There is nothing foreign in American history than the tumultuous reputation of Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant, born April 27, 1822, was the commanding general who ended the Civil War. He led the great campaigns that captured Vicksburg and Richmond, saved Chattanooga, and forced the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the main Confederate field army, and did it so well that President Abraham Lincoln apologized for not having shown him enough confidence. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs,” published after his death in 1885, are a landmark of 19th-century American prose.
Grant is perhaps an even better example than Lincoln of America’s rags-to-riches story. In 1861 he was working in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. Three years later, he was general-in-chief of the American forces. Four years later, he was elected president.
Still, Grant gets no respect. As a general he was accused of alcoholism – and he was an alcoholic, by the clinical definition of the term. As a strategist, he was denounced by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln as an insensitive “butcher”, feeding the bodies of Northern soldiers in battles that simply exhausted Southern armies. As president, he was derided as an incompetent mute. Henry Adams, the ultimate Washington insider, derided Grant as an upstart, “inarticulate, insecure, suspicious of himself, even more suspicious of others, and intimidated by money.” Adams scolded that Grant should have “lived in a cave and wore skins”.
Granted, Grant has made his share of mistakes. He gave in to demands by his father, Jesse Root Grant, to ban “Jews, as a class,” from his encampments in 1862 (an order he rescinded at the behest of Lincoln and regretted as “that odious order “). He ordered a series of disastrous attacks on Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1864 that cost the Union as many as 7,500 lives. As president, he surrounded himself with old army buddies who, through sheer inexperience, didn’t swim well in the political waters of Washington. And there was no display of military flamboyance to distract from mistakes. Grant “was a man of grave and earnest purposes” (according to Army Staff James Rusling), but as one bewildered Boston attorney wrote, he “had no gait, no position, no way “.
Yet Charles Dana, a reporter and Assistant Secretary of War who was assigned by the War Department to spy on Grant’s drinking during the action, reported that no decision Grant made during the war did never betrayed the slightest trace of being under the influence. Although Grant took the offensive in every campaign he mounted during the Civil War, the armies he commanded suffered 55,000 fewer casualties than those suffered by Robert E. Lee and his legendary Army of Northern Virginia. , who fought mostly on the defensive.
Grant’s two terms as president could pose the most severe challenge to his reputation, since his presidency has acquired an embarrassing whiff of scandal. But many of those scandals turned out to be politically motivated campaigns by Grant’s opponents in Congress. As the second Republican elected to the presidency, Grant inherited a post-war reconstruction program that had gone awry under his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, and Democrats eager to thwart Grant’s policies announced after his election “that the principal duty of the next Congress will be investigation.”
Nonetheless, a series of corruption investigations by congressional Democrats have yielded no indictments. The only indisputable scandal in Grant’s cabinet involved kickbacks on federal contracts received by Secretary of War William Belknap, who resigned in disgrace. But no one has ever been able to put their finger on the president himself.
It was not so much corruption that enraged the Democratic opposition, but Grant’s reconstruction strategy. His inaugural speech endorsed the ratification of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens, including newly freed slaves from the Old Confederacy. Although Grant himself had once owned a slave (a gift from his father-in-law; Grant emancipated him in 1859), the war turned Grant’s race around. “Emancipation and equal rights must accompany emancipation,” he insisted in a statement to the National Colored Convention in 1873, and he swept away “the prejudice against color” that hampered the movement towards equal rights as “insane”. In 1871, when Ku Klux Klan violence threatened the South Carolina Reconstruction government, Grant took the unprecedented step in peacetime of suspending the writ of habeas corpus and sending in federal troops to arrest members of the clan. And in 1875, he signed the most comprehensive civil rights bill the country would see before the modern civil rights movement.
But even Grant couldn’t hold back the return of the old Southern plantation elite. Although he won re-election in 1872, a national financial panic the following year sent angry voters to the polls in 1874 and the following year put a Democratic majority in control of the House. After that, there would be no funding for reconstruction or election violence protection initiatives, because Grant simply lacked the resources to fight what he called “those annual, fall epidemics in the South.” Once Grant left the presidency, the last Reconstruction redoubts fell into the hands of white Southerners, and the Old Confederacy would soon see Jim Crow’s replacement for Reconstruction.
Along with that would come the bashing of Ulysses Grant. For early 20th century progressives, Grant symbolized the era of the robber barons. For Confederate advocates, smearing Grant’s reputation helped distract from the rapid loss of their cause at his hands. But Ulysses Grant deserves better, and if his recent rise in historians’ rankings of US presidents is any indication, the bicentennial of Grant’s birth could be the perfect occasion for that recognition.
Mr. Guelzo is Director of the James Madison Program in Politics and Statesmanship Initiative at Princeton University.
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