Can Jewish political influence in the United States trace its start to the worst act of discrimination Jews ever experienced in this country?
Jonathan Sarna certainly thinks so.
The acclaimed author, historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University makes just that argument in his latest book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” the story of Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11 — the order that, during the Civil War, expelled Jews “as a class” from the territories under his command in 1862.
The book will be released in 2012, but the publishers — Schocken and Nextbook — sent the Chronicle an advance proof for review. When it is finally available to the public, this eminently readable 146-page tome is worth the time, not only because of its comprehensive look at this moment in history, but because it corrects many misconceptions about the order and about Grant himself.
Think General Grant was an anti-Semite? Sarna makes the convincing case that President Grant was one of the best friends Jews ever had in the White House and a highly underrated American president who, against the advice of his own secretary of state, made human rights for all peoples a matter of national policy — a status it occupies to this day.
Grant publicly opposed the mistreatment of Russian Jews in Bessarabia during his administration; he appointed an American Jew as consul to Romania at a time of anti-Semitic hostility throughout that country, named more Jews to high office than any previous president and became the first president to visit the Holy Land when he finally left office.
That’s a far cry from the Union Army general who, on Dec. 17, 1862, in response to reports of Jewish peddlers and black marketers operating in lands from Mississippi to Kentucky, issued General Orders No. 11, which ordered Jews, for “violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department” to leave areas under his command within 24 hours upon receipt of the order.
News of the order shocked the 150,000-some America Jews, many of whom, including Cesar Kaskel, a merchant from Peducah, Ky., made their way to Washington to appeal to President Lincoln. Kaskel, with the help of a former Ohio congressman, actually received an audience with the president, after which Lincoln commanded his general of the Army, Henry Halleck, to countermand Grant’s order.
Few Jews were actually affected by the aborted banishment. Nevertheless, it became such a campaign issue when Grant ran for president in 1868, the former general wrote a letter to a few Jewish supporters, which was released for publication only after his election, saying essentially that he regretted its issuance.
Was Grant an anti-Semite? Read this book before making up your mind. Ever the student of history, Sarna pokes through diaries, letters, newspapers and previously published authoritative volumes to deliver the full, unvarnished account of General Orders No. 11, its impact on the Jews, America and one of its best known, least understood presidents.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)