[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]
[Gonna start the series by resharing this 2019 150th anniversary post, as it makes clear what I mean by misunderstood.]
On the 150th anniversary of his inauguration, the inescapable truths about President Grant, and how to move beyond them.
On March 4th, 1869 Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated as President of the United States. Grant was replacing the truly odious Andrew Johnson, one of the worst presidents (and most tragic and destructive mistakes) in American history, and so he was bound to look pretty good in comparison. And his measured and thoughtful inaugural address indicated the possibility of an impressive and influential presidency to come: in his adamant support for the 15th Amendment and African American suffrage in particular; but also for example in his argument in favor of “the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land,” including advocacy for Native American citizenship. At this pivotal moment in American history, with so much of the post-war era yet to be decided and shaped, this former general with no prior governing experience seemed to be poised to help guide the nation in progressive and productive directions.
Unfortunately, that “no prior governing experience” part ended up influencing Grant’s presidency far more fully and disastrously than his impressive ideas. Grant brought a number of friends and allies with him to his administration, both as Cabinet members and as appointees to other positions, and trustingly delegated authority to them (as perhaps any president has to, of course). When time and again a shockingly high percentage of these administration members were revealed to be taking part in corrupt schemes, Grant tended to stand by them, at least initially; while as far as historians can tell he neither knew about nor profited from any of those schemes, his friendship with and support for these scandalous figures inevitably and unquestionably sullied his own image and reputation. As much as I’d like to argue (and partly will in a moment) that the scandals didn’t define Grant’s presidency, the simple truth is that his was one of the most scandal-ridden in American history (perhaps the most so until, I dunno, right now), and will always be associated with that corruption.
If we can’t change the events of the past, however, we can and should think about collective memories, about what we most fully and centrally remember about historical events. And without denying the factual realities of the Grant Administration scandals, I would nonetheless argue that the historical emphasis on them is related to the triumph of neo-Confederate narratives of Reconstruction, the Civil War, race, and much else in the late 19th century (and ever since). That is, frustratingly bad as Grant was at managing his corrupt friends, he was in other ways the progressive president foreshadowed by his inaugural address: helping gain passage of the 15th Amendment, opposing the Ku Klux Klan, and, perhaps most influentially, founding the Justice Department primarily to advocate for African American rights; and appointing his friend and Civil War comrade (and amazing American) Ely Parker as the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and working toward a very different and more peaceful relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes. If Grant’s corrupt administration contributed to the failure of some of these initiatives (and I’m sure it did, although white supremacist opposition contributed even more), that’s no reason for us to forget or minimize their existence as we celebrate the sesquicentennial of this presidency.
Next GrantStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?