Ulysses S. Grant is an often maligned president; however, a closer examination of his presidency reveals that he did a lot of good, especially around policies related to Native Americans and African Americans. Here, Rebecca Fachner argues why his presidency needs to be reexamined.
Ulysses S. Grant needs rehab. Actually, he doesn’t need anything, he’s dead; but his reputation and legacy deserve a reexamination. There is a lot to admire and like about Grant, but for some reason he has been consigned to some obscure corner of American history, not forgotten, but not properly remembered either. During his lifetime, he was almost as popular as Lincoln, but has fallen into ignominy and near obscurity since his death. Everyone agrees that he was a great general, of that there can be no doubt, but somewhere between taking the Oath of Office as President and his death, he meandered into a historical gray zone from which he has yet to emerge.
Grant was a true American success story, rising from obscurity and failure to become commander of the largest army on the continent and later President of the United States. Grant attended West Point and served in the Mexican War, but did not make it as a peacetime soldier. Grant was working as a clerk in a tanner’s shop in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War began, having also failed in private life. The stories of Grant’s military successes in the Civil War are well known, and they propelled him to a successful bid for the White House in 1868, just three years after the end of the war.
He was not a perfect man, and certainly not a perfect president, but he was actually much better than history gives him credit for being. He was quite popular while he was in office, partly because of his moderate positions on the two most important issues of the day. Those two issues were Native American policy and African American policy, and are probably more responsible than anything else for Grant’s subsequent fall from historical favor.
A BELIEVER IN EQUALITY
Grant was President during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and was a staunch advocate of citizenship and equality for African Americans while in the White House. He was instrumental in the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave all men the right to vote regardless of their race. Grant also helped to pass a series of laws that were known as the Enforcement Acts, designed to help protect African Americans and their right to vote. He even sent federal troops to restore order when white Southerners began to use violence to prevent former slaves from voting. In the end, Grant’s policies of Reconstruction were hampered not because he lacked the will, but because the voters did. As time passed and the South was reintegrated into the Union, support for Reconstruction gradually diminished. With the onset of an economic panic in 1873, voters just lost interest in Reconstruction.
He presided over what author and historian James Loewen has called the “Springtime of Race Relations,” a brief period of reconciliation and equality that followed the Civil War. As Reconstruction sputtered to an end, white Southerners took the opportunity to quell this nascent bloom in race relations, and gradually reinstituted a policy of segregation and discrimination. By the mid 1890s, the US had entered into what is known as the nadir of race relations, a period that saw a new low point in relations between blacks and whites. As this nadir went deeper, it began to reshape American history. Suddenly, Grant’s pursuit of equality for African Americans became a liability to his legacy, rather than an attribute. His accomplishments began to be discredited, and the sense that Grant had been a failed President comes from this period of American history, not Grant’s own.
Regarding Grant’s Native American policy, he was moderate and even compassionate in his dealings with Native Americans. He pursued what was called the Peace Policy, hoping to bring Native Americans closer to the United States, to eventually integrate them and make them into citizens. He advocated decent treatment for all Native peoples, addressed corruption in federal Native American affairs, and appointed a Seneca Indian to be the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely Parker, the first major non-white political appointment. Grant sought to house Native American tribes on reservations and wanted to help them become farmers. From a modern perspective Grant’s Native American policy leaves much to be desired; however during his time this represented a tolerant and liberal view.
In the end, Grant’s Native American policy was perhaps more well meaning than well executed, but there is an important caveat to this. In the summer of 1876, as Grant’s second term was drawing to a close, the Battle of Little Bighorn occurred in what is now Montana. The battle is better known now as Custer’s Last Stand, where Lakota and Cheyenne warriors wiped out George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. News of the defeat stunned the nation, and war hawks were eager to use the opportunity to paint all Native Americans as dangerous and bloodthirsty. Calls for revenge rang out all over the country and Grant’s conciliatory policy toward Native Americans suddenly looked like weakness. His peace policy was quickly abandoned in favor of a continuation of the harsh repression and removal that had been going on for decades.
GRANT IN PERSPECTIVE
It is true that Ulysses S Grant was no politician; he disdained the political process and wanted the Presidency to be above party divisions. He did not understand, nor did he wish to learn about the business of politics, and his administration suffered for this. Although his motives were good, his actions as President were uncertain and underwhelming. As natural a leader as he was in battle, somehow this just did not translate to the political realm.
Grant’s administration is often accused of having been one of the most corrupt in American history. While it is true that his second term was plagued with scandal and several of his cabinet members were accused of corruption, there was no implication, then or now, that Grant was involved. Corruption charges were never levied against him, he was never a target for investigation, and his honesty was never impugned. The charge that can be laid at Grant’s door was that he proved to be a very bad judge of character, and remained doggedly loyal to the men he appointed to cabinet positions, even after it was clear that they were corrupt.
His reputation suffered as a result of the scandals in his cabinet, and in 1875 he announced that he was not going to seek a third term as president. In 1880, however, the Republicans strongly considered nominating Grant to a third term at their convention that year, so he couldn’t have been too unpopular. Ultimately, the Republicans decided to go with James Garfield, and Grant died of throat cancer in 1885.
Ulysses S. Grant is interred in New York City, and the story of his tomb provides an interesting parallel with his legacy. He was given the largest tomb in North America and a million and a half citizens turned out to watch his funeral procession. In the twentieth century, however, the tomb was largely forgotten, falling into disrepair, covered in graffiti and trash. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that a campaign was started to force the National Park Service to improve the conditions of the site and restore the tomb and surrounding area. Grant’s Presidential legacy underwent a similar downward spiral, but has yet to experience a true reexamination.
This article was provided by Rebecca Fachner. You can read Rebecca’s last article on the mystery of King Henry VIII’s ‘seventh’ wife by clicking here.
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Loewen, James. Sundown Towns; A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
“American President; Essays on Ulysses S. Grant and His Administration,” Miller Center, accessed April 20, 2014, http://www.millercenter.org