BOOKS MARCH 21, 2012
by Jonathan Sarna
Schocken Books, 224 pp., $24.95
OVER THE YEARS, American Jews have feted George Washington, lionized Abraham Lincoln, and adored Franklin Roosevelt. But time and time again, they have given a cold shoulder to Ulysses S. Grant—or worse still, likened him to the evil Haman of Queen Esther’s day. Some American Jews, throwing off all restraint, have even called Grant a Second Pharaoh.
It is not hard to see why. Major General Grant was responsible for issuing General Orders No. 11, which, in 1862, expelled the “Jews as a class” from large swaths of territory under his command. Knowingly, he tarred and feathered American Jewry as a bunch of unscrupulous businessmen out to make a buck at the expense of the Union Army. More to the point, Grant gave sanction to the widespread and erroneous belief that Northern Jews descended on the South to plunder and despoil its economy. “The Israelites have come down upon the city [of Memphis] like locusts,” related one not very welcoming newspaper at the height of the Civil War. Another added that the “long dining-hall of the principal hotel at Memphis, looked at meal-times like a Feast of the Passover,” referring, of course, to the Seder. General Orders No. 11 gave such dispiriting views the force of law.
Although the expulsion order affected fewer than one hundred Jews and was rescinded by President Lincoln nearly as quickly as it was instituted—within two weeks—its very existence has cast a long shadow over the American Jewish experience, where, inevitably, it appears on everyone’s list of American anti-Semitica. Shaking American Jewry to its very core, Grant’s edict undermined the community’s belief in America’s exceptionalism and gave rise to considerable anxiety lest the New World go the way of the Old in its collective and brutal treatment of the Jews. Little wonder, then, that the Jewish community’s leaders insisted that General Orders No. 11 deserved “lasting execration” and that the man who executed it deserved equally lasting opprobrium.
Later still, in 1868, the tale of the infamous order was kept alive by Grant’s political enemies, who sought to deny him the presidency. The general was determined to put the unfortunate episode behind him, but his opponents repeatedly brought it up, endowing Grant’s wartime animadversions against the Jews with a new lease on life. The Democratic Speaker’s Hand-book, a text compiled by the Democrats at the time of the presidential election to fan the fires of anti-Grant sentiment, made much of the incident: three double-columned pages were given over to a heated discussion of “General Grant on our Hebrew Fellow Citizens.”
The American Jewish electorate, or what some newspapers at the time variously called the “Jew vote” or the “Israelitic vote,” also refused to let Grant off the hook. “As a CLASS, you have stigmatized and expelled us! As a CLASS, we rise up and vote against you, like one man,” thundered General Grant and the Jews, a political tract that rallied American Jewish opinion against him. “With God’s blessing, [we] will defeat you!”
Jonathan Sarna’s richly researched book will have none of this. Ulysses S. Grant, he insists, “deserved better”: the eighteenth president of the United States warrants another look, a second hearing, a shot at redemption. After all, claims Sarna, he spent much of his life atoning for General Orders No. 11. Instead of demonizing the man, history—or more to the point, American Jewish history—would do well to forgive him. But then Sarna goes one better, arguing that on Grant’s watch American Jewry actually flourished beyond its wildest expectations. In Sarna’s view, American Jewry’s sour grapes ought to give way to gratitude.
Much of the book takes the form of special pleading or, better yet, the form of a legal brief, toting up and trotting out the ways in which Grant subsequently sought to do right by the Jews. When given the chance, the president made a point of distinguishing between the Jews as a group and the behavior of some of its individual members. What’s more, he hired more Jews in his administration than any previous president, among them Dr. Herman Bendell, who would serve as superintendent of Indian affairs for the Arizona Territory. Turning his attention to European matters, Grant intervened on behalf of Russian and Romanian Jewry when their respective governments sought to expel them or to curtail their civil rights. For his sins, he even spent over three hours at the elaborately staged dedication service of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington in 1876, reportedly the very first American president ever to attend such a celebration.
These and other gestures of contrition led some of his harshest critics to change their mind, and at the time of Grant’s death, in 1885, to laud him as a true friend of the Jews. Even the general’s fiercest antagonist, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who more than twenty years earlier insisted that Grant “trampled into the dust” the rights of the Jews, encouraged his coreligionists to mourn the man’s passing.
Sarna’s account would have us do the same. Filled with lively, little-known personalities such as “Alphabet Browne,” an American Jewish champion of Grant’s who styled himself E.B.M. Browne, L.L.D., A.M. B.M., D.D., M.D., it also contains reams of juicy quotes and delicious bits of doggerel, like this one from the La Crosse Daily Democrat:
“Who drove the Hebrews from his Camp
Into the Alligator swamp
Where everything was dark and damp?
Who wrothy at those faithless Jews
Who kept ‘’pa’s’ share of Cotton dues,
All further permits did refuse?
For all its many pleasures, however, the book turns out to be more suggestive than persuasive, especially when it comes to its conclusion. It ends with the big, bold claim that “paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment” and their subsequent flowering during the Gilded Age. By Sarna’s lights, the infamous General Orders No. 11 turned out to be a very good thing. By the time he has his way with Grant, the man ranks right up there with Washington and Lincoln. These days, few would argue that the eighteenth president of the United States should not be a candidate for reassessment. But for such high praise? Was he really all that good for the Jews?
Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, blogs at www.fromunderthefigtree.com.
*To read a response from Jonathan D. Sarna, click here.