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The Redemption of Ulysses S. Grant
by Jonathan D. Sarna
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As a Union general, Grant expelled Jews from his war zone; as president of the United States of America, he set a new national tone that helped usher in a brief “golden age” in the history of the American Jewish community. This year—the 150th anniversary of the Civil War—is an appropriate time to reconsider Grant’s reputation and set the record straight.

Ulysses S. Grant


The story of Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11 expelling “Jews as a class” from his war zone once placed my academic career in jeopardy.

In 1982, as a young faculty member at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, I was invited to address the institution’s Board of Overseers. This was an important rite of passage for a new faculty member, and I was determined to prove myself. Since my lecture date more or less coincided with the 120th anniversary of Grant’s infamous 1862 order, I decided to talk about that event.

My presentation seemed to be going well…until I stated that although Ulysses S. Grant had singled Jews out as smugglers—the generally-accepted reason for the expulsion order—we now knew that smuggling had been rampant throughout Grant’s territory and was by no means a Jewish monopoly. “In fact,” I enthusiastically continued, “Grant’s own father, Jesse Grant, was engaged in a clandestine scheme to move southern cotton northward. His partners were Jewish clothing manufacturers named Harman, Henry, and Simon Mack.”

At that point a few chairs in the room shifted uneasily and my mentor, the pioneering American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus, buried his face in his hands. That, I knew, spelled trouble. Clearly, I had just said something terribly wrong. Not knowing what the problem was, and fearing for the security of my job, I hobbled to the end of my lecture and invited questions.

An old man in the front row promptly raised his hand and rose to his feet. “My name is Mack,” he began. Then, looking me straight in the eye, he announced, “That was my great-grandfather you were talking about.”

“And,” he continued, after a long and dramatic pause, “it’s all true.”

The room relaxed. Dr. Marcus looked up. Everybody smiled. My academic career was safe.

Since that memorable day, I have looked for opportunities to expand upon the history of Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews. Most Jews of the 21st century do not know that Grant expelled Jews from his war zone in 1862 and that during his presidency (1869-1877), he transformed himself in Jewish eyes from a villain into a hero. This year—the Civil War sesquicentennial and the 150th anniversary of General Orders No. 11—is an appropriate time to reconsider Grant’s reputation and set the record straight.

On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued and signed General Orders No. 11 to evict Jews from the vast war zone under his command—known as the “Department of the Tennessee,” but actually stretching from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. His edict was subsequently described as “the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in all American history.” It read as follows:

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.

Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters….

Practically, probably fewer than 100 Jews were seriously affected by General Orders No. 11. A fortuitous communications breakdown, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s prompt decision to revoke the order—Lincoln declared that he did not “like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners”—greatly limited its impact.

Still, General Orders No. 11 had lingering effects. 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. Some Jewish leaders explicitly feared that freedom for slaves would spell trouble for Jews.

Within a year, Grant’s victory at Vicksburg had elevated him into a national hero. When, in 1868, he ran for president on the Republican ticket, the memory of General Orders No. 11 sparked passionate debates between those Jews who extolled him as a hero and those who reviled him as a latter-day Haman, a traditional enemy of the Jewish people. For the first time in American history, a Jewish issue was playing a prominent role in a presidential campaign—the issue of multiple loyalties. The election prefigured a central conundrum of Jewish politics that remains relevant today: In selecting a presidential candidate, were Jews to cast aside all special interests and consider only the national interest? Or should General Orders No. 11 be the sole factor in determining how Jews ought to vote? Jewish Republicans faced an excruciating question: Should they vote for a Democrat—representing a party they considered bad for the country for seeking to roll back Reconstruction and deny freed slaves the right to vote—just to avoid voting for a man who had been bad to the Jews?

Two of America’s most distinguished Reform rabbis debated this very question. Liebman Adler, rabbi of Chicago’s K.A.M. synagogue, argued against voting on the basis of Jewish interests, and in favor of what he considered broad American interests. Proud as he was of being a Jew, he wrote, “It is different when I take a ballot in order to exercise my rights as a citizen. Then I am not a Jew, but I feel and act as a citizen of the republic.” On Election Day, he insisted, “I do not ask what pleases the Israelites. I consult the welfare of the country.”

For Rabbi Adler, the principles of the Republican Party, particularly the promise that “all men of all races should be equal,” trumped other considerations. Must Jews like himself set aside their principles and change their vote, he asked, “since Grant has insulted us?” Answering his own question, he declared forthrightly that “if Grant is the best man for the Americans, he is the best man for us Israelites, despite General Orders No. 11."

Reform Movement architect Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, could not have disagreed more. “If wrong is wrong, he who defends it is wicked,” Wise acidly wrote. “Men of principle and character...have the solemn duty to speak, to resent indecencies, to plead their cause, and to stand up firmly and decidedly for their rights and their principles….We will consider it our duty to oppose [Grant] and the party nominating him....Worse than General Grant, none in this nineteenth century in civilized countries has abused and outraged the Jews.” Responsible voters, he concluded, needed to weigh up their responsibilities as Jews and as citizens at one and the same time: “We bring both the Jew and the citizen to the public forum….”

Grant emerged the winner by a large margin. Except perhaps in New York, where he lost by precisely 10,000 votes and fraud was suspected, the Jewish vote could not have made much difference.

With the election behind him, Grant permitted a private letter he had penned concerning General Orders No. 11 (addressed to his friend, former Congressman Isaac Newton Morris, but really a response to Morris’s friend, B’nai B’rith leader Adolph Moses) to be released to the press. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” Grant wrote. While his self-serving explanation—“the order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race”—did not bear up well under close scrutiny, Jews were nonetheless thrilled with Grant’s forthright and unambiguous concluding declaration: “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit….” Jewish leaders praised the letter as “noble and generous.” Isaac Mayer Wise, who became the first to publish it, felt sure that it “would be read with pleasure by all of our readers.”

Indeed, from Jewish eyes, the letter lifted the taint of “Haman” from Grant’s shoulders. It also restored Jews’ confidence in their country’s ideals, and added to the spirit of buoyant optimism that characterized American Jewish life at the time. Across the United States in the late 1860s, Jews were building magnificent synagogues and temples and eagerly anticipating a glorious “new era” characterized by liberalism, universalism, and interreligious cooperation. In calling for each individual to be judged according to his own merit, Grant’s letter provided reassurance that he shared many of these same lofty goals.

When Grant took his oath of office on March 4, 1869, he was 46 years old—at the time the youngest person ever inaugurated as president of the United States. Physically unimpressive but steely in determination, adorned in an expensive black suit and somewhat reticent, as if conscious of the formidable challenges awaiting him, the general appeared the very embodiment of the nation’s hopes. When accepting his party’s nomination he had proclaimed, “Let us have peace,” which, as one biographer explained, meant “peace between North and South; peace between black and white; peace after years of war and political conflict.” Now, in a characteristically short and plainspoken inaugural address, Grant urged his countrymen once more to heal the nation’s sectional wounds and guarantee Black Americans the right to vote. The great challenges posed by Reconstruction, he stated, needed to be approached “calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride.” He called upon each citizen to “do his share toward cementing a happy union.”

One of Grant’s first acts as president was the appointment of Simon Wolf, a leading Jewish attorney and B’nai B’rith leader, to the position of Recorder of Deeds. Soon Wolf became the president’s primary advisor on Jewish affairs. Thanks to him, the president made numerous other Jewish appointments—more, probably, than all previous presidents combined. Grant also responded quickly when reports reached him of persecutions against Jews in Europe. He spoke out forcefully against an order expelling 2,000 Jews from border areas of Russia and, following the persecution of Jews in Romania in 1870, he appointed a Jew as America’s consul to that country. “The United States,” he wrote, “knowing no distinction of her citizens on account of religion or nativity, naturally believes in a civilization the world over which will secure the same liberal views.”

In 1873, Grant won reelection by a landslide, mostly as a result of his domestic and foreign policy successes coupled with Horace Greeley’s comically poor showing on the stump. Still, when Grant subsequently expressed satisfaction that “the people had vindicated [my] private character,” he might have also had the Jewish people in mind. He had largely won them over.

In his second term, Grant devoted considerable effort to strengthening church-state separation. At the time, Protestant efforts to Christianize the country and the Catholic campaign to win state funding for parochial schools had come to alarm Jews and religious liberals, both of whom favored the high wall of separation advocated by Thomas Jefferson. Jews, newly accepted as insiders, were fearful of seeing their gains reversed. As a result, as historian Benny Kraut has written, a “natural, pragmatic alliance” developed, uniting “Jews, liberal Christians, religious free thinkers, and secularists in common bond, their religious and theological differences notwithstanding.” Alliance members sought to shift the emphasis away from Abraham Lincoln’s perspective of Americans as a religious people, stressing instead the role of government as a secular institution. Rabbi Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati, for example, proclaimed: “We are going to lay our cornerstone with the sublime motto, ‘Eternal separation of state and church!’ For this reason we shall never favor or ask any support for our various benevolent institutions by the state; and if offered, we should not only refuse, but reject it with scorn and indignation, for those measures are the first sophistical, well-premeditated steps for a future union of church and state. Sectarian institutions must be supported by their sectarian followers; the public purse and treasure dares not be filled, taxed and emptied for sectarian purposes.”

In 1875, Grant (who probably knew nothing of Lilienthal) threw his support behind a parallel vision of “strict separation,” insisting that religion be kept out of the public schools and that state aid be denied to parochial schools. “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contribution,” Grant declared in a Des Moines address to veterans of the Army of the Tennessee, the soldiers he had led when General Orders No. 11 was issued. “Keep the church and state forever separate.” In his State of the Union message later that year, Grant spoke out in favor of a constitutional amendment which would require states to create free public schools for all children, “forbidding the teaching in said schools of religious, atheistic, or pagan tenets; and prohibiting the granting of any school funds or school taxes…for the benefit or in aid, directly or indirectly, of any religious sect or denomination.”

Then Grant made history on June 9, 1876 when he became the first American president to attend the dedication of a synagogue. Timed to coincide with the celebration of 100 years of American independence, the president’s appearance at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue was particularly laden with symbolism, in effect announcing that Judaism was a co-equal religion in the United States. The president also handed in a pledge card promising the congregation ten dollars (approximately $200 today), earning him the community’s sincere thanks for his “munificence and liberality.” The man who had once expelled “Jews as a class” from his war zone had personally honored Jews in Washington, DC for upholding and renewing their faith.

One month later, and three years after the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Union’s Council (today’s URJ Biennial) convened in Washington to mark America’s centennial. Grant set aside an hour to meet and greet group members and show them the inside of the White House. Among those who introduced themselves to the president was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. “I know all about you, Doctor,” Grant responded, “especially in connection with Order No. 11.” That Grant used the occasion to recall his Civil War order banishing Jews indicates that the blot on his record—that he had failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American—was never far from his mind.

This encounter with Reform leaders turned out to be Ulysses S. Grant’s last major engagement with Jews during his presidency. The following March he turned presidential power over to Rutherford B. Hayes. With that, a brief “golden age” in the history of the American Jewish community came to an end.

The Grant years had brought American Jews heightened visibility and new levels of respect. More Jews served in public office than ever before, and for the first time America had firmly committed itself, even in its relations with other nations, to human rights policies “making no distinction...on account of religion or nativity,” with the aim of securing “universal liberal views.” An optimistic American Jewish community built synagogue after synagogue and established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), the first successful American synagogue organization; and the Hebrew Union College (1875), the first successful American rabbinical school.

While Grant was not responsible for all of American Jewry’s progress during his White House years, his statements and actions, so marked in contrast with his General Orders No. 11 during the Civil War, set a new national tone. Looking back some 40 years later, Grant’s friend Simon Wolf,who knew every American president from James Buchanan to Woodrow Wilson, concluded that “President Grant did more on behalf of American citizens of Jewish faith at home and abroad than all the Presidents of the United States prior thereto or since.”

At age 58, Grant returned to private life. He settled into a handsome brownstone in New York City and, with help from longtime friends, members of the Seligman banking family, joined his son as a silent partner in the investment banking firm of Grant and Ward. The firm was managed by young Ferdinand Ward, known in his day as the “Napoleon of Wall Street.” With Grant’s illustrious name and Ward’s illustrious reputation, the firm quickly succeeded. On paper, at least, Grant became rich.

By the time the 1884 election rolled around, however, Grant was destitute and largely out of politics. Ward, the Bernard Madoff-like swindler of his day, had borrowed against securities, paid out inflated dividends, used funds from one investor to reimburse another, and inevitably proved unable to cover his debts. The firm went bankrupt and Grant’s entire net worth vanished.

Soon afterward, in 1885, just as Grant immersed himself in writing his Civil War memoirs so as to provide for his family, he was diagnosed with cancer. His health was deteriorating, but his iron will to finish the narrative sustained him. Meanwhile, get-well messages from around the country flowed into the Grant home. On April 13, “the Rabbis of New York and adjacent States” conveyed their “sympathy to the stricken household” and offered prayers “to the Father of all to send strength to the sufferer to enable him to fight this great battle with the heroism worthy of so great a soldier.” The Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations likewise extended its “heartfelt sympathy and best wishes for his early restoration to health.” Rabbi Edward Benjamin Morris Browne of Congregation Gates of Hope in New York City personally visited with Grant at his home.

For Grant, these expressions of sympathy from people of different faiths were a source of pride. “The Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jew appointed days for universal prayer in my behalf,” he wrote to his eldest son.

Grant died on Thursday, July 23, 1885. The following day, the Philadelphia Jewish Record declared in its Friday edition, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew…and tomorrow in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

The Saturday following Grant’s demise coincided with Shabbat Nahamu, the “Sabbath of Consolation,” which follows the fast of the 9th of Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple. The prophetic reading set aside for that day, from Isaiah 40, begins, “Comfort ye, comfort ye O my people.” Many a rabbinic sermon in Grant’s memory opened with this text.

Some rabbis did make references to the blemishes on Grant’s record. Sabato Morais of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue delicately observed that the general’s “brilliant qualities” had “partly been dimmed by ill-advised actions.” Rabbi Wise, with typical bluntness, recalled “the notorious order No. 11, which President Lincoln characterized as an ‘absurdity,’ and General Grant himself called in aftertimes ‘a foolish piece of business.’” For the most part, though, rabbis, like their ministerial and secular colleagues, focused upon Grant’s virtues and achievements. Indeed, a great many synagogues (including Wise’s) recited the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish in the former president’s memory. “Seldom before,” the Jewish Record reported, “has the kaddish been repeated so universally for a non-Jew as in this case.”

Twelve years later, on April 27, 1897, Grant’s Tomb was dedicated in New York, and Jews were among the estimated one million celebrants. A “Grant parade” involving 50,000 marchers included “pupils of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, with their famous band,” 75 “Alliance Cadets” representing the city’s Hebrew Institute, and “many lads of Jewish parentage” from the public schools. Rabbi Joseph Silverman of New York’s Temple Emanu-El delivered a stirring sermon in advance of the event, defending Grant against those who misunderstood him, labeling him “the Prince of Peace,” and praising the new edifice as a “monument to his valor and greatness.”

Although in the late 19th century Grant was as popular among the people as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, in the 20th century his reputation fell under withering assault. Historians, many of them southerners critical of his benevolent policy toward African Americans, lambasted both the ways he waged war and 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. They ranked him close to the bottom among all American presidents: 28th out of 29 presidents in 1948 (only Warren G. Harding earning a worse review), and 38th out of 41 in 1996.

Jews joined in this outpouring of criticism. A standard work of American Jewish history by Rufus Learsi (Israel Goldberg), published in 1954, devoted three closely printed pages to Grant’s General Orders No. 11 and barely a mention to the rest of his interactions with Jews. “Although Grant gave assurances that he regretted the Order,” Learsi admonished, “those attempts at exculpation...were not convincing: the devil’s tail of politics bulged out of them only too plainly.” Such assessment of Grant as a Jew-hater was reinforced by two scholarly volumes on American anti-Semitism published in 1994, Frederick Cople Jaher’s A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness and Leonard Dinnerstein’s Antisemitism in America. The Encyclopaedia Judaica added that in Jewish memory, “Grant’s name has been linked irrevocably with anti-Jewish prejudice.”

Yet Ulysses S. Grant deserves better than to be remembered solely as a leader who blamed “Jews as a class” for the sins of smugglers and traders, and then expelled “Jews as a class” from the entire territory under his command. He also deserves better than to be remembered as a caricature, an answer to Groucho Marx’s question on the 1950s quiz show “You Bet Your Life”: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” (In fact, Ulysses and Julia Grant were “entombed” and not “buried” there at all.)

After careful historical reexamination of the record, scholars have now revised the image of the man “buried” in Grant’s Tomb. New biographies have set forth many of his political achievements, especially in the area of race. A 2008 popularity poll has lifted him into the number 18 spot among American presidents, between William McKinley and Grover Cleveland.

Grant’s record with respect to Jews likewise requires revision. During his administration, American Jews moved from outsider to insider status, and from weakness to strength. After having abruptly expelled Jews in 1862, Grant as president significantly empowered them—insisting, over the objections of those who propounded narrower visions of America, that the country could embrace people of different races, religions, and creeds.

General Orders No. 11 led to unexpected aftermaths—the transformation of Ulysses S. Grant from enemy to friend, from Haman to Mordecai, from a general who expelled “Jews as a class” to a president who embraced Jews as individuals.Grant learned from his mistakes. When it comes to his legacy, it is time for historians to learn from theirs.


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 has been adapted from the book When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna, copyright © 2012 by Jonathan D. Sarna, published by arrangement with Schocken Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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