Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


Why Was Gen. Grant Different From All Others?

When American Jews are persecuted, should they reply as Jews or Americans?

Print Email
(Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)

We’re a little late ourselves, but did you remember to read the first half of Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews, published by Nextbook Press, as per our little book club? No sweat if you didn’t. Here’s a quick summary:

Near the end of 1862, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, who in fewer than six years would be elected president, issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews in his territories (chiefly Kentucky and Tennessee) under the pretense of stopping smuggling and otherwise running the blockade—which some Jews did indeed do. This order theoretically included several sizable Jewish populations, notably in Memphis. In practice, it included quite fewer, no more than 100, particularly since one week later President Lincoln ordered the order rescinded. The subsequent condemnations of the order focused on its formulation of “Jews as a class”—that is, the notion that all Jews were alike, and its refusal to discriminate among Jews who committed violations and those who didn’t. Grant, for his part, quickly regretted the order in private—it may in part have been motivated by anger at Jewish manufacturers who had teamed up with Grant’s father to try to get Grant to give them a deal on cotton. Jews, many of whom after the war became Republicans because of that party’s position on Reconstruction, had to deal with whether or not to vote for Grant, who was nominated unanimously on the GOP’s first ballot in 1868. Given that at the time Jews were half of one percent of the overall population, the tiny Jewish vote was given outrageously disproportionate attention. It was indeed a benighted time.

In her extremely positive review today, Janet Maslin notes, “Anyone seeking to rock the Passover Seder with political debate will find the perfect conversation piece in Mr. Sarna’s account of this startling American story.” Later this month, after you all have finished the book—I’m looking at you—we’ll have Professor Sarna on the blog to respond to readers. For now, in the holiday spirit, here are four questions:

• The most controversial word in Grant’s order was “class”: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled … .” “Class” was universally interpreted as implying that all Jews—not only a few, and not even a disproportionate number—were the types who would engage in shady business dealings of the sort that violated the blockade. Jewish and non-Jewish critics argued that this was the orders’ most offensive aspect; when Grant eventually walked it back, following his 1868 election, he repudiated specifically that part of it: “I … want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

Obviously, the orders were blatantly anti-Semitic. Yet on another level, does it risk damaging Jewish identity to so stridently insist that Jews are not a “class” in the sense of possessing common ties and even shared experiences? Of course we want each individual to be judged by his (or her) own merit, but don’t we also want the context of his or her Jewishness accounted for? Has anything—I can think of two things—happened between 1862 and today that might make the claim that Jews are in certain respects a distinct “class” more plausible?

• The orders was given less than one week before the Emancipation Proclamation was—which did not escape the attention of some angry Jews, who, though they generally lived in the North and would in large numbers go on to support Reconstruction, wondered why all the fuss over black slaves when the Jews were being persecuted. “The Memphis Daily Bulletin published the two documents, one above the other,” Sarna writes. “[Some Jews] feared that Jews would replace Blacks as the nation’s stigmatized minority.” It didn’t help that many of the most strident abolitionists were also anti-Semites. Yet would it not have been wiser for Jews of the time to point to blacks and the Proclamation as the sort of support they merely wanted for themselves, in a show of solidarity? As Jews compete with dozens of other interest groups in today’s politics, might such a strategy of common cause be still put to use?

• Here, as Sarna puts it, was the Jews’ central dilemma in 1868:

Could they vote for a man—even a national hero—who had once expelled “Jews as a class” from his war zone? If not, would this set Jews apart from the multitudes who viewed Grant as the savior of his country? Worse yet, might it raise the ugly specter of dual loyalty, suggesting that Jews care more about “Jewish issues,” such as anti-Semitism, than about the welfare of the country as a whole?

Is it, in fact, okay for American Jews to so highly prioritize their Jewishness when they enter the voting booths? The question occurs today as well, of course, often in the context of strong Jewish support for Israel. Is it, for lack of a better term, kosher for Jewish voters to lean on that above all other considerations? Assuming it is kosher—and democracy is letting people do what they want—more importantly, is it wise?

• If you were a Jew in 1868, would you have voted for Horatio Seymour, the Democrat, who opposed Reconstruction, but didn’t have the orders in his past? Or would you have voted for Grant?

Happy Passover! Don’t forget to finish the book!

The Exodus From Paducah, 1862 [NYT]
Related: When General Grant Expelled the Jews [Nextbook Press]
Earlier: Let’s Read ‘General Grant’!

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

perot says:

You say in the article “It didn’t help that many of the most strident abolitionists were also anti-Semites.”

Could you name them ??

Bennett Muraskin says:

Enough already! This issue is overblown.

As general of the Union Army, Grant acted in a fit of anger. He later apologized and as President he was very friendly to Jews. He was the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue. He instructed his ambassador to protest anti-Semitic policies in Rumania and he offered to appoint Joseph Seligman, a New York banker, as Treasury Secretary, but Seligman declines.

It was not for another 30 years that another president, Teddy Roosevelt, appointed a Jew to his cabinet–Oscar Straus


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Why Was Gen. Grant Different From All Others?

When American Jews are persecuted, should they reply as Jews or Americans?

More on Tablet:

How To Make Middle Eastern Stuffed Vegetables

By Joan Nathan — Video: Filled with warm rice and unexpected spices, they’re perfect for a cool autumn night—as a side dish or vegetarian entree