Author Blog: Saying New Things About Old Episodes
Earlier this week, Dr. Jonathan Sarna wrote about writing his most recent book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” in Jerusalem. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
When I first announced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.
Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s “American Jewry and the Civil War” published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?
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There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of “The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.” They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the 20th century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.
It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice — smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publicly repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”
Moreover, as president, he demonstrated his respect for Jews by appointing more of them to public office than all previous presidents combined. He also lent strong support to efforts to aid Jews facing persecution in Russia and Romania. He even became the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, after he left office, the first to visit the Land of Israel. When he died, in 1885, he was mourned by Jews as a hero and compared to the greatest Jew in the world at that time, Sir Moses Montefiore of England, who died the same week as Grant did.
All of this reinforced for me the value of looking anew at old episodes. Given new sources, new questions, and a broader perspective than previous scholars had, I can now confidently report that there is lots new to say about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11.
Read my book and judge for yourselves.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” is now available.
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