Jeff Jacoby

As historian Jonathan Sarna relates in a recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews , Grant's order did his military career no harm. Within a few years he was commander of all Union armies and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox made him a national hero. He was elected president in 1868, and re-elected four years later.

Yet for the rest of his life, Grant was ashamed of having attempted to evict "Jews as a class" for offenses most of them had never committed. "What his wife, Julia, called 'that obnoxious order' continued to haunt Grant up to his death," Sarna writes. "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. He apologized for the order publicly and repented of it privately."

Not surprisingly, Grant's order got a good deal of attention in the 1868 presidential campaign – the first time a "Jewish issue" played a role in presidential politics. Grant didn't deny that General Orders No. 11 had grossly violated core American values. "I do not sustain that order," he wrote humbly. "It would never have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection."

But it was as president that the full extent of Grant's regret became clear. He opposed a movement to make the United States an explicitly Christian state through a constitutional amendment designating Jesus as "Ruler among the nations." He named more Jews to government office than any of his predecessors – including to positions, such as governor of the Washington Territory, previously considered too lofty for a Jewish nominee.

Grant became the first American president to openly speak out against the persecution of Jews abroad. In response to anti-Jewish pogroms in Romania, he took the unprecedented step of sending a Jewish consul-general to Bucharest to "work for the benefit of the people who are laboring under severe oppression." All in all, the eight years of Grant's presidency proved to be a "golden age" in US Jewish history. When he died in 1885, he was mourned in synagogues nationwide.

It was a remarkable saga of atonement. From scourge of the Jews to their great friend in Washington; from the general who trampled Jewish liberty to the president who made protection of their rights a priority. Only in America.

Jeff Jacoby

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