American Publius: Grant Reconsidered

- February 3rd, 2018

Summing up the importance of Ulysses S. Grant is a daunting task, given his ascension to the American political scene followed the august statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln.

Review of Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 1,104 pages, $40)

Any president who followed so closely upon the heels of our martyred 16th president was destined to appear inferior.

Ron Chernow’s new biography, Grant, seeks to defend the general from his detractors. In this, he joins Ronald C. White, who also made an attempt at a popular rehabilitation with American Ulysses in 2016. The interest in our time for a reconsideration of Grant is telling and, perhaps, necessary. The academic view of so many things has come into sharp focus and the standard view of Grant for so long has been a negative one. For more than 100 years, the elite consensus about Grant has been that he was an adequate (though not great) general and a terrible president.

Soon after the war, both Grant and Lincoln were derided in academia under the Lost Cause Thesis, which romantically lauded Southern generals as stylish heroes while the Union generals (especially Grant) were criticized for being bumbling butchers. Of Grant, Woodrow Wilson said he was a simpleton who shouldn’t have been president. (Of course, the Democrat Wilson was also a segregationist who loathed Reconstruction, but this is largely forgotten as being among the reasons to be suspect of his opinions.) Historian William F. McFeely claimed that the general had no special intellectual ability. Even today, those disposed to view Grant in a more favorable light, feel compelled to issue caveats, as a recent review of Chernow’s book at the Law and Liberty website did in claiming Grant was an able general, but a failed president.

Overcoming long-received wisdom is a formidable challenge. Chernow makes an admirable but not definitive effort to defend Grant’s legacy. His book reminds us of Grant’s accomplishments and the honorable character he displayed throughout his life.

Grant was not only the most elevated general since Washington, he was also the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two full terms. Grant, moreover, was deft in his political sensibilities. He earned the affection of his countrymen and was recognized alongside Washington and Lincoln as among the most important figures of the Republic—the former being a founder, and Lincoln and Grant were its preservers. A human being is to be counted among the blessed if in his lifetime he can point to one such example of a statesman, but between 1860 and 1878, Americans had two.

If Lincoln was the thinker and oratory expounder of the idea at the bedrock of our union, Grant, at least initially, was a man who carried the burden of doing. We forget that both men were underrated, dismissed by an intellectual elite as backward and slow. We must admit that absent Grant, Lincoln would be considered a failed president. In fact, Lincoln’s delay as a result of practical and political realities in finding the right general to prosecute the war nearly cost him a successful re-election and hence the military victory that saved the Union.  

Grant married into a pro-slavery, ardently pro-Democrat family and navigated not only his overbearing, opinionated father-in-law (whom his wife adored) but also his own familial challenges. Grant’s  father always sought to capitalize on his son’s success, even to the point of being a hindrance on the war effort. Though his upbringing was decidedly pro-Union and anti-slavery, his ability to navigate family was a testament to how he could speak prudently or be silent when necessary. He honed these skills when, duty bound, he rejoined the military after years of toil and poverty in private life. It was only because,  in his words, “traitors fired on our flag” at Fort Sumter that Grant eventually accepted a position with the Illinois infantry volunteers. His ascension in rank from there was meteoric.

While Grant piled up military victories, others who were jealous of his talents and self-interested for their own advancement, sought to destroy him. Grant was an effective soldier, and continually had to cajole his superiors to take action. In the early years of the war, Lincoln was surrounded by timid and overly cautious generals who did not pursue the enemy aggressively. Except for a few occasions, wherever he turned, he found disappointment. Grant made a name for himself by being smart and aggressive. Lincoln fixed on him.

His success drew the ire of many who wanted to minimize his accomplishments or defame his character. He had to fend off continuous and myriad charges: drunkenness, sloth, undependability, unpreparedness, inattention to detail, insubordination, and of course butchery. It should come as no shock that many journalists in his day were all too happy to parrot these lies and slanders against Grant. Fake news was just as prevalent then as it is today. These charges were so numerous that even the head of the Union army, Henry W. Halleck (who harbored many jealousies of Grant), sent someone to spy on him.

Despite these allegations, one thing stood out. Grant was more often than not a winner. He was the only one who could see the entire map of the war. Wearing down and outsmarting Robert E. Lee was one of Grant’s greatest achievements as a military commander. Early on, Lincoln noticed his talents and declared that he could not spare such a man because he was willing to take the battle to an entrenched enemy. Grant was no coward and knew better than any (with the exception of maybe Sherman and Sheridan) what needed to be done to defeat the Confederacy.

A few remarks here about Grant and his consumption and alleged abuse of alcohol. The charge dogged him all his life. No one, not even Chernow, addresses why this is supposed to be so important. There were several generals, including Halleck, who drank to excess—so why is Grant’s alleged “abuse” so intriguing? Part of the attention to his alcohol consumption at the time was because of the growing influence of the temperance movement. Part of it was also that Grant was a rising figure, and so it was an attack meant to prevent him somehow from achieving further greatness.

Chernow spends too much time on this question trying to dissect which instances were real and which were not. He even ends his book on the question of Grant’s drinking as discussed by his good friend Mark Twain. This obsession detracts from the book. In the end, who cares? He was no alcoholic and it hardly affected his performance on the battlefield or in office, even if he did imbibe. One has only to look at the bar tab for the representatives to the 1787 Constitutional Convention to realize how the drinking question is blown out of proportion. Grant certainly drank at times and may personally have struggled with the temptation for part, though not all, of his life. He was no drunkard, however. We apparently care so much about this issue because his enemies carried it with some success, and that’s a shame. Perhaps there is something of prurient even in our desire to understand history.

Even before the war ended, Grant’s name was bandied about as a potential presidential candidate. He remained loyal to Lincoln, however, and focused on defeating the enemy. His good friend William Tecumseh Sherman begged him never to run, but eventually Grant allowed his name to be placed into nomination after deftly sidestepping the demagogue Andrew Johnson from pulling him into his own political machinations. Only someone intelligent and politically savvy could navigate both the war and the post-war atmosphere.

Grant always supported Lincoln’s emancipation turn. After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant bided his time and tried to salvage Reconstruction in the face of the hostile Johnson. As president, Grant was protective of former slaves, and oversaw the application of civil rights for these newly enfranchised voters—using the coercive power of the federal government when necessary. This fact makes Grant our first civil rights president. Reconstruction’s failure was not owing to Grant or to a lack of desire on his part to implement it. Reconstruction failed because Congressional Republicans lost the will to pursue protections for blacks amid the growing violence in the South. Still, Grant did everything he could in light of such opposition to protect the lives, property, and voting rights of these newly enfranchised citizens.  

Was Grant’s administration especially corrupt? Many of his appointees took bribes and engaged in other forms of self-dealing. Then again, corruption was a characteristic of the Gilded Age not limited to Grant’s  administration. In fact, government corruption was rampant before Grant became president. As president, Grant was always surprised by such betrayals of trust. Yet he never impeded any investigation and left office untainted personally by scandal.  Chernow rightly criticizes Grant for his “poor selection of cabinet officers and how he handled their downfalls.” But it’s a testament to his character that he never tried to interfere with the law even as he vehemently denied many of his friends were guilty. When it was clear they were guilty, Grant admitted the fact and was wounded by it.

As a matter of sound administration, Grant put the government on the road to pay off its debt, secured the economy on sounder footing, oversaw the education of the former slaves, slashed taxes, and turned trade to a surplus. No one could be unhappy with such deft administration.

Politics is a clarifier, not an opaque mask, to revealing the character of men. The obstacles Grant faced were in some ways more challenging than those faced by Lincoln. The 16th president had a crisis to manage and that tends to bring interests together even as the difficulty itself may seem daunting and insurmountable. Sometimes that very difficulty is the glue that makes winning more likely. Grant presided over a victory and a peace, with the exception of the proliferating domestic terror unleashed by the Ku Klux Klan. This caused the war coalition to fray with personal self-interestedness being more nakedly pursued. Grant, like Lincoln, may have had personal flaws, but also like the Great Emancipator, he shared Lincoln’s ability for circumspection.

When it comes to Grant and the eternal struggle for political justice, we suffer from a “national amnesia.” We forget that Grant faced an oppositional force in the South after the war that never laid down its arms. We ought to be grateful for his dogged determination to protect all citizens under the banner of natural rights in spite of the growing influence of progressivism.

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