On June 20, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site will welcome guest speaker Jonathan D. Sarna, author of the recently published book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Grant scholars know that in December 1862, as the General in command of the Department of the Tennessee, Grant issued what is described as the “most notorious anti-Jewish order by a government official in American history.” The infamous General Orders No. 11 decreed:
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.
Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters
No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.
By order of Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant
Sarna explains the circumstances that led to General Orders No. 11, including what might have motivated Grant to issue the order, without completely exonerating him. He does an excellent job of explaining the immediate affect this order had on innocent Jews living in the territory of Grant’s department. He introduces prominent Jews who immediately appealed to President Lincoln, who subsequently revoked the order. The damage to Grant’s reputation, and the blot on his character could not so easily be revoked. For his part, Grant himself quickly realized the mistake he had made, and spent the rest of his life doing his best to make up for it. As Sarna explains, Grant knew “that in expelling ‘Jews as a class’ he had failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American” and this “was never far from his mind.”
Here we are confronted once again with the question: What is an American? In this case the question more specifically is: Must you be a Christian (even more specifically, must you be a Protestant Christian) to truly be an American? Sarna relates that in the post-Civil War years many people concluded that the war had been punishment for “the absence of any adequate recognition of the soveriegnty of God…in our Constitution.” The National Reform Association was established in 1864, having as its objective to “declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation.” They proposed a rewrite of the Preamble of the Constitution which read:
We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…
A major supporter of this amendment was Missouri Senator B. Gratz Brown, despite the fact that he was the grand-nephew and namesake of Benjamin Gratz, a prominent Jewish merchant. According to Sarna, during the years of Grant’s Presidency there was a steady push to get this amendment passed, but it failed to ever make it out of congressional committee, thanks in large part to “effective behind-the-scenes lobbying” by prominent Jews. Instead, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “greatly broadened the constitutional definition of ‘we the people,’ just as Grant and his party had hoped.”
Today, there is a continuing effort to declare the United States a Christian nation (see here). Is, or has, the United States ever been a Christian nation? To answer this question in the affirmative is to declare that thousands of people living in this country are not really Americans because they are not Christians. The consequence of this way of thinking is this: If they are not really Americans, are they entitled to the same rights and privileges? Are they equal? The Jewish Americans of Grant’s day recognized this and fought against it. They demanded that Thomas Jefferson’s “high wall of separation between church and state” be maintained. Ulysses Grant agreed. ”Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private donation,” he declared in 1875, and ”keep the church and state forever separate.”