The Jewish Vote
Charges of dual loyalty have dogged American Jews since the 1868 election, as Jonathan Sarna explains in his book
Such predictions, even if wildly exaggerated, had already moved Ulysses S. Grant to act. In response to a letter from an influential B’nai B’rith leader and lawyer, Adolph Moses of Illinois, a Confederate veteran, on Sept. 14 Grant dispatched a private letter to their mutual friend, former Congressman Isaac Newton Morris, in which he unequivocally distanced himself from General Orders No. 11 and forswore prejudice. The confidential letter was not published at the time. Grant, according to Simon Wolf, the Jewish community’s unofficial government lobbyist, did not want the public to believe that “he was catering for the good wishes and possible votes of American citizens of the Jewish faith.” That, apparently, was acceptable for him to do in private but not in public.
Still, leading Jews undoubtedly saw the letter. After reading it, Moses, probably at the urging of Grant’s staff, composed a long letter of his own that appeared on the front page of the New York Times (Oct. 13, 1868), and in other newspapers, just as the election entered its home stretch. “I have … corresponded with Gen. Grant,” Moses announced dramatically, and Grant had made “a reparation.” Though Moses had earlier criticized Grant in print, he reported that having reviewed the question anew he would now follow his “political inclinations” without reference to the “side issue” of Grant’s order. “The best interests of our country,” he proclaimed, “are subserved by the election of Gen. Grant, and I have no diffidence to declare it to the community.”
Just 10 days later, a published letter in the New York Herald (Oct. 23, 1868) from another wavering Jewish Republican, a book-keeper in Cincinnati named David Eckstein, revealed that he actually had spoken to Grant for nearly two hours and was likewise now satisfied with the general’s response. Indeed, Grant’s explanations concerning General Orders No. 11 were, in Eckstein’s optimistic view, “sufficient to remove and obliterate every vestige of objection against him on the part of every fair-minded and reasonable Israelite.” He urged Jews to offer “hearty support” both to Grant and to “the party which put the General in nomination.”
What impact these and other last-minute endorsements made on Jewish voters is impossible to know. What really mattered were the results of the Nov. 3 election, and when they were tallied, Grant emerged the winner by 309,584 votes and a healthy 134 electoral vote margin. Except perhaps in New York, where Grant lost by precisely 10,000 votes and fraud was suspected, the Jewish vote could not have made much difference anywhere. Ohio and Pennsylvania, two states where Jewish voters were supposed to help the Democrats, both went Republican by comfortable margins. The vote in Indiana was closer, but the Jewish vote in that state was too small to make a difference. The more than 500,000 African-American votes cast, especially in the South, most of which naturally went to Grant, made much more of a difference in the totals and may actually have swung the election in Grant’s favor.
Contemporaries disagreed as to how Jews finally voted. The Cleveland Daily Herald argued that Jews “were not deceived” by the campaign against Grant, “and very little attention was paid by them to the clamor.” The New York Times, by contrast, estimated that “nearly the entire body of voting Israelites” voted against Grant. All that we know for certain is that a young Jewish student at Yale University named Louis Ehrich, later a prominent collector and dealer of art, agonized over the question of how to cast his first presidential ballot. In the end, he voted Democratic. “My nation is too dear to me,” he explained in his diary, “to allow me to respect one who injured it.”
A fitting epilogue to the tumultuous battle for the Jewish vote appeared in newspapers across the country during the final week of November. With the election behind him, Ulysses S. Grant permitted his private letter to Isaac Newton Morris concerning General Orders No. 11 to be handed over to the press. It told Jews just what they wanted to hear from the president-elect: “I do not pretend to sustain the Order.” While Grant’s self-serving explanation—“the order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race”—did not actually bear close scrutiny, Jews were thrilled with the general’s forthright, unambiguous, and appropriately italicized concluding declaration: “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Orders No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”
After months of bitter internecine political battling, Jews cheerfully united in praise of Grant’s “noble and generous” letter. Isaac Mayer Wise, a prominent Reform rabbi and editor, who was the first to receive and publish it, felt sure that it “would be read with pleasure by all of our readers.” B’nai B’rith leader Benjamin F. Peixotto, who admitted to voting against Grant, rejoiced to the New York Times at how the letter “exonerates Gen. Grant from the imputation of prejudice and intolerance against the Jews, so long believed to be one of his characteristics.” The Occident, now edited by Mayer Sulzberger, a future Pennsylvania judge, perceptively viewed the letter as “a guide for those who so easily fall into [Grant’s] errors, but are so far from imitating his virtues.”
What the Times characterized as this “frank and manly confession” lifted the taint of “Haman” from upon Grant’s shoulders. It did much to rehabilitate his image in Jewish eyes, restored Jews’ confidence in the country’s ideals, and added to the spirit of buoyant optimism that characterized American Jewish life as a whole at this time. Across the United States in the late 1860s, Jews were building magnificent synagogues and temples and looking forward with eager anticipation to a glorious “new era” characterized by liberalism, universalism, and interreligious cooperation. In calling for each individual to be judged according to his own merit, Grant’s letter provided reassurance that he shared many of these same lofty goals.
The so-called “upstanding Israelites,” many of them American bred, who labored to bring forth this new era of religious good feeling were far removed from the “Jews as a class” that Grant had expelled in 1862 for trading, smuggling, and speculating. Some of them, particularly Simon Wolf and the Seligman brothers, merchants and bankers, had contributed significantly to the Republican victory. They were, for the most part, self-made men who had been born poor, worked hard, and succeeded—just like the president-elect himself. The question, as Ulysses S. Grant now prepared for his inauguration, was what his future relationship with these upstanding Israelites would be.
This essay was excerpted and adapted from When General Grant Expelled the Jews, out today from Nextbook Press.
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