Of the myriad problems besetting Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, what to do about government anti-Semitism was not high on his list. But it confronted him nevertheless, this week (Dec. 17) in 1862 when Union General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, expelling Jews from trading with the Union Army. It was the first official act of governmental discrimination against Jews as a race in American history, although, individually, Jews had suffered constant discrimination.
Grant was neither more nor less anti-Semitic than most, which is to say that he thought Jews were stereotypically greedy Shylocks who preyed on, and profited from, the inability of the government to adequately supply the Union army with food, medicine and clothing. Certainly both the Union and Confederate armies had their share of peddlers, profiteers and hangers-on, all looking to make a buck off the plight of the regular soldier. In fact, the problem was so bad in the Confederate army, which had far fewer resources, military and otherwise, than the Union Army, that most Confederate officers tolerated these traders because they helped save their armies from starvation.
Adding insult to injury, most of these traders were not Jewish at all. Grant merely assumed that because they were traders who attached themselves to his army, they had to be Jewish — and, being Jews, were undoubtedly charging extortionist prices for their goods. Thus his Order stated, “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, are hereby expelled (from trading) within twenty-four hours from receipt of this order.”
Stunned by this unprecedented official act of discrimination, Jewish leaders vehemently protested to the government in Washington, prompting Lincoln to rescind Grant’s Order. Lincoln made it clear that he had no objection to expelling individual traders who were gouging Union soldiers, but since Grant’s Order targeted Jews “as members of a whole class,” it was unacceptable.
Lincoln also reminded Grant that thousands of this “class” of Americans were, at that very moment, serving in the Union army. Lincoln considered it the height of hypocrisy to discriminate against a race that was fighting to preserve a nation whose goal was to extend freedom to all citizens, regardless of race, creed, color or religion.
This said, Lincoln would repeatedly claim, in speeches, official documents, and so on, that America was “a Christian nation.” As with blacks, whom he thought should be free but not necessarily free to associate on a completely equal basis with whites, Lincoln’s attitude toward Jews was enlightened for his day, but still touched with prejudice. Lincoln was, after all, a man of his time, even if he was also the greatest man of his time.