Sarna (History/Brandeis Univ.; A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew, 2008, etc.) nimbly reappraises Grant’s presidency as ushering a “golden age” for American Jews, despite the short-lived expulsion order he couldn’t live down.
General Orders No. 11, published in 1862 by Gen. Grant as head of the Union Army’s Department of the Tennessee, decreed that “Jews as a class” were to be expelled from the department because of “violating every regulation of trade”—i.e., on account of smuggling. While the order was issued during the pressing exigencies of wartime, then swiftly revoked by President Lincoln when visited by prominent Kentucky merchant Cesar Kaskel and Ohio Congressman John Addison Gurley some weeks later, Grant was vilified by the Jewish community—nearly 150,000 citizens—and hard-pressed to exonerate himself as presidential candidate, then president. Sarna expertly navigates the repercussions of this shocking order, which galvanized the American Jewish community to action, reminding many who were refugees from European expulsions how insecure they were even in America. It also deeply divided the Jewish community when faced with the 1868 Grant-Seymour presidential election. The order aroused a passionate debate both in the Senate, where some Democratic members moved to censure the (Republican) general, unsuccessfully, and in the press, which spoke out against the stereotyping and scapegoating of the Jews as “swindlers.” (Sarna evenhandedly considers the extent to which Jews were involved in smuggling.) Moreover, with the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jews expressed their consternation that the rise in status for blacks came at the cost of their own abasement. Jewish leaders such as Simon Wolf and Isaac Mayer Wise wrestled with the ethics of backing the modern-day Haman, as Grant was called, or support the racist, anti-black Democrats. Sarna weighs the short-lived order against important Jewish appointments in Grant’s administration, his humanitarian support for oppressed Jews around the world and lasting friendships with Jews.
A well-argued exoneration of a president and a sturdy scholarly study.