottom to somewhere near the middle of the pack in historians’ ratings of U.S. presidents. To take one example, in a 2000 C-SPAN poll, Grant was ranked 33rd among 41 Presidents. However, in the 2009 C-SPAN poll he was ranked 23rd, having moved upward more than any other president. This increase reflected in part one of ten dimensions in the 2009 poll labeled “Pursued equal justice for all.” On that scale Grant had risen from eighteenth to ninth. [End Page 110] Some historians or biographers might argue that he should be ranked even higher, perhaps ahead of the two Roosevelts, for example, and behind only Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman.
Picking up a book entitled When General Grant Expelled the Jews suggests that the recent uptick in the way we understand Grant’s pursuit of equal justice is about to take a hit. Quite the opposite. If readers take this book seriously, their appreciation for Grant’s performance as president will deepen significantly.
The title refers to Grant’s infamous General Orders #11, issued December 17, 1862 from his headquarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It read: “The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department … are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” What happened? As a result of his victories at Fort Donelson in February 1862 and Shiloh in April, Grant had been made commander of the large Department of the Tennessee, which included parts of the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Illinois. Generals in both Union and Confederate armies were exasperated by smuggling between the lines that inevitably occurred as a result of trade dislocations. For example, Union blockades ensured that bales of cotton piled up on southern docks. The Union needed cotton for uniforms, among many other things. A sharp trader could buy cheap cotton in the South and sell it for enormous profits to places such as textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Some of the individuals doing these deals were Jewish, and many more fit the stereotype, widespread at the time, of “Jew trader.” Still, it is difficult to pinpoint the proximate origins of Grant’s order. Sarna suggests that whatever Grant’s underlying attitudes toward Jews, his frustration at smuggling may have boiled over because his father had just visited from Cincinnati with three Jewish brothers to see if he could cut a favorable trading deal.
Individual Jews responded rapidly to Grant’s order. Cesar Kaskel, evicted from Paducah, Kentucky managed to meet with Abraham Lincoln in early January. On hearing what had happened (it was news to Lincoln), the President immediately ordered Grant to rescind the order. Grant did. He knew that he made a serious error in expelling an entire category of citizens, and he likely hoped that that was the end of it. It wasn’t.
Sarna masterfully tells the story of what happened during the next 23 years, up to the day Grant died. It is as much, or perhaps more, a narrative about the actions and attitudes of individual American Jews as about the [End Page 111] conduct and policies of U. S. Grant before, during and after his 1869–1877 presidency. While Grant wanted the whole issue to go away (he omitted discussing it in his Personal Memoirs), the presidential election of 1868 didn’t permit that. The Democrats raised it, hoping to undermine Grant’s standing with Jews. Their problem, however, was that the Republican Party, headed by Grant, much better represented equal justice and Jewish interests. Jewish leaders split. On one side, German immigrant Simon Wolf, an avid Republican, convinced himself through indirect contact with Grant that the general was not to be feared by Jews. Similarly, Rabbi Liebman Adler argued that Jews should vote for the Republican Party, even if the...