Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews: A Fascinating Study in Repentance, Resistance and Overcoming Anti-SemitismThursday, October 13th, 2016
An extremely Illuminating incident in US history concerning anti-Semitism occurred during the Civil War meriting examination by anyone interested in understanding the roots and productive response to anti-Semitism. This incident pivoted upon the relationship that General Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War General and also the 18 th US president established with the Jews. It involves a special order issued by Grant which has become designated General Orders No. ll which entailed an outrageous expulsion of Jews from their homes in certain southern areas. Subsequently, however, Grant paradoxically developed an incredibly positive relationship with Jews inviting the question as to how these may be reconciled.
This order was issued under Grant’s name in response to the black market in cotton during the Civil War and explicitly forbade Jews from engaging in any market of such cotton. During the Civil War the Union
permitted trade of cotton between North and South under certain licensed arrangements. In many instances Union officers were bribed by alleged unlicensed traders which Grant found a distraction affecting his military campaign. Jews were involved in these business transactions along with others, however, Grant issued General Orders No. ll which shockingly singled out Jews as a class. It required the eviction of all of Jews in the affected areas
Most central in response was the action taken by Cesar Kaskel, Jewish immigrant from
Prussia who was a resident of Paducah, Kentucky and a prominent Union supporting citizen. Kaskel lived within the area affected by the order and included with residents mandated to leave. Kaskel’s response was most revealing by appealing directly to president of the United States Abraham Lincoln rather than any intermediary. Lincoln’s response was to immediately nullify the order in strong language. In support of this appeal Jewish fraternal organizations such as B’nai Brith geared its lobbying activities against Grants order.
It is significant that Grant’s issuance of the order had its roots in a personal episode involving a business relationship of his father Jessie Grant. Prior to the issuance of General Orders Number ll Grant was visited by his father with two Jewish business partners Henry and Simon Mack. The latter sought to obtain a license to sell cotton for a 25% share in profits. It is reported that Grant who had a troubled relationship with his father became enraged and may have taken out his animosity on Jews. Upon examining Grant’s relationship with the Jews subsequently during his presidential administration we could not encounter a more stark contrast. His appointment of Jews to significant positions of the time and use of his influence in quelling anti-Semitic activities abroad are unprecedented. When Grant decided to run for the presidency it was expected that an anti-Grant voting preference of Jews regarding General would cost him the election because of its closeness. Grant, however, in responding to a letter from B’nai Brith concerning the General order encouraged their leader Adolph Moses to maintain that that he made reparation.
Grant’s General Order and the ultimate transformation of Grant raises two issues, namely, whether Grant was truly repentant and secondly determining what lessons the response to the General Order hold for us today . Regarding the latter we may firstly note that there was no hesitation by Jews in its response. Further Kaskel and others addressed Lincoln without tapping intermediaries since they knew they had a friend in him so they focused upon his attention. Further that friendship was something that was developed by certain Jews especially Abraham Jonas who was a critical influence in securing Lincoln’s nomination. This is something that Jews would do well to recall in today’s times namely
involvement in affairs of the society in which they live and friendships with those who are ethical while capable of exerting some influence.
The issue over whether Grant was truly repentant about General Orders will ultimately remain speculative but the weight of evidence would be in in its favor. He indeed was highly pragmatically oriented and the possibility his actions were a combination of such considerations and moral ones remains real, however, the impact of the latter appears predominant. His position on a number of other issues such as the impeachment of Johnson also confirms a moral dimension in his character. Grant’s overall vote returns translated into a victory and here Jewish support was also strengthened by then Republican values being more consistent with Jewish values. This included former slave rights, women’s rights and separation of church and state.
Following Grant’s election were a series of administrative appointments far exceeding any other of that time. The first appointment was that of Simon Wolf an impoverished immigrant who worked his way towards becoming an influential lawyer in governmental circles. Grant appointed him Recorder of Deeds immediately after he assumed the presidency. Most importantly within that position Grant provided him more personal access to his attention than anyone outside his cabinet. Moreover Grant’s first choice for the cabinet post of Secretary of the Treasury was Joseph Seligman a prominent Jewish banker who declined the position at the insistence of his brothers wanting him to remain within the family business. Grant amazingly appointed 50 Jews to various positions. Further his action with regard to Russian policies against Jews is another confirmation of his actions sympathetic to Jews when B’nai Brith at that time was protesting the action. In 1869 a Tsarist edict in the wake of the Crimean war Russia’s borders were greatly extended and required that tens of thousands of Jews be evicted. B’nai Brith then under the leadership of Simon Wolf drew up a document opposing this catastrophe. Grant responded despite the risk of upsetting favorable relations with Russia (arising of the Alaskan purchase) with the bold move of contacting Russia stating he would take “ pleasure in being the medium to revoke the ukase” These actions received wide publicity leading the Russians to finally revoke the expulsion order.
This resulted in a wide publicized acclaim and promoted an exceedingly positive image of Grant as a force in achieving equal rights for people around the world. Additionally this was reinforced even further by Grants reaction to mistreatment of Jews in Romania. News of atrocities committed against Jews in Romania reached the press in the late 1860’s. Grant responded by the appointment of a Jew Benjamin Franklin Peixotto to the consulship in Bucharest. Peixotto then approached Grant and implored him to support the rights of the Romanian Jews. Grant then in an introductory letter to Peixoto confirmed this mission in words that Peixotto himself could have spoken. This was given extensive press coverage and ultimately served as a precedent for America standing up for human rights violations throughout the world and persists to this very day.
Grant re-election in 1872 disclosed the extent to which he won over the Jews in the contest against Horace Greeley. In Greeley’s resounding defeat even southern democratic Jews supported Grant.
Significantly the character of Balaam within the Torah provides an illuminating comparison with Grant’s conduct. Balaam at one point turns towards a universal God and the righteous path of the Israelites in blessing them. However he ultimately backslided and travelled a path designed for their annihilation upon returning to his people. In contrast Grant acted from a perspective consistent with supporting Jewish survival. Moreover he remained in contact with the Jews immersing himself in the Jewish community.
When we look at repentance from a Jewish perspective we may see how Grant fits the pattern required. The notion of Teshuvah according to the rabbis contains several stages. The first is recognition and remorse of the sin. This is followed by action showing an inclination to reverse behavior. All of these stages are exhibited in Grant’s behavior described.
Grant ultimately demonstrated his close ties to the Jewish community through a journey he made to Jerusalem shortly before his death. He simultaneously reinforced his ties to the Jewish community while ` in opposition proving successful and known as the Chickering Hall meeting. When Grant died not long after the mourning response at his funeral by Jews was immense. He passed away on Sabbath Nahamu the Sabbath of Consolation.
The transformation from the Grant of General Order No. 11 to the Grant as protector of the Jews was staggering. But it was a transformation resulting from Grant’s own choosing. As Rabbi Nachman Breslow poignantly expressed it “If you are not going to be any better tomorrow than you are today, then what need have you for tomorrow?” Grant’s vision and actions of a better tomorrow fulfilled this need as well as offering one of inspiring measure to which humans are capable of spiritual growth.Howard Zik