On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11, permanently expelling all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi, within 24 hours. The order regarding “this class of people” 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….”
This shameful episode in U.S. history is analyzed in depth by Prof. Jonathan Sarna in his fascinating book on the subject, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. (If you don’t have time to read the book, I recommend you read this interview with the author.)
Grant’s order came on the heels of his growing frustration with speculators and businessmen trading illegally in the conquered South; it was tragically exacerbated by the knowledge that his own father was one of these traders. Here you can see a letter where Grant talks about the episode with his father; he clearly wanted to put it all behind him…
President Lincoln rescinded the order as soon as he heard of it, but the damage – both to Grant’s political prospects, and to the self-confidence of American Jewry – would not be erased as quickly.
In 1868 Grant ran for president. For the first time in American history, a Jewish issue played a prominent role in a presidential campaign—the question of multiple loyalties. When selecting a presidential candidate, should Jews cast aside parochial concerns and consider only the national interest? Or should General Orders No. 11 be the primary factor in determining how Jews ought to vote?
In the end the Jewish vote did not have a significant impact on the election results, and in a letter intended to be published by the press, Grant clearly showed regret:
“I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”
Grant went on to appoint an unprecedented number of Jews to higher office, responded quickly when told of persecutions against Jews in Europe, and denounced an order expelling 2,000 Jews from areas of Russia. He insisted that religion be kept out of public schools, and was the first president to attend a synagogue dedication. When he died, many synagogues said the traditional Mourners’ Prayer in his honor.
In recent years, many scholars have revised the prevalent perception of the Grant presidency as a failed one. When we look at this episode in his life, it appears that President Grant had undergone a transformative process – one that is central to Jewish belief – the process of repentance.