Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington | Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum

Local History: A Presidential Visit

"President Grant, his son Ulysses, Jr., Vice President Ferry, Rev. Dr. J.P. Newman, ... and other prominent personages came in and were assigned to seats near the ark, all retaining their hats, as was observed by the congregation".
The Daily Critic, June 10, 1876
"This is the first instance in the history of American Judaism, of the President and Vice-President of the United States attending conjointly the consecration of a Synagogue, and it is worthy of record on this Centennial year of our beloved country."
The Jewish Messenger, June 16, 1876

When the city's first Jewish congregation reformed its religious practices, some
members decided to form their own congregation, Adas Israel. On June 9, 1876—just in time for the nation's centennial celebration—Adas Israel dedicated a new synagogue at the corner of 6th and G Streets, NW.

President Ulysses S. Grant came to the three-hour dedication service, becoming the first president to attend a synagogue service (President George Washington did indeed visit the Touro synagogue in Newport, RI, in 1781, but for a town meeting, rather than a service.). President Grant sat at the front of the sanctuary on a sofa rented especially for the occasion. Grant's attendance reflects the unique relationship between the Washington, D.C., Jewish community, and national leaders.

Receipt to Ulysses Grant for his donation to Adas Israel, 1876Ulysses S. Grant Papers, Library of Congress

Adas Israel sent President Grant a receipt for his $10 donation ($200 today) to the synagogue's building fund. The presence of Grant and other dignitaries lent special significance to the prayer for the country recited during the service.

Grant's attendance may also have served as an act of contrition.

In 1862, as a Civil War general, Grant had issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews "as a class" from the Department of the Tennessee, an area under his command that included parts of southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Blaming Jewish traders for the black market sale of southern cotton across Union lines, Grant gave Jewish men, women, and children 24 hours to leave. Hundreds of angry letters, many from B'nai B'rith chapters, reached President Abraham Lincoln's desk. Lincoln immediately rescinded the order.

Aftermath

 

Image of Ulysses Grant taking oath of office, 1873

As president (1869-1877), Grant worked to mend his relationship with American Jews. He protested mistreatment of Jews in Romania and Russia, and appointed Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, Grand Master of B'nai B'rith, as Consul to Bucharest, Romania.

Grant's Second Inauguration, 1873
Library of Congress

Political cartoon of Ulysses Grant

 

General Orders No. 11 dogged Grant's presidential campaigns. This cartoon shows the order's impact. It contrasts a Grant speech deploring Russian anti-Semitism wth his Civil War order. Grant's wife remembered he spoke of "that obnoxious order," but Grant never publicly apologized.

Political Cartoon, Puck Magazine, 1882
Library of Congress