April 9, 2012
Ulysses Grant and the Jewish vote, and its 2012 parallels
Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, discusses his new book When General Grant Expelled the Jews.
What was Ulysses Grant’s motivation for issuing General Order 11, and how long did it take for it to be rescinded?
Grant was deeply concerned about smuggling between the North and the South. In his correspondence, the word “Jew” and the word “smuggler” became almost synonymous. He blamed a widespread problem on a visible group, and felt that by expelling that group from his war zone, smuggling would be eradicated. We now know that the occasion for his order was the discovery that his own father, Jesse Grant, had conspired with Jewish clothing manufacturers to move cotton from South to North. This, for him, was the last straw, and he issued General Orders No. 11 as soon as he made this discovery. The order was issued on December 17, 1862 but took 11 days to reach Paducah. After that city’s Jews were expelled on December 28, it took but a week for one of them to reach Washington DC. On January 4th, upon learning of General Orders No. 11, Abraham Lincoln had it revoked.
Were Jews really affected by the order, did they even know about it at the time?
Jews in the vicinity of Grant’s headquarters were expelled on account of the order, and we possess some stories of Jews who were mistreated in the process. As mentioned, Jews were also expelled from Paducah where some 30 Jewish families resided. The total number of Jews affected, however, probably did not exceed 100. Jewish newspapers carried news of the order, and one of those expelled, Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, spread the story to the Associated Press. Thanks to him, the story went around the country. Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, was much bigger news. Lots of people only learned about General Orders No. 11 years later, in 1868, when Grant ran for president and the order became an election issue.
Isn’t it true that General Grant ultimately became a president with a fairly favorable attitude to American Jewry? How did this change take place?
Grant apologized for General Order #11 following his election (“I do not pretend to sustain the order. . . I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”) As President, he proved that apology genuine by appointing many Jews to public office and by displaying sensitivity to Jews when they were persecuted in Russia and Rumania. In many ways, he spent the rest of his life, from 1868 to his death in 1885, living down General Orders No. 11 and proving, by his actions, that he bore no anti-Jewish prejudices.
You state at the end of your book that “Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment” - how so?
Paradoxically, the order expelling Jews forced Jews into the political arena where they rapidly achieved success. Not only did they succeed in having Grant’s order revoked, they also managed during the Grant era to use government as an instrument for improving Jewish conditions at home and abroad. Government service taught Jews a great deal about political power, lessons that held them in good stead in later years.
At some point you seem to suggest that Jews of the North share some of the blame for Grant’s suspicions, because they were questioning emancipation and expressed fear that free blacks might compete with Jews for jobs. Is this not a problematic “blame-the-victim suggestion”?
It is easy to understand why, in the wake of General Orders No. 11 – coming as it did so close to the Emancipation Proclamation – some Jewish leaders feared that Jews would replace Blacks as the nation’s stigmatized minority. It is also easy to understand why Jews, who as immigrants often looked and sounded different from the majority of their countrymen, faced persecution and prejudice. My goal is not to blame the victim, but to explain why it was that Jews were victimized.
In one of the many talks you gave on this book you’ve said that “there are interesting parallels” to be made from the current political climate “to the 1868 election” - namely, that Jews who might be hesitating to vote for President Obama might be able to learn something from Grant’s transformation. What exactly did you mean?
In 1868, Jews who had supported the Republican Party since Lincoln’s first term faced a difficult conundrum. Should they vote for the Democrats, a party they considered bad for the country, just to avoid voting for a man (Grant) who had been bad to the Jews? The Democrats sought to roll back Reconstruction and disenfranchise Black voters. Should Jews vote for them anyway, just to avoid voting for a candidate who had expelled Jews from his war zone? The question of loyalties – how much should “Jewish considerations” sway Jewish voters, and how much should they vote on the basis of what they see as good for the country as a whole - was hotly debated in 1868. It seems to me that in the 2012 election, Jews will face some of these same kinds of questions.