General Order No. 11, issued by my hero – General Ulysses S. Grant – was the most notorious anti-Semitic official order in American history: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”
I first read about Order #11 in Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton – maybe, twenty five years ago – and I just sort of ignored it. Ignored it as in in pretend it wasn’t there. I sort considered it a mote in Grant’s otherwise perfect veneer. I did know the root of Grant’s Order #11, but I didn’t know the aftermath except that Lincoln immediately cancelled it. That mote as well as its aftermath are the subject of an interesting article by Jonathan D. Sarna. It turns out that the story ended very differently than it started.
General Grant had a very strained relationship with his ill-tempered father, Jesse Grant, who owned a tanning company for which Ulysses Grant worked before the war when he was out of work and desperate. He hated the work and, by all accounts, he did not get along with his belligerent and overbearing father. Father Jesse was also a little bit of a operator, for lack of a better word, and – in December of 1862, twenty one, or so, months after Grant had left his employment – visited his son, now Major General Grant, hero of Fort Donaldson. Father Jesse accompanied several members of the Mack family of Cincinnati. They were Jewish clothing manufacturers trying to purchase cotton and they had formed a secret partnership with Jesse Grant. He was to get 25 percent of their profits for his work acting as their agent to “procure a permit for them to purchase cotton.”
According to an eyewitness, General Grant was upset and embarrassed at his father’s attempt to profit from his son’s new military status. He took his anger at his father out on the Macks and enlarged that to all Jews expelling them from his war zone. Once again, the Jews were being treated as a different and separate class to be discriminated against.
Even though the order was quickly cancelled, Sarna points out that the memory of what his wife, Julia, called “that obnoxious order” continued to haunt Grant to his death….the sense that in expelling them he had failed to live up to his own high standards of behavior, and to the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold, gnawed at him. Grant apologized publicly and privately told people that he been wrong.
In this day and age – probably every day and age, actually – lots of people apologize for some stupid thing they said or did with a lame statement like If I offended you, I am sorry or I may have used the wrong wording, but my point was.… Grant apologized and changed his behavior. As president, he made more Jewish appointments than all previous presidents put together. In an effort to help the plight of the Jews of Romania, who were being terrorized by Russian pogroms, he appointed a Jewish ambassador to Romania. As president, he attended the dedication of a synagogue further legitimizing and empowering American Judaism.
Grant cultivated friendships with some of the foremost Jewish leaders of the time, inviting them to the White House and entertaining them socially. All this was during a time when much of the United States was becoming reactionary. It was a time of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a time when the Christian National Reform Association was making headway into getting a Constitutional Amendment to make the United States a Christian Nation. It was a time, much like today, when the forces trying to turn the clock back were gaining power.
Grant believed in the Constitution – took it’s deeper meaning seriously – fought to save it, and then became the first Civil Rights president. The ONLY Civil Rights president only for almost seventy five years. Twenty three years after General Order #11, at his funeral march – witnessed by over a million people – the pallbearers included Union generals William Sherman and Phil Sheridan, Confederate generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner, and Rabbi Edward Benjamin Morris Browne. The following day, the Jewish Record reported “Seldom before, has the kaddish been repeated so universally for a non-Jew as in this case.” General Grant would have been proud.