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.”
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.