Tuesday, May 29, 2018

President Ulysses S. Grant- A Second Look

       The true test of the value and importance of anything- a book, a piece of music, a work of art, even a person- is time. Often it takes years, sometimes decades to discern the many nuances of actions not apparent at first glance and this period of reflection is necessary to understand those things "unseen" originally, or hidden by the interplay of personalities and tumult of the times in which they were experienced. It is almost a certainty that the actions of statesmen and Presidents will be viewed somewhat differently 20... 50... 100 years after they leave office. If only due to the benefit of a longer term perspective- and the often lengthy gap between initial action and long term consequences- historians and biographers take a "second look" at the actions of Presidents and the secular repercussions of those actions. This is why Presidents like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower- both rated somewhat poorly immediately after they left the Oval Office- are now typically rated much more favorably, often in the top ten of all Chief Executives. It is with this same perspective that this historian now takes a fresh look at President Ulysses S. Grant.

       Hiram Walker Grant (1822- 1885) had a "colorful" life. After serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War- a conflict he personally opposed- he began drinking heavily and resigned from the Army in 1854. Grant struggled through a few different jobs, but by the outset of the Civil War in 1861 was ready to get back into action and was reappointed as a Colonel of the 21st Illinois infantry. It was during the Civil War that Grant's star began to rise. Showing a fearless attitude pursuing Confederate forces in battle, he became Lincoln's favorite officer. Lincoln recognized Grant's fighting abilities and promoted him because of his many successes on the battlefield, during a period when several other Generals failed to achieve measurable success. Presiding over the crucial victory at Vicksburg and later accepting the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Grant was lauded as the greatest hero of the Civil War. By 1868, following Andrew Johnson's term, Grant was encouraged as a war hero to run for the Presidency and was selected unanimously for the nomination of the Republican Party.

       Grant served two terms as President, during a period filled with great uncertainty over the direction of the nation and his own personal struggles with scandals- five in total- that rocked his Administration, even though he was largely disconnected from the events. Historians have rated his team- and their associates- as some of the most corrupt to ever hold public office. Grant's first Vice President Schuyler Colfax was accused of accepting deeply discounted shares of stock in the Credit Mobilier company which helped in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Shortly after Grant took office, James Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the market in gold with help from Grant's brother-in-law, causing the Panic of 1869. Grant's Treasury Secretary William Richardson was forced to resign over a kickback scandal related to tax collections. From the start to the end of his two terms, it seems that scandal followed Grant wherever he went, even though he was personally viewed as an honest man. The financial Panic of 1873- one of the worst in American history- did nothing to help his reputation and deepened people's suspicions concerning his effectiveness and success as President.

       After he left office in 1877, his reputation tarnished due almost exclusively to the corrupt practices of others, Grant did not have long to live. He went on a global tour around Europe, Africa and Asia which allowed him to meet Queen Victoria and Pope leo XIII. He also dabbled in politics, nearly gaining the nomination of his party in the election of 1880. In 1884- only seven years after leaving the Oval Office- he started experiencing sharp pains in his throat. Being a lifelong cigar smoker and heavy drinker, his personal habits may have played a role in his health deteriorating. Grant was later diagnosed with throat cancer. He went downhill quickly over the next year, losing his voice and dropping in weight by more than 60 pounds. He wanted to write his memoirs to allow his wife and family to survive with the royalties- but did not have much longer on this Earth.

       Determined to write an accurate account of his life, including detailed descriptions of critical Civil War battles, Grant began working on his memoirs after being offered a $25,000 advance by Mark Twain. Grant worked tirelessly over the following months to tell his life story in bold, unadulterated prose, a work that has been recognized as one of the greatest by a American President.

       In a 1962 historian's poll, Grant ranked near "the bottom of his class"- 30th out of 31 Presidents. As often happens over time, perceptions of Presidential accomplishment changed- and Grant is no exception. A 2018 poll ranked Grant 21st out of 45 Presidents- the "upper half" of his peer group- quite an improvement over the five decades. What changed? Recognition of Grant's honest and admirable character, as well as evaluation of his accomplishments during the difficult period of Reconstruction, including passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among many other things. Grant sharply opposed people who tried to intimidate blacks against voting- notably the Ku Klux Klan- and as President authorized mass arrests of persons participating in aggressive, terrorist actions against Negroes. He created what is now known as the National Park System, with the first one- Yellowstone in 1872, so he can be considered America's first conservationist President. Grant also signed the Specie Act of 1875 supporting "hard money"- a move designed to allow the U.S. Treasury to accumulate sufficient gold reserves to accommodate any requests for conversion of paper currency into coin, a move which strengthened public confidence in the U.S. Treasury and America's currency. Grant also appointed four Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, some of whom wrote precedent-setting opinions and served with distinction.

       Overall, despite the public perception of his links to scandal, Ulysses S. Grant is now viewed much more favorably by scholars and historians. Ron Chernow's book Grant (2017) takes a fresh look at the 18th president, granting him a much better- and fairer- review than many of those written in previous decades. 

       Time changes everything. To his credit, Grant's reputation has improved markedly in recent years. Due to his extensive service to our nation during a very challenging period of our history, Ulysses S. Grant deserves a "second look"- and at least a "Thank you" from all Americans. 

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