‘Presidents’ Day” is an artificial holiday, existing mainly to dilute the separate holidays honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But we may as well use the occasion to reconsider our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant.
If history is just current events plus time, then biased and unfair history is bad journalism plus time. Both as a general and as president, Grant spent a lot of time on the receiving end of bad journalism and, later, bad history. Grant’s place in U.S. history would be secure if we looked only at his Civil War record. But for much of the 20th century, Grant was found near the bottom of historical rankings of presidents and maligned in schoolbooks for corruption, assessments that often said more about Grant’s critics than about Grant. As we reevaluate him today with a fairer perspective, we should see Grant as, on balance, a good president. He wrestled earnestly with intractable problems and made some lasting contributions. But he falls short of the greats: Too many of his major accomplishments failed to endure after he left office, and his blind spots were too glaring.
The Popular Hero
Grant’s presidency has long been treated as an embarrassing sequel to the Civil War. That’s an odd fate for one of the nation’s most popular presidents in his lifetime. Grant won two decisive victories in exceptionally high-turnout national elections, was the only man to serve two full terms in the 76 years between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, and handed off the presidency to one fellow Ohio Republican, then another. When you combine the popular vote with Professor Michael McDonald’s historical approximations of the turnout rate of eligible voters, Grant in 1868 won 42.6 percent of all eligible voters, the highest proportion in U.S. history; his 1872 reelection ranked sixth:
Grant was still well regarded enough four years after leaving office to narrowly miss nomination for an unprecedented third term in 1880, an election that Grant helped James Garfield win by stumping tirelessly for the Republican nominee. He was respected enough internationally after his presidency to be given a grand reception around the globe by many of the luminaries of the age: Queen Victoria, Bismarck, the Pope, the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Japan. His illness and death in 1885 led to an outpouring of national grief across sectional and racial lines, and massive sales of his memoirs. While much of that popularity was owed to Grant’s status as hero of the Union cause and magnanimous peacemaker at Appomattox, it is hard to square with the image of a disastrous president.
Rethinking Grant’s presidency has been going on for a while now in the academy. Three bestselling historians have published lively and sympathetic Grant biographies in the past decade: H. W. Brands in 2012, and Ron Chernow and Ronald White in 2017. It is worth considering how Grant’s presidential reputation sank so low in the first place.
President Grant’s Detractors
Some of Grant’s bad reputation derives from the pure laziness of repeating the conventional wisdom handed down from his contemporary critics. In Grant’s case, there’s plenty of that to work with: It’s far less work to rehash the Grant administration’s many corruption scandals than to look rigorously at its policy record. Historians going out of their way to trash Grant’s reputation, however, tended to be driven by four main motives.
One was southern hostility to Reconstruction, which Grant vigorously supported during his presidency as well as in his preceding four years as the general of the Army under Andrew Johnson. Historians seeking to discredit Reconstruction charge it with federal overreach and oppression of white southerners through an alliance of vengeance-minded Radical Republicans, greedy carpetbaggers, and ignorant black freedmen. This narrative, however, would not have stuck if Americans identified Reconstruction with a vigorous and heroic chief executive, and nobody would have believed that Grant was malicious or tyrannical. Along with a parallel campaign to portray Grant as a plodding general who won the war only through the advantages of men and materials, therefore, it was necessary to paint him as a weak president giving free rein to the worst instincts of others.
Second, besides Reconstruction, the other main theme of Grant’s presidency was the dawn of Gilded Age capitalism as America transitioned rapidly into an industrial nation. Historians of a left-wing economic bent tended to paint Grant’s entire era (including Reconstruction) as a riot of plutocracy.
Third, Grant was looked down on, in life and thereafter, by intellectuals from the Northeast. Grant was a humble, plainspoken Middle American with ordinary tastes and little pretension. His mental gifts were precisely the sort that tend to be underrated by intellectuals, wrapped in precisely the kind of blunt, terse man-of-action persona that can leave these gifts unappreciated. As with Eisenhower and some other Republican presidents, these factors combined to make Grant an irresistible target for the gibes of the Eastern highbrow set, even though expert military historians held him in high regard, and his memoirs enjoyed a reputation as a classic of the form.
Fourth, Grant’s reputation suffered from simple Democratic partisanship. His heirs in the Ohio Republican party, many of them still carrying on much of Grant’s basic ideology and personal style, dominated the national Republican party from the 1870s to the 1950s: Hayes, Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding, Robert Taft. Meanwhile, the Democratic party — especially in the years from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt — drew together an overlapping coalition that included recalcitrant southerners, economic leftists, and northeastern intellectuals. The combination of those groups as common critics of Grant and common foes of his political descendants helped calcify the stereotypes about the Grant presidency until the late 20th century. Only the breakup of that coalition, and the growing scholarly focus on African-American civil rights, brought about a second look at Grant’s presidency.
The Grant Record
Reconstruction: The predominant issue of Grant’s presidency was what to do about the eleven states that had seceded from the Union and fought it for four grueling years of war, and what to do about the 4 million slaves (most of them located in those states) that had been freed by that war.
It’s fashionable today to treat Reconstruction solely as an abject moral failure. In fact, it had many successes as well as failures. Grant was a big part of that.
Reconstruction’s enduring successes were so successful, in fact, that we barely even consider what failure would have looked like. The Confederate armies were disbanded and never reconstituted. Secession as an idea and a cause was permanently defeated; even the “Lost Cause” mythology accepted as fact that the cause was lost and that the South’s future was inside the Union. No guerilla bands roamed the countryside to contest the return of the Union and the fact of federal authority. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; no movement ever again contended for its return. The South resumed its place in the national economy.
Southern states began reentering the Union as full members of the political order, starting with Tennessee in July 1866. Seven of the Confederate states had been readmitted by the election of 1868, and the last four (Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas) were readmitted during Grant’s first term. The only changes to their status were Virginia’s permanent loss of West Virginia, and the ability to count each of their inhabitants as a whole person with the end of slavery — a change that increased the South’s political power. Former Confederates not only had their civil rights restored; they also served in the U.S. Senate, in the cabinet, and on the Supreme Court. The Confederate veterans who marched in Grant’s Manhattan funeral procession, and the Confederate generals he counted as friends, symbolized the rebels’ acceptance of a reconstituted Union. For white southerners, the only real failure of Reconstruction was the slow pace of economic recovery: It would take many decades just to catch back up to where the region was in 1860, and an industrialized “New South” would not emerge until after the Second World War. These were remarkable things; the history of civil wars around the globe provides many grim counterexamples.
Despite Reconstruction’s successes in destroying slavery and secession and burying the hatchet between white northerners and white southerners, however, its failures — some on or before Grant’s watch, many more starting as soon as he left office — have haunted us ever since. Like Lincoln, Grant wanted to pursue a Reconstruction policy that would be both magnanimous toward white southerners and supportive and protective of freed slaves. But he ran rapidly into the hard reality that white southern society, as a whole, was hostile to giving African Americans any rights beyond the barest recognition of the end of slavery.
Rather than stage a futile guerrilla war on federal authority as a whole, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan initiated a campaign of terrorism targeted at freed blacks and their rights. It was a shrewd effort to drive a wedge between northern whites and southern blacks by giving white northerners what they had bled for (the Union) while testing the limits of their willingness to permanently occupy the South to protect a minority of the population that wasn’t treated as the white man’s equal even in the North. In the long run, the resistance gambled correctly: The northern public eventually gave up.
For the eight years of Grant’s presidency, however, the Klan and its ilk met the one man in America with both the moral and political authority to fight them tooth and nail. Despite bending over backwards to respect the separation of state and federal spheres of authority, and even after losing the House in his second midterm election in 1874, Grant never stopped trying to protect black southerners — and specifically their right to vote.
Grant supported and oversaw the ratification of the 15th Amendment, pushed through new civil rights and anti-Klan legislation, marshalled military force to put down threats to the freedmen, and presided over more than a thousand federal prosecutions that decimated the Klan. One of the enduring legacies of Grant’s presidency was the creation of the Department of Justice, founded to carry out the breaking of the Klan. While the Supreme Court eviscerated some of the Grant-era civil-rights acts, he left behind both a constitutional guarantee of the ballot and the federal machinery to protect it, to await the return of federal will to act.
While the full architecture of Jim Crow laws would take years to set in, the dramatic shift in the South from the Grant years to their aftermath is clear when we look at the voting trends in presidential elections in three of the biggest flashpoint states: Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Mississippi and South Carolina were both majority-black states after emancipation, and all three states had large Republican electorates in 1868–76, consisting largely of freed slaves. Grant carried all three by large margins in 1872. Within a generation, the elimination of Republican voters in those states — at the time, a good proxy for black voters — was so dramatic that it shrank their electorates as a whole:
The tragedy of the Grant presidency was that so many of the things Grant did as protector of African-American civil rights in the old Confederacy were abandoned by his successors. Yet it is the strength of the resistance facing Grant that commands our respect for what he was able to do while in office.
In Part Two: Grant’s record on foreign policy, the economy, corruption, Native Americans, and religious liberty
Something to Consider
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