Did General Grant Regret Clicking 'Send'?

The general-turned-president was one of the earliest victims of using technology impulsively

grant-lincoln.jpg

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Remember Tom Sandage's Victorian Internet? It came to mind while reading the New York Times review of Jonathan D. Sarna's new book When General Grant Expelled the Jews:

Grant also let it be known that his original order "would never have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection."

If true, that would make the general one of the earliest victims of something like today's Web-enabled loss of self-control, as often discussed in the popular press:

Think of all those inappropriate comments, hidden away at the bottom of an email exchange, that have been picked up and circulated in the Press and around the world, and led to the shaming, even the dismissal, of the original sender. 

Once an email or text is sent, there's no calling it back, and for anyone who has experienced the lethal combination of emotional upheaval and excess alcohol, modern technology can be a malevolent foe -- goading you into saying something that you shouldn't. 

In Grant's case, the problem with that explanation is that even in the face of predictable outrage from the local Jewish community, he didn't reverse the order until Lincoln told him to. But the statement, in a letter written during the 1868 campaign, had its intended effect, reconciliation with many still-indignant Jewish voters. The excuse let him save face. Send-button remorse is real, but it also remains a useful social convention.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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