Category: Well-Meaning Bumbler
Term in Office: 18th president, 1869-1877
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Ohio? New York? Illinois? It’s really hard to tell with a wanderer like Grant, especially since he never had an elected office before becoming president.
Lord save us from the Grant revisionists. The latest received wisdom among veteran president-rankers is that Grant was a secretly great president– so secret, in fact, that over 120 years’ worth of American historians were unable to detect just how awesome he was. Nonsense. Leading the pack is Frank Scatturo, who wrote “Grant Reconsidered”. It’s a terrible book, and evidence that an amateur historian should be treated with the disdain we would usually afford an amateur atomic engineer or an amateur dentist. You need a set of skills, and you need a halfway respectful temperament, and Scatturo has neither. A history book that seeps with contempt for nearly every single historian who had grappled with Grant before him, it is full of platitudes, loaded with cherry-picked quotes, and utterly devoid of context. Contemporary to Scatturo’s work (he isn’t important enough to say “influenced by”), we have had a series of Grant novels, scholarly biographies, and favorable treatment in recent assessments of the presidents, including Alvin Felzenberg’s The Leaders We Deserved.
Let’s back up a little bit. Even during his lifetime, Grant faced routine criticism for an administration beset with scandals breaking forth– the Whiskey Ring and Credit Mobelier sorts of things that kept us from enjoying history when we were in high school. Henry Adams, the great novelist and political philosopher wrote, “the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” The leading school of thought on Reconstruction, led by William Dunning of Columbia University, contended that Reconstruction was a quagmire of corruption, a mockery of democracy, and placed a good share of the blame at Grant’s feet. When Arthur Schlesinger conducted the first poll asking scholars to rank presidents, Ulysses Grant was placed second to last, sharing the distinction of “failure” with Warren Harding. Since Schlesinger asked the scholars only for ratings and not rationales, we can only assume that these scandals were what sunk Grant– but seriously? Lower than Pierce? Lower than Buchanan?
So, why don’t we dive into this juicy controversy between professional scoffers and amateur hagiographers? Grant grew up in Ohio, attended West Point, drifted away from army life after serving in the Mexican War, failed at a number of business enterprises, joined the Civil War, and became the de facto leader of the Union Army after Lincoln’s first several choices proved dilatory, insubordinate, and/or vacuous. He played a singular role in turning the Civil War into a total war, blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians, as would become more common in twentieth century warfare. Maintaining military posts throughout Andrew Johnson’s term, he was eagerly courted by the Republicans, and assented to run as their presidential candidate in 1868. Easily elected, Grant had a full docket: a nation still finding its economic footing after the war, and especially the question of Reconstruction and the rights of the freedman. After the feckless Andrew Johnson spent nearly four years granting the South a far too lenient re-entry into the union, severely undercutting the newly acquired rights of freedmen along the way.
Grant revisionists have one thing right– he was more proactive on preserving rights for black Americans than any pre-1945 president save Lincoln. He fought for, and succeeded in passing, the Fifteenth Amendment disbarring race as a barrier to voting. He lobbied again for Enforcement Acts, outlawing the intimidation of voters (remember, the KKK was formed in 1866 as a means to scare or do injury to black voters.) As a former military leader overseeing a South under military supervision, Grant used the power at his disposal for just ends. In 1871, he was able to use federal troops to actively suppress the KKK, arresting hundreds and dispersing the organization, at least for the time being. No other president would use the military to secure the right to vote until the mid-20th century. There were, though, limits to what Grant could do, and he watched helplessly as white “Redeemer” governments took over multiple states in the South, bringing the noble experiment of a legally egalitarian South to a close. But Grant’s goodwill toward marginalized Americans had its limits. One policy he quietly pursued was excluding Jews from the War Department. (Grant believed that they, as a people, were illegally profiteering cotton in the South.)
The problem is that Grant was ill-suited, by temperament, for the presidency. His choice in subordinates was wretched, and he was often loathe to clean up house and demand the best from his administration. He often took advice from his brother-in-law, who was paid $25,000 by financiers Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to advocate policies that would help them corner the gold market. He gave jobs to unqualified relatives on his wife’s side, practicing not nepotism, but “nephewism” as his critics jibbed. His Secretary of War was caught selling government supplies to Indians on the sly, and pocketing the profit. His Secretary of the Navy took kickbacks in exchange for favorable contracts with business vendors. Grant’s own personal secretary, Orville Babcock, took part in the “Whiskey Ring” that had looted the treasury for millions (and remember, this is 1876 dollars.) His attempt to annex a willing Santo Domingo was a complex mixture of philanthropy and greed– it would provide a black-majority state where freedmen could govern their own affairs, but numerous members of Grant’s administration were greedily and furtively buying land on the island, hoping for a future payoff. See– this is the stuff that Scatturo just does not account for. Worse, Grant often got rid of the best men in his administration prematurely– under pressure from railroad interests, he sacked his Attorney General, Amos Akerman, who brilliantly carried out Grant’s campaign against the KKK. Alvin Felzenberg is probably correct in his take on the scandals of the Grant presidency: “When compared to scandals of more recent vintage, those that transpired under Grant were of short duration, inflicted no long-term damage on governmental institutions, did not involve Grant personally, and did not encroach upon the civil liberties of other Americans.” In a way, Grant is harmed by the almost unerring personal morality of the other late 19th century presidents– even deviations like the Whiskey Ring or Credit Mobilier, where at least no one got hurt, even if federal monies were pillaged, stand out.
If Grant’s choice in subordinates was bad, his economic management was not especially sound either. His support of a high tariff came at just the wrong point– where the tariff was transitioning from an important measure to stimulate infant industry into an abusive system protecting powerful, established trusts from international competition. To make matters worse, a bad financial panic took place in 1873. Grant’s response was not dissimilar to the response of the Cameron government in the U.K. today- austerity. And as we are being reminded daily, austerity doesn’t work; it is an ineffective Victorian solution unable to resolve the macroeconomic problem of limited demand. He urges less spending, stops public works even when half-complete, and sticking to “hard money” through thick and thin. Grant’s blundering in this area had deep consequences– as Eric Foner writes in A History of Reconstruction, as the panic and depression prolonged, more Americans and in particular more lawmakers made the economy their chief focus, rather than Reconstruction.
The question though is this– was Grant the best available guy to handle these problems? Here is where I need to interject with a key concept you will see show up in many other evaluations I post on the presidency. I borrowed this idea from baseball statistics: the value over replacement player. Used by Baseball Prospectus and other stats sites, its brilliance as a statistic is that it covers not only a player’s skill relative to other players in the league at any given time, but their contribution to team wins as well. So- let’s translate that statistic to the more abstract and unquantifiable qualities of presidential leadership– in the context of Grant’s time, were there other individuals of presidential timber who could have realistically done a better job? My answer is yes. In my previous posts, I argued that the 1963-75 era in the Senate constituted a golden age of excellent lawmakers, the likes of which we have not seen before or since. I will concede that the Jacksonian period was a silver age, illuminated by Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and a dozen other lesser lights. The civil war and early Reconstruction era is also, to extend the metaphor, a bronze age of enlightened statesmanship, where the ideas enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution were reforged and, at their best, pushed in new, more racially egalitarian, directions. Look up a biography of Henry Allen of Rhode Island, or Daniel Clark of New Hampshire, or Charles Sumner or Henry Wilson (Grant’s second-term vice president), or Benjamin Wade, or Edward Stanton, or John Fremont. Couldn’t any of them have pursued equal rights for the freedmen with equal ardor and much greater skill? My answer, once again, is yes. Each of them combined Grant’s desire to see the 14th and 15th Amendments carried out, and a new society forged in the South under their direction, but with an eye cocked toward reintegrating the wayward former Confederate states. But they also had a better sense of judgment, a greater knowledge of the legislative process, and enough deviousness to keep their heel on the neck of the prostrate South, which would have been better for all concerned. As I hope I demonstrated when I covered John Quincy Adams at #21, you need more than vision, and you need more than good-intentions; you need political skill, you need the art of the deal, and on these grounds, Grant’s particular brand of military leadership did not prepare him for those challenges.
More’s the pity. The Republican Party’s moral authority declined horribly under Grant’s “leadership.” It started in a “can’t lose” position in 1868, where countless Union Army veterans supported the party, as did enfranchised blacks in the South– a virtually impossible-to-beat electoral combination. By 1876, reformers and good-government advocates were disgusted enough to start lining up being Democratic house-cleaners like Samuel Tilden. Again- with Grant at the helm, the party went from “unbeatable and standing on the side of justice” to barely breaking even in the elections of 1876, 1880, 1884 and 1888. Although friendly toward business from its beginnings, the Republican Party went from a strikingly egalitarian enterprise to the party of railroads and financiers and trusts, ginning up votes from grizzled, aging Union veterans to stay in power. Come meet the new boss, same as the old boss. They gave up their mantle as the party of civil rights to become the party of wealth, and have not, to this day, fully recovered from that deliberate choice. When you consider what Grant could have done given the huge mandate he enjoyed from his election, the incomparable strength of his political party coming out of the Civil War, and his unique status as a national hero, the actual accomplishments of the Grant administration are rather disappointing.
Nevertheless, Grant did more for black Americans than any president between Lincoln and Truman. For all the criticism I have lobbed at him, for all the people who would have done a better job than he, he deserves credit for his brave and forthright action in defending freedmen and incorporating them into the best parts of the American political tradition. His designation as a failure by Schlesinger and his generation is surely misguided. While a poor temperamental fit for the presidency, and almost totally unsuited to day-to-day administration in a civilian capacity, it is time to give the good general an upgrade in the presidential sweepstakes. I am pleased to put him at #22, one spot below the middle. Ultimately, I have to agree, just a little, with the historians over the amateurs– Grant was below average, but only very slightly.