Nathan Newman wrote a lovely post recognizing Ulysses S. Grant as one of our great presidents.
Grant, Newman writes, “went on to be the President who would oversee the ratification of the 15th Amendment and enactment of the civil rights enforcement laws that — after the interregnum of disuse under Jim Crow — to this day are a backbone of civil rights in this nation.”
Even as Grant was being elected in 1868, he faced Klan-based racial terrorism fighting to manipulate the vote throughout the South. The first result was the 15th Amendment to protect the right to vote but as importantly was the creation under Grant of the Department of Justice in 1871 and a series of “Enforcement Acts” to eliminate Klan violence. The language was sweeping in its defense of black voting rights:
Congress made it a crime for “two or more persons [to] band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with the intent…to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
Grant used his new authority to crack down on Klan terrorism in nine South Carolina counties in 1871 and essentially destroyed the Klan there and then throughout the South. Hundreds of Klansmen were convicted between 1870 and 1873 of violating the voting and other civil rights of the new freedmen in the South.
The result was the election of 1872, the only election not undermined by racial terrorism until the late 1960s. In his second inaugural address, President Grant declared that racial segregation was unacceptable and called for federal legislation to assure equal rights in access to transportation and public schools. Following Grant’s lead, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, banning segregation in public accommodations, transportation, and entertainment facilities. Majorities in both houses of Congress even voted to make school segregation illegal throughout the country, but filibusters blocked enactment of those later amendments, but it is a testament to Grant’s dogged pursuit of civil rights that so encompassing a legislative and administrative agenda of racial justice was pursued.
The one thing most people think they know about Grant was that he was an alcoholic. Except that he probably wasn’t. His military and political rivals spread many uncorroborated stories of Grant’s public drunkenness, most of which have been dismissed as fabrications by historians. His biographers uniformly write that his marriage to Julia Dent Grant was sublimely happy — happy marriages do not go hand in hand with drinking problems — and that, rumors aside, he was never drunk “on the job” as a general in the Civil War.
He was one of the most admired public figures in America until his death in 1885. He even won some grudging respect in the South. His Personal Memoirs earned praise as a masterpiece of literature by Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson, among others. Yet historians of the late 19th and a large part of the 20th centuries dismissed him as a drunken, stupid brute whose administration was mostly famous for corruption.
The reason for the trashing of Grant’s reputation was, I think, twofold. A large part of the old popular histories of the Civil War were written by southerners who elevated Robert E. Lee to a position of sainthood. The notion that Lee might have been out-generaled by Grant just would not do; according to moonlight-and-magnolias revisionist history, Grant won because he had more men, or more equipment, or more ruthlessness, or more plain dumb luck. Historians who have revisited the historical record more recently, however, have come away saying that Grant beat Lee because Grant was the better general. See, for example, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President by Geoffrey Perret (Modern Library, 1997). An older work by a British historian, The Generalship Of Ulysses S. Grant by J.F.C. Fuller, compares Grant and Lee and makes Lee seem downright substandard.
But I think the larger reason is that Grant’s support of civil rights became, during the long years of Jim Crow, reason to dismiss him as a fool. When white society, from the top down, was determined to persuade itself that racial discrimination was justified, something had to be done about Grant. Thus, he was trashed. Newman writes,
The sad reality is that if Grant had been able to continue his anti-Klan policies into his second term, there is little question that the elections of 1876 would have been a decisive victory for the Republicans and we would not have seen the end of Reconstruction. And American history would have been completely different.
But with the end of Reconstruction, we have seen history written to bury most memories of the period and assassinate the reputations of those who led it– including Grant. There were real accusations of corruption among Grant’s cabinet, although no one believes Grant himself was corrupt, but those charges of corruption appear relatively minor in light of far worse corruption in many administrations to come. But saying Grant was “corrupt” became an easy offhand way to dismiss his Presidency and Reconstruction at the same time. Even today, there are NO great films honoring reconstruction, just racist anti-Reconstruction films like Gone With the Wind and even modern documentaries like Ken Burns’ Civil War only mentions accusations of corruption In Grant’s administration — without a single mention of his vigorous fight against Klan Violence. …
…as corporate American sought new alliances with Southern Bourbons, the legacy of Ulysses Grant and Radical Republicans became an inconvenience, so a new consensus emerged that it had all been a mistake overseen by a corrupt and incompetent man best forgotten by history.
Nathan Newman also writes about Grant’s policies toward native Americans, which were better intended than executed. White society had been shocked when Grant named a Seneca, Ely Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and most of Washington conspired to make Parker’s job difficult until he resigned. Grant’s policies were specifically meant to end massacres of native Americans, but the generals sent West to carry out the policies were less enlightened.
Some years ago I read about a question asked of a panel of Civil War historians — what one event might have changed the outcome of the Civil War? And as I remember, they all came up with the same answer — eliminate General Grant, especially early in the war, and the Confederacy might have won its severance from the Union.
Before President Lincoln put him in command of all Union armies in 1864, Grant’s initiative and determination had put most of the western theater of war in Union hands. The Vicksburg campaign, which gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, in particular is remembered as one of the great military campaigns in all of American military history. And in 1864, Grant was brought east to finish off Lee’s army after a succession of other generals had failed. His accomplishments as a general alone — he saved his country’s butt — should have made him one of the great men of American history. That racism has buried his memory is one of the great injustices of American history.