Coincidentally, today would have been President Ulysses S. Grant’s 190th Birthday. In honor of that event (really a coincidence) I finished Jonathan Sarna’s new book, When General Grant Expelled The Jews. How could it be... General Grant, a firm believer in the U.S. Constitution, discriminated against the Jews as a class and expelled them from the entire territory under his command? Was their new homeland starting to resemble the anti-Semitic Europe that they left behind?
General Orders No. 11 spread slowly, but it was the most official and most notorious anti-Jewish order in American history: “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.” The document blamed the Jews for the widespread smuggling that affected the area under Grant’s command.
In the end, only a small number of Jews were seriously affected by General Orders No. 11. There was a breakdown in communications when it was announced, and news of the Orders spread slowly. When the Jews were to be expelled, there were protests in Washington on their behalf.
When Grant ran for President in 1868, some still referred to him as a “Haman”, the enemy of the Jewish people, and Jewish politics became an issue of the Presidential Election. He was elected despite of General Orders No. 11.
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. During his administration, Jews achieved heightened status on the national scene, and he made the Jewish Community more self-confident.
Regardless, 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.
Nevertheless, General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history for generations.