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Smiling From The $50 Bill

The case for Ulysses S. Grant

Marc Tracy
March 16, 2010
(Visiting D.C.)
(Visiting D.C.)

Somebody give Ulysses S. Grant’s publicist a raise: Despite the fact that the 18th president has been dead for nearly 125 years, prestigious historian Sean Wilentz positively fawned over him in last Sunday’s New York Times. The reason? Some Republicans wish to replace Grant’s visage on the $50 bill with that of President Ronald Reagan. Wilentz—a progressive who nonetheless wrote an altogether admiring book called The Age of Reagan calls the proposal “a travesty that would dishonor the nation’s bedrock principles of union, freedom and equality.”

Now, leaving aside Grant’s reputation as a corrupt, passive chief executive, Jews may think of his notorious General Order No. 11, which in 1862 expelled all Jews in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the grounds of halting the black-market cotton trade. (The order was quickly rescinded; Lincoln condemned it.)

But actually, notes J.J. Goldberg, Grant ought to be remembered as, yes, good for the Jews! Grant was probably only vaguely aware of the order. Beyond that:

• Grant made the first nomination of a Jew to the presidential cabinet, asking close friend Joseph Seligman, a Wall Streeter, to be his first Treasury Secretary; Seligman turned him down, but remained a close adviser, with access unprecedented for a Jew.

• In response to anti-Semitism in newly sovereign Romania, Grant appointed as U.S. consul Sephardic attorney Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, who had just finished a stint as national head of B’nai B’rith.

• Grant was the first U.S. president to attend services at a synagogue (Adas Israel in Washington, D.C.—which, I think I’m obligated to add, is my family’s congregation).

Now might be a good time to mention that historian Jonathan Sarna is writing a book all about Grant and General Order No. 11 … for Nextbook Press.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.