The Jewish Vote
Charges of dual loyalty have dogged American Jews since the 1868 election, as Jonathan Sarna explains in his book
On Dec. 17, 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, concerned about smuggling and enraged by the discovery that his own father was conspiring with Jewish clothing manufacturers to move southern cotton northward, issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled “Jews as a class” from the territory under his command. As a result of this infamous order—the most anti-Semitic official order in American history—a small number of Jews were expelled from the territories in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee under Grant’s command. More Jews would certainly have been expelled had Abraham Lincoln not overturned the order less than three weeks after it was issued.
Given the Emancipation Proclamation, and Grant’s subsequent string of military victories, furor over the order quickly subsided in 1863, and practically nothing more was said about General Orders No. 11 for the next five years. But in 1868, when Grant became a candidate for the presidency of the United States, the order took on fresh significance. Indeed, it posed an unprecedented and deeply vexing dilemma for Jewish Americans. Could they vote for a man— even a national hero—who once had expelled “Jews as a class” from his war zone? If not, would this set Jews apart from the multitudes who viewed Grant as the savior of his country? Worse yet, might it raise the ugly specter of dual loyalty, suggesting that Jews cared more about “Jewish issues,” such as anti-Semitism, than about the welfare of the country as a whole?
Concern about “factional politics,” of course, dated all the way back to the beginning of the republic. Appeals to different voting blocs, as well as outrage at such craven appeals, characterized some of America’s earliest elections. Long before political polling became a science, pundits speculated about the voting habits of different ethnic and religious groups. In 1841, the earliest known analysis of the Jewish vote in New York reported that “most of the Portuguese Jews are Whigs; of the German Jews, about half are Whigs; of the Pollakim [Polish Jews] about one-third,” an indication that wealthier Jews had, at that time, come to support the more conservative Whig Party. Catholic voters, in 1844, faced a crisis when the Whig Party nominated the staunchly anti-Catholic Theodore Frelinghuysen as vice-president on the ticket with Henry Clay (whom New York’s Catholic Archbishop, John Hughes, was otherwise known to admire). James Polk won that election by a razor-thin margin. Whether the Catholic vote swayed the scales remains a matter of conjecture.
Jews, however, had not faced this problem before in a presidential election. Anti-Semitic charges had marred some presidential campaigns, notably the tempestuous campaign of 1800 when local Federalists desperately tarred their opponents as Jews and foreigners, but nobody imagined that the major party candidates in that election—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—were themselves enemies of the Jewish people. In 1868, by contrast, the candidate himself was the issue. Much of the country loved him, while a great many Jews found it hard to forgive him.
No final decision ever resolved this debate. It rises anew, like the phoenix, every time some Jewish issue (most recently support for Israel) intrudes into a presidential campaign. The same intensity, many of the same arguments, and only differences in detail distinguish the debates in Grant’s day from those in our own. Then as now, the tensions inherent in the term “American Jew”—embracing responsibilities to country and to fellow Jews—heighten the challenge of casting a presidential ballot. Nor are Jews alone in facing this dilemma. Parallel tensions face members of almost every ethnic, religious, and special interest group. Weighing up competing claims, establishing priorities among one’s principles and concerns, and reaching a decision about whom to support can make voting an excruciatingly difficult if deeply self-revealing process.
In 1868, many pundits expected that after weighing and balancing all of these different factors the majority of American Jews would vote against Ulysses S. Grant and in favor of Horatio Seymour. A journalist from the South who visited a national B’nai B’rith convention in late July of 1868 reported that 90 percent of those in attendance “are heart and soul opposed to Grant.” The correspondent of the London Jewish Chronicle, that same month, informed his readers that American Jews were “uniting to defeat the election of General Grant because he ventured to insult their brethren and their faith.” By October, when many neutral observers were predicting that Grant would win the election, based on state and local election victories by Republicans in eight states, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, noticing the significance of Jewish votes in several key states, still offered the Democrats a ray of hope: “the Israelites in the States of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Indiana,” it declared, “have it entirely in their own power to secure the election of Seymour and Blair and the defeat of Grant and Colfax.” The St. Louis Times and Washington National Intelligencer agreed. Exaggerating the number of “Hebrew voters” by a factor of almost 10 (“there are four or five hundred thousand Hebrew voters in the United States”), the newspapers predicted that “the Hebrew vote of the United States will certainly effect the overthrow of the dominant [Republican] party.”
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