Jeff Jacoby
In the American experience, anti-Semitic decrees have been virtually unthinkable. Religious liberty is enshrined in the Constitution, and early in his presidency George Washington went out of his way to assure the young nation's Jews that "the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." During the long centuries of Jewish exile, powerful officials had often promulgated sweeping edicts depriving Jews of their rights or driving them from their homes. In America, that could never happen.

But 150 years ago this month, it did.

In December 1862, with the Civil War raging, the Union Army's efforts to control the movement of Southern cotton was bedeviled by illegal speculation and black marketeers. Like many of his contemporaries, Major General Ulysses S. Grant – then commanding a vast geographic swath called the Department of the Tennessee – shared a crude stereotype of all Jews as avaricious, corner-cutting swindlers. That ugly prejudice boiled over in General Orders No. 11, the most infamous anti-Semitic injunction 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 this department within 24 hours from the receipt of this order."

The region commanded by Grant was home to several thousand Jews (including men in uniform serving under him). Fortunately, General Orders No. 11 had little direct impact on most of them. Jews were driven out of Paducah, Ky., and some towns in Mississippi and Tennessee, and there were accounts of Jewish travelers being imprisoned and roughed up. But a breakdown in military communications slowed the spread of Grant's directive, and at least some officers had qualms about enforcing it. Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan, the Union commander of Jackson, Tenn., commented tartly that "he thought he was an officer of the Army and not of a church."

What stopped the expulsion order cold, however, was the commander-in-chief. When word of Grant's edict reached President Lincoln on January 3, 1863, he immediately countermanded it. "To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad," the president declared. "I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners."

End of the story? In some ways it was just the beginning.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.


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