The Two Presidents Who Examined Their Evil Deeds and Turned Away from Them

October 6, 2022 | Jeff Jacoby
About the author: Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

The focus of Yom Kippur, the weeks leading up to it, and the upcoming holiday of Hoshanah Rabbah is t’shuvah—meaning repentance, or, more literally, return. As Moses Maimonides taught, t’shuvah requires regretting one’s misdeeds, begging for forgiveness, resolving not to repeat those deeds, and then, finally, not repeating them. Jeff Jacoby examines the story of two presidents who, rather than engage in stage-managed damage control, actually did t’shuvah in their public lives. The first, Ulysses S. Grant, issued an order expelling the Jews from Tennessee during the Civil War—an act of anti-Semitism almost without parallel in U.S. history. But by the time Grant became president in 1869 he deeply regretted what his wife called “that obnoxious order.”

Grant was ashamed of what he had done in Tennessee. . . . He had come to regard his order as a blot on his reputation and was determined to make amends. As a result, the eight years of the Grant administration proved a golden age for American Jewry.

During his time in the White House, Grant appointed more Jews to federal office than any of his predecessors—including to positions, such as governor of the Washington Territory, previously considered too lofty to be offered to a Jew. He opposed efforts to add an amendment to the Constitution designating Jesus as “the Ruler among the nations.” He became the first president publicly to condemn the mistreatment of Jews abroad. “The sufferings of the Hebrews of Rumania profoundly touches every sensibility of our nature,” Grant said in 1870—a sensibility he underscored by the unprecedented selection of a Jewish consul general to Bucharest.

This was repentance of the highest order—not merely a pro-forma apology, but a heartfelt change of attitude and behavior that lasted a lifetime.

The other was Vice-President Chester A. Arthur, who had spent his career benefitting from and upholding the system of patronage and corruption that characterized much politics of his day. But his change of heart came when then-President James Garfield was assassinated by an opponent of Garfield’s anti-corruption stance:

Garfield’s death made Arthur president, but he took no joy in his accession to the highest office in the land. The knowledge that a good man had been murdered so that he could take his place and preserve the corrupt patronage system haunted him—and changed him.

Arthur turned firmly against the spoils system he had always championed. In a formal message to Congress, he explicitly recommended an overhaul of federal hiring practices. . . . He appointed qualified members to the new Civil Service Commission, and firmly enforced the commission’s new rules. This was atonement of extraordinary purity.

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