Sean Wilentz: The Return of Ulysses S. Grant





[Sean Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton University.]

[Ulysses S.] Grant may be on the verge of finally receiving his due. Quietly, outside the view of most readers—including professional historians who do not specialize in the Civil War era—Grant’s reputation, including his service in the White House, has enjoyed a friendly revision over the past fifteen years. A handful of unconventional scholars, including Richard N. Current, Brooks D. Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, and Josiah Bunting III, have attempted to vindicate Grant from some of the worst accusations against him. Joan Waugh’s engrossing new book advances that salutary revision by examining Grant’s public reputation during and after his lifetime, and exploring what it reveals about shifting intellectual trends....

Waugh describes how the estimation of Grant, especially as a political leader, has itself had a curious and telling history. That his presidency has ranked so low for so long—his current, somewhat improved standing places him roughly on a par with Calvin Coolidge and Gerald Ford—says practically nothing about Grant’s public reputation during, and especially just after, the Civil War. Immediately after Appomattox, Grant was of course hailed in the North as a savior; and then, following Lincoln’s assassination, he became the greatest living hero of the war. The approval proved lasting. Grant won the presidency in 1868 with just under fifty-three percent of the popular vote, a larger margin than expected. Four years later, he crushed his opponent, Horace Greeley, in both the popular vote and the Electoral College....

Grant’s standing began to erode drastically after 1920 owing to several currents, cultural and intellectual, that emerged from diverse quarters. First, the rising racist, pro-Southern, so-called “revisionist,” or “Lost Cause” school of American historians, pioneered at the turn of the century by William Dunning of Columbia University, portrayed Grant as a sociopathic killer during the war and a tyrant during Reconstruction... Abraham Lincoln became the true giant of the Union cause, regarded even by some in the South as the compassionate patriot who, had he lived, would have spared the country the folly and (for Southern whites) the humiliation of Reconstruction... Grant, by contrast, seemed to possess not an ounce of decency or forgiveness. Demonized as an inept, even crooked president, he emerged from these accounts as the lowlife who presided over what Dunning crudely called the “blackout of honest government” during the Reconstruction years, and who personally ushered in the crimes and excesses of the Gilded Age....

In 1962... Edmund Wilson revived Grant’s reputation by praising his performance in battle and lauding the taut, sinewy prose of Grant’s memoirs, completed just before his death. But Wilson, too, had nothing good to say about Grant’s two presidential administrations, under which, he wrote, “there flapped through the national capital a whole phantasmagoria of insolent fraud, while a swarm of predatory adventurers was let loose on the helpless South.”...

The revision of Grant’s reputation would seem to be an uphill battle. Waugh devotes the second half of her book to reclaiming the honor accorded Grant during the years after he left the presidency, culminating in a fair-minded reading of his Personal Memoirs... and a detailed description of what she calls the “pageantry of woe”that accompanied Grant’s grand state funeral. The decline of Grant’s Tomb from a popular shrine through the 1920s into a nearly-forgotten, seedy, even dangerous refuge for homeless junkies fifty years later becomes a fitting symbol, for Waugh, of how Grant’s reputation has crumbled....

If indeed justice is done and truth is served, those visitors will be inspired by far more than certain particular dimensions of Grant. A superb modern general who, with Lincoln, finally unleashed the force required to crush the slaveholders’ rebellion, Grant went on, as president, to press vigorously for the reunification of the severed nation, but on the terms of the victorious North and not of the defeated South. Given all that he was up against—not simply from Confederates and Southern white terrorists but, as president, from high-minded factional opponents and schismatics from his own Republican Party—it is quite remarkable that Grant sustained his commitment to the freedmen for as long and as hard as he did. The evidence clearly shows that he created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson....

...Grant’s full vindication—which will render him one of the greatest presidents of his era, if not of all American history—still awaits...



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Michael Green - 1/29/2010

I share what I regard as Sean Wilentz's pleasure that Grant is getting more of his "due." By due, I do not mean that he is resurrected and turned into a wonderful, far-sighted president, but that he is more carefully evaluated instead of being a caricature.

However, I wonder if Professor Wilentz slightly overstates Grant's popularity as a politician. His victory in 1868 also can be read as smaller than it should have been. In 1872, Horace Greeley's nomination to run against him was in so many ways a farce, but it also reflected the displeasure of a significant portion of the Republican party with Grant's administration.

That said, we also know that African American suffrage, and the intimidation and violence that southerners used to try to stop it, also had something to do with those vote totals, and that Grant represented the more "radical" (I put it in quotation marks because Grant was not exactly a Radical Republican) approach to Reconstruction, as opposed to Greeley's desire (or Thomas Nast's depiction of what he saw as Greeley's desire) to shake hands across the bloody chasm. Thus, as usual, Professor Wilentz has provided a wonderful example of the historian's craft, giving us food for thought.

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