We’re a little late ourselves, but did you remember to read the first half of Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews, published by Nextbook Press, as per our little book club? No sweat if you didn’t. Here’s a quick summary:
Near the end of 1862, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, who in fewer than six years would be elected president, issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews in his territories (chiefly Kentucky and Tennessee) under the pretense of stopping smuggling and otherwise running the blockade—which some Jews did indeed do. This order theoretically included several sizable Jewish populations, notably in Memphis. In practice, it included quite fewer, no more than 100, particularly since one week later President Lincoln ordered the order rescinded. The subsequent condemnations of the order focused on its formulation of “Jews as a class”—that is, the notion that all Jews were alike, and its refusal to discriminate among Jews who committed violations and those who didn’t. Grant, for his part, quickly regretted the order in private—it may in part have been motivated by anger at Jewish manufacturers who had teamed up with Grant’s father to try to get Grant to give them a deal on cotton. Jews, many of whom after the war became Republicans because of that party’s position on Reconstruction, had to deal with whether or not to vote for Grant, who was nominated unanimously on the GOP’s first ballot in 1868. Given that at the time Jews were half of one percent of the overall population, the tiny Jewish vote was given outrageously disproportionate attention. It was indeed a benighted time.
In her extremely positive review today, Janet Maslin notes, “Anyone seeking to rock the Passover Seder with political debate will find the perfect conversation piece in Mr. Sarna’s account of this startling American story.” Later this month, after you all have finished the book—I’m looking at you—we’ll have Professor Sarna on the blog to respond to readers. For now, in the holiday spirit, here are four questions:
• The most controversial word in Grant’s order was “class”: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled … .” “Class” was universally interpreted as implying that all Jews—not only a few, and not even a disproportionate number—were the types who would engage in shady business dealings of the sort that violated the blockade. Jewish and non-Jewish critics argued that this was the orders’ most offensive aspect; when Grant eventually walked it back, following his 1868 election, he repudiated specifically that part of it: “I … want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”
Obviously, the orders were blatantly anti-Semitic. Yet on another level, does it risk damaging Jewish identity to so stridently insist that Jews are not a “class” in the sense of possessing common ties and even shared experiences? Of course we want each individual to be judged by his (or her) own merit, but don’t we also want the context of his or her Jewishness accounted for? Has anything—I can think of two things—happened between 1862 and today that might make the claim that Jews are in certain respects a distinct “class” more plausible?
• The orders was given less than one week before the Emancipation Proclamation was—which did not escape the attention of some angry Jews, who, though they generally lived in the North and would in large numbers go on to support Reconstruction, wondered why all the fuss over black slaves when the Jews were being persecuted. “The Memphis Daily Bulletin published the two documents, one above the other,” Sarna writes. “[Some Jews] feared that Jews would replace Blacks as the nation’s stigmatized minority.” It didn’t help that many of the most strident abolitionists were also anti-Semites. Yet would it not have been wiser for Jews of the time to point to blacks and the Proclamation as the sort of support they merely wanted for themselves, in a show of solidarity? As Jews compete with dozens of other interest groups in today’s politics, might such a strategy of common cause be still put to use?
• Here, as Sarna puts it, was the Jews’ central dilemma in 1868:
Could they vote for a man—even a national hero—who had once 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 care more about “Jewish issues,” such as anti-Semitism, than about the welfare of the country as a whole?
Is it, in fact, okay for American Jews to so highly prioritize their Jewishness when they enter the voting booths? The question occurs today as well, of course, often in the context of strong Jewish support for Israel. Is it, for lack of a better term, kosher for Jewish voters to lean on that above all other considerations? Assuming it is kosher—and democracy is letting people do what they want—more importantly, is it wise?
• If you were a Jew in 1868, would you have voted for Horatio Seymour, the Democrat, who opposed Reconstruction, but didn’t have the orders in his past? Or would you have voted for Grant?
Happy Passover! Don’t forget to finish the book!