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When General Grant Expelled the Jews, by Jonathan D. Sarna. New York: Schocken, 2012. 204 pp. $13.98.
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 thirty-third among forty-one Presidents. However, in the 2009 C-SPAN poll he was ranked twenty-third, 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. 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 twenty-three 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 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 Democrats “were to place Messiah at their head, make Moses the Chief Justice, and call the Patriarchs to the Cabinet . . . .” In contrast, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise argued that Grant’s Orders #11 could not be overlooked. So it went.
In the event, Grant defeated the Democrat Horatio Seymour handily. Then Wolf’s optimistic judgments about Grant were put to the test. Throughout his presidency Grant became, Sarna argues, one of the best friends that American Jewish citizens ever had. He appointed Jews to high office and resisted attempts in Congress to make the United States officially a Christian state. It was “a brief golden age” for Judaism in America. Most important, perhaps, Grant also addressed relevant international issues. He condemned pogroms against Jews in Russia as well as “atrocities committed against Jews” in Romania. For the first time, international principles of human rights were articulated by an American president. And notably, in 1876, Grant’s last full year as President, he and members of his family attended the dedication of the Adas Israel synagogue, the first Jewish house of worship in Washington, DC “built specifically as a synagogue.”
American Jews reciprocated Grant’s open-mindedness and even-handedness. He seemed to crave redemption, and he was forgiven by many. Rabbi E. M. B. Browne served as an honorary pallbearer at Grant’s funeral in 1885, and each subsequent year placed a wreath at “Grant’s Tomb.” At the remembrance in 1920, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the funeral, Browne “declared proudly: ‘Grant, we are here again.’”
Sarna concludes that the ultimate consequence of the expulsion of Jews in General Orders #11 was “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.” That reminds us, Sarna writes, “that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.”
This is a wonderful book about a complex man, some of the complex history of American Jewish leaders and citizens, and the complex and ultimately inspiring relations between them.
George R. Goethals
University of Richmond