The Anti-Semitism of Ulysses S. Grant

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Jonathan Sarna looks into General Orders No. 11, Grant's bigoted attempt to banish Jewish people from "The Department Of Tennessee" 


Lest anyone try to change his mind, Grant made clear that "no passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits." 

Americans today are often surprised to learn that Ulysses S. Grant once expelled "Jews as a class" from his war zone. It seems incredible that he could blame Jews for the sins of smugglers and traders--most of whom were not actually Jewish at all--and expel them from the entire territory under his command. Some Jews at the time wondered whether their new homeland was coming to resemble anti-Semitic Europe at its worst.
The order was swiftly reversed by Lincoln. And the charge of anti-Semitism understandably dogged Grant for the rest of his days. The fall-out over General Orders No. 11, differentiates it from a lot of other bigoted policies pursued by the American government during the 19th century. 

Eager to prove that he was above prejudice, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors, and, in the name of human rights, extended unprecedented support to persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania. Time and again, partly as a result of his enlarged vision of what it meant to be an American and partly in order to live down General Orders No. 11, Grant consciously worked to assist Jews and secure them equality. 

Nevertheless, the memory of what his wife, Julia, called "that obnoxious order" continued to haunt Grant to his death in 1885. Especially when he was in the company of Jews, the sense that in expelling them he had failed to live up to his own high standards of behavior, and to the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold, gnawed at him. 

He apologized for the order publicly and repented of it privately. He consciously excluded any mention of it from his acclaimed Memoirs. He gloried in the fact that, on his deathbed, Jews numbered among those who visited with him and prayed for his recovery. Jews also participated wholeheartedly in the national mourning that followed his death in 1885, and later in the dedication of his tomb. They did so in spite of General Orders No. 11, recognizing, as the Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise noted at the time, that Grant had "often repented" of his order, and "that the wise also fail."
Of course even this happy-ending had its problems. I don't want excerpt Sarna's whole piece. Please click through and read. The piece is excerpted from his forthcoming book When Grant Expelled The Jews.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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