In the ratings game of U.S. presidents, Ulysses S. Grant, who was inaugurated as the 18th president 150 years ago, usually ends up in the bottom tier. C-SPAN’s presidential poll in 2000 placed Grant at 33rd — mercifully ahead of Andrew Johnson (at 40), but only one notch ahead of Herbert Hoover (34) and lagging well behind James Knox Polk (12). An American Political Science Association survey last year promoted him to 21st. But that still lodges Grant behind James Monroe, William McKinley, and the Mexican War–mongering Polk.
And this despite the fact that Grant was the Union general who finally brought the Confederate armies of the Civil War to their knees and the president who suppressed the menace of the Ku Klux Klan, won reparations from Britain for damages caused by Confederate raiders built in England (setting international precedent on neutrality laws), and reduced both taxes and the national debt after the war. None of this budges today’s popular image of Grant as a blunt and unimaginative killer-general, an alcoholic, a political incompetent, and the presiding spirit of an administration riddled through and through with corruption. According to Richard White’s dreadful 2017 tome The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896, Grant’s “financial and economic policies, the spoils system with its associated corruption, and his foreign policy . . . all contributed to a rich stew of disappointment and alienation.”
Grant was held in much higher esteem the day he took the presidential oath in March 1869. “That General Grant is peculiarly fitted to choose and direct matters of statesmanship, as he does matters [of] war, is every day proved more and more,” rejoiced a Washington newspaper, adding: “His head is as clear as his heart is pure. His judgment is as calm as his will is firm.” He would need every ounce of that judgment, too, because in the four years that had passed since Grant brought the Civil War to its practical end, the opportunities for the “just and lasting peace” Abraham Lincoln had hoped for were rapidly evaporating.
Lincoln was assassinated five days after the Confederate surrender and took to his grave whatever plans he had for Reconstruction. His successor, Andrew Johnson, showed interest only in extorting public repentance from the Confederate leadership and none whatsoever in the fate of the more than 3 million African-American slaves the war had liberated. Southern grandees returned themselves to power in the rebel states, reduced the freed slaves to near serfdom through a series of infamous “black codes,” and allowed the sprouting of paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to make, in the words of historian Hans Trefousse, “murder and intimidation . . . the order of the day” in the former Confederacy.
This set off political war between Johnson and a Congress still dominated by Lincoln’s Republicans, a war Johnson lost. But while the political fury raged in Washington, the nation’s interest in the fate of the freed slaves wandered. State elections in 1867 cost Republicans dearly in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; and state constitutional amendments to permit black voting failed in Ohio (by 39,000 votes), Kansas (by 8,000 votes), and Minnesota (by 1,298 votes). “Our defeat here is owing simply and purely to the question affecting our Sable brother,” wrote an anxious M. Russell Thayer, a Republican who had represented Pennsylvania’s fifth congressional district. Only Grant “can save the Republican party,” Thayer said. No wonder Grant was nominated virtually by acclamation at the Republican national convention in May 1868. And as the convention delegates had hoped, he overwhelmed the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, in November by 3 million votes.
However, the question soon became whether Grant could save himself from his fellow Republicans. Grant was an Ohioan and had spent virtually all his life in places other than Washington. He was, in fact, only the second president (after Zachary Taylor) never to have previously held an elected office, and his outsider status almost at once began to grate on long-term Washington insiders. Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, resented Grant’s quick accession to the presidency. He simply could not credit the idea that his father, Charles Francis Adams, had been passed over for the Republican nomination and the presidency. Grant was “inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, and awed by money,” Adams snarled. He should have “lived in a cave and worn skins.” Grant, sniffed former Navy secretary Gideon Welles, was “a pitiable object, wholly unfit for his position.” But he enraged no one more vehemently than Charles Sumner, the toplofty senator from Massachusetts, who fully expected to become Grant’s wise guide and director as secretary of state.
Grant had no intention of taking direction from anyone. He nominated his old Army chief of staff John Rawlins as secretary of war; the New York City merchant Alexander T. Stewart as secretary of the Treasury; Massachusetts supreme-court justice Ebenezer Hoar as attorney general; and his longtime congressional ally Elihu Washburne as secretary of state (to the chagrin of Sumner). (Curiously, Washburne wanted the job to be temporary — he was intent on becoming the American minister to France and thought the prior State Department appointment would increase his prestige in dealing with the French.)
The impact on insider Washington could hardly have been worse. One newspaper editor misspelled the name of Grant’s nominee for secretary of the Navy, Adolph E. Borie, as Bovie and then burst out, “The Honorable Adolph E. Bovie, Secretary of the Navy, is — is — well, who in hell is Bovie, anyway?” Sumner was beside himself. “To the dishonor of the civil service, and in total disregard of precedent,” Sumner complained, “the Executive Mansion . . . at once assumed the character of a military headquarters.” Longtime officeholders were dismissed, complained Henry Adams, and “the discarded servants of the Republic” were left to “be ground to death under the wheels of this slow-moving idol.”
Obstructing Grant soon became as important an object to Sumner as reconstructing the Confederacy, with the principal weapon being the congressional investigation. “The whole country must understand,” wrote a gleeful Maryland Democrat, “that the chief duty of the next Congress will be investigation” (emphasis in the original). Using the investigative power of congressional committees to embarrass the executive branch was nothing new in Washington. The Covode Committee had come within an ace of impeaching James Buchanan in 1860, and the famous Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was able to prod, intimidate, and (in one case) imprison a Union general it suspected of lacking fervor. It became routine for committees sympathetic to Sumner to open inquiries into “the President, the Secretary of the Treasury, or any officer of the Government” for malfeasance or corruption.
They did not find much. Of the 25 cabinet appointments Grant made over the eight years of his administration, only one — William Belknap, as secretary of war — was ever shown to have had a hand in the till. Investigations and charges against William Adams Richardson as secretary of the Treasury, George Robeson as secretary of the Navy, Columbus Delano as secretary of the interior, and Ely S. Parker (Grant’s military secretary at Appomattox) as commissioner for Indian affairs never resulted in a single indictment. But they provided enough public embarrassment that Grant was forced, reluctantly, to replace them.
In frustration, the old-line Republican leadership — Charles Francis Adams, Lyman Trumbull, Salmon Chase — mounted a dump-Grant insurgency for the 1872 presidential campaign, with the famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley as their candidate. Known as the “Liberal Republicans,” they had misjudged the political climate completely. Grant won reelection in a landslide, with 55.6 percent of the popular vote.
Votes count only once. Literary venom of Sumner’s and Henry Adams’s sort has had far longer innings and weighed far more heavily in defining Grant’s presidency as an unrelieved stumble from scandal to scandal.
None of these distractions prevented Grant from pushing hard to complete Reconstruction. Congress had reconstituted the rebel states under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and Grant’s chief responsibility was to secure the Republican regimes elected under those acts. Over the course of his two terms, he intervened in contested elections in Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas and used federal troops to restore order three times in Louisiana. In South Carolina, he used Congress’s adoption of the Force Acts to suspend habeas corpus and drive the Ku Klux Klan into oblivion. (The Klan came back later, largely because of the notoriety it received from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, but it was a very different Klan at that point.)
In his first inaugural address, Grant championed the adoption of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights to all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And he repeatedly denounced race bigotry as the root cause of resistance to Reconstruction. “The present difficulty in bringing all parts of the United States to a happy unity and love of country grows out of the prejudice to color. The prejudice is a senseless one, but it exists.” The war had freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment had made the freedman a citizen, but “he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected.” The best correction was to remove barriers to public accommodations: “Give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.”
That it took another 80 years to bring this aspiration to legal fruition is a measure of how long the odds were against Grant’s success. And his critics were not entirely wrong when they complained, as Henry Adams did, that “Grant appeared as an intermittent energy, immensely powerful when awake” but at other times “torpid.” Grant did not so much initiate policies as react to crises, and he never developed a comprehensive and aggressive plan for Reconstruction. Even so, Grant was certainly the foremost presidential advocate of black civil rights before Lyndon Johnson.
The usual trend of presidential reputations over time is downward. Grant is one of the few (along with Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Theodore Roosevelt) whose ratings have risen. When we consider that his principal offense was not in his ideas or policies but largely in cold-shouldering official Washington, we should wonder whether it’s right to let those insider opinions place a thumb on history’s scales.