Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

Since today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, it is time to revisit a little known episode of the Civil War, which is recounted in this fairly obscure book published in 1909.

As summarized by the Federation of American Scientists website:
In a remarkable episode from the Civil War that is not as widely known as it might be, General Ulysses S. Grant issued Order No. 11 on December 17, 1862 expelling all Jews from those portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi where his forces had taken the field.
The book gives details:

General Grant's Order No. Eleven.

The edict of General Grant, known as Order No. 11, excluding the Jews, as a class, from within the lines of his army, naturally aroused a storm of indignation. Grant's first manifesto appeared at Lagrange, Tenn., on November 9, 1862, in the form of instructions to Gen. Hurlbut to refuse all permits to come south of Jackson, Tenn., adding " the Israelites especially should be kept out." He next issued orders to Gen. Webster, referring to the Jews as " an intolerable nuisance." He also reported to the War Department that " the Jews roam through the country contrary to the government regulations." Finally on December 17 he issued a general order expelling all Jews as a class " from his Department within 24 hours."
Back to the summary:

Equally remarkable, President Lincoln did not say he would “stand by” his generals or that “we must give the military the tools it needs” to accomplish its mission. Instead, he rescinded the Order.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln repeatedly suspended habeas corpus and authorized other serious infringements on civil liberties. But there are some things that are not done in America, it appears, even when the survival of the nation is at stake. This was one of them.

General Grant’s action was not entirely irrational and prejudice-driven. An estimated 25,000 of the nation’s 150,000 Jews lived in the South and were loyal to the Confederacy, according to a 2005 Library of Congress exhibition. And some Jewish merchants would “roam through the country contrary to government regulations,” Grant complained.

“The President has no objection to your expelling traitors and Jew peddlers which I suppose was the object of your order,” wrote Gen. Henry Halleck to Gen. Grant, somewhat inelegantly. “But as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deems it necessary to revoke it.”

The story received only cursory, two-sentence treatment in the preeminent Lincoln biography (“Lincoln”) by David Herbert Donald, which mistakenly attributed Halleck’s “Jew peddler” phrase to Grant (p. 409).

And Grant himself did not mention Order No. 11 in his Memoirs. He deliberately omitted it, his son explained in a 1907 letter, because “that was a matter long past and best not referred to.”

To the contrary, however, this principled exercise of restraint by the President in time of war seems well worth remembering and pondering today.

That is what makes a great President.

The book, called Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, also details Lincoln's relationship with his Jewish friends.