There’s a trick question every Republican conventioneer should be prepared for this week: Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?
The answer is nobody. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia aren’t buried there at all. They’re entombed. Get it?
Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly a rip-roaring, knee-slapper of a joke. But it’s an indelible part of American humor–and one that calls attention to a great Republican memorial in Manhattan, the home of the 2004 GOP convention.
Grant’s Tomb used to be one of New York City’s top tourist destinations, with its 150-foot granite dome and scenic view of the Hudson River. Hordes of people came by to see its matching ten-ton sarcophagi and gawk at a structure that is said to be the largest mausoleum in North America (according to Brian Lamb’s book Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites).
Then Grant’s Tomb succumbed to years of neglect, as so many cultural monuments do. Graffiti marred its walls. Water leaked from its roof. The site was blighted. In 1964, more than 323,000 people visited the grave. By 1993, that number had shrunk to about 37,000.
Grant’s descendants began to complain. They talked about moving the remains. Congressman Henry Hyde proposed Galena, Ill. The notion seemed only half crazy–and Galena, where Grant once lived, was one of the three places where the general and president had suggested he be laid to rest. The others were New York and St. Louis; apparently Grant, bless his soul, made the list because he was determined not to be buried in Washington, D.C. (Trivia question: Are any presidents buried in Washington? Answer: Nope, though Woodrow Wilson is entombed there, at the National Cathedral.)
Following a facelift costing nearly $2 million, Grant’s Tomb is in much better shape today than it was just a few years ago. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly presentable. No more does anybody talk about moving the General Grant National Memorial, as the Park Service calls it, from its current location at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive.
Whereas just about every American has a stake in Grant’s military legacy–he’s the general who finally won the Civil War for Lincoln–conservatives have a particular interest in Grant’s presidential reputation. He was a Republican, but that’s only a small piece of it. More to the point, he didn’t view the federal government’s role chiefly as one of economic redistribution. And for this sin, Grant has earned the ire of mainstream academics.
Let us not insist that Grant was a great president. But he was a solidly good one, whose hard-money policies fought inflation and who kept the peace with foreign powers. Despite these accomplishments, historians who enjoy ranking presidents in their version of the college football coaches’ poll usually place him near the bottom. When Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. polled mainly liberal professors, Grant finished ahead of only three of his peers (Harding, Hoover, and Nixon). Even the more balanced survey sponsored by the Wall Street Journal ranked Grant low, at 32–two spots below Jimmy Carter and one ahead of Richard Nixon. (A companion volume, Presidential Leadership, includes a pro-Grant essay by Michael Barone. Also, for a roundup of several presidential rankings, go here.)
Several factors explain Grant’s sorry reputation as president. First, some claim he didn’t do enough to help blacks in the South secure their rights in the 1870s–but this is grossly unfair, because Grant was hobbled by a Congress and a public that didn’t want to go as far as he did. Furthermore, Grant’s administration may have been corrupt, but the corruption was not categorically worse than what has been found in several other administrations and it did not reach to the top of the organizational chart.
Grant’s most substantial legacy problem, however, is that he never won a constituency among intellectuals. People who read about Grant inevitably run into snide remarks about his intelligence, including the obligatory observation that he finished in the bottom half of his class at West Point. (Two details you rarely hear: First, something like half of his classmates didn’t even graduate, and these failures aren’t counted in the class rankings. Second, Grant earned pretty good grades in math, which were offset by lousy ones in French. I find it hard to get worked up about that.) There is also plenty of carping about how Grant hadn’t made much of himself before the Civil War, how he drank too much during the conflict, and how he sent too many young northerners to their doom. (Distant echoes of what we hear about President Bush?)
More important, however, are the politics that underlie Grant’s dismissal. We often read a quip from Henry Adams: “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin.” We less often encounter what may be the source of Adams’s gripe: He and his friends didn’t benefit from the political patronage they expected to receive from the Grant administration. Here’s what Adams wrote in an 1869 letter, when President Grant had been on the job for less than a year: “My hopes of the new administration have all been disappointed; it is far inferior to the last. My friends have almost all lost ground instead of gaining it as I hoped.”
Throughout much of the 20th century, Southern historians have hated Grant for being on the wrong side during the Civil War and then trying to help blacks during Reconstruction. Progressive historians, in their endless attempts to justify big government in general and the New Deal in particular, have loathed Grant for refusing to participate in the onward march toward their vision of social justice.
Indeed, Grant’s reputation among the historians has looked pretty bad–similar to that long-neglected memorial of his in Manhattan.
The good news is that like the memorial, Grant is experiencing a bit of a revival. Barone is a persuasive apologist for Grant’s presidency. Several full-length books also have come to his rescue in recent years. Foremost among them is President Grant Reconsidered, by Frank Scaturro (who is affiliated with the Grant Monument Association). Others include Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and Ulysses S. Grant, by Geoffrey Perret. Perhaps Grant’s most prominent defender of late has been Bill Clinton. Six years ago, Clinton said he had read the Perret volume and concluded that Grant “got a bum rap.” (Of course, Clinton has an interest in suggesting presidents accused of corruption haven’t received fair treatment–but that shouldn’t color our views of Grant himself.)
There won’t be any special events at the memorial this week, when New York City’s GOP population surges. When I called to find out why, a park ranger said that security concerns have spread their resources too thin. Guys are pulling double shifts just to make sure the memorial can stay open. Indeed, Grant’s Tomb will keep its normal hours of 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Republicans with a free hour can just come by and pay their respects to a worthy predecessor. Perhaps that’s enough.