Sunday, January 23rd | 21 Shevat 5782

September 23, 2020 6:20 am

The 1868 Presidential Election and the Jews

avatar by Harold Brackman


Late former US President Ulysses S. Grant. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Today, over two-thirds of Jewish voters are Democrats who favor Joe Biden. But there is a split between Jewish Republicans who are “Forever Trumpers” — lauding his economic policies, judicial appointments and strong support for Israel — and “Never Trumpers” who consider him a demagogue who cannot be relied on to protect American Jews from antisemitic white supremacists like the marchers in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

In 1868, most Jews were grateful to Lincoln’s Republican Party for saving the Union from the pro-slavery Confederacy. But General Ulysses S. Grant was still hated by many Jews who remembered his 1862 General Orders No. 11, expelling Jews “as a class” from certain territories, allegedly for involvement in the illegal cotton trade with the rebel South.

Were Grant’s motivations for issuing the edict military necessity — or religious prejudice? Jonathan Sarna speculates that Grant acted for antisemitic reasons little-known then or now. But there is no conclusive proof, and most of his supporters (including Jews) denied the charge—whether or not sincerely.

The result of Grant’s long silence about his reasons for issuing the order was a torrent of criticism heaped on him as “a new Haman” and enemy of the Jewish people. As the 1868 campaign approached, powerful Jewish Democrats like August Belmont excoriated Grant. Yet equally partisan Jewish Republicans like Louis B. Dembitz, a Louisville native who had known Lincoln, vouched for Grant as a friend of “American liberty and religious toleration.” So did politically-ambitious Simon Wolf, who declared that Grant “never harmed anyone” by the unfortunate orders he later regretted.

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The Seligman brothers were German Jewish immigrants who became good friends of Grant during the Civil War, when they had manufactured uniforms for the Union Army. Henry Seligman sat behind Grant at his 1869 inauguration.

During the 1868 election, Jews for first time found themselves on the national political hot seat, partly because of their own unprecedented political advocacy on both sides. Some newspapers were full of breathless predictions that “400,000 or 500,000 Jewish voters” could help sway the election — but there weren’t even that many Jews in the US. Exactly how Jews voted in 1868 is impossible to know with certainty. It is doubtful that their votes were decisive anywhere.

In office between 1869-1877, Grant proved a friend of the Jews. Simon Wolf was appointed Recorder of Deeds for Washington, DC. His first hire was an African-American; later, Wolf was succeeded by African-American Frederick Douglass. Abroad, when czarist Russia threatened to expel Jews from Bessarabia for “smuggling,” Grant acted quickly to protest.

Most Jews probably voted Republican in national elections until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s caused them to reconsider.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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