[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!]
On a very controversial claim, and a couple arguments for it that are worth engaging even if you disagree.
I won’t make you wait for the controversial claim: I might well argue that Ulysses Grant’s presidency was both more important and more inspiring than Abraham Lincoln’s. Let me hasten to add, lest you start a petition to strip me of my AmericanStudies Card (and you have no idea how difficult it is to get one of those in the first place, so I’ll be damned if I let it slip away), that I’m being at least a bit hyperbolic for effect. I don’t believe any American president faced more dire nor more significant circumstances than did Lincoln, and I don’t know that any other could have handled it any better. Whatever his flaws and mistakes—and it’s certainly important to remember and engage them, even more so because of the hero worship that has accompanied our collective memories of Lincoln far too often (and which began in his own era, especially after his assassination)—Lincoln was without any question a top-five American president, and a case can certainly be made for the greatest of all.
But I said what I said—and while ranking presidents against each other is ultimately silly, I would nonetheless make the case that in some key ways Grant’s presidency was both more important and more inspiring than Lincoln’s. When it comes to importance, I’m thinking specifically about how vital it was that Grant followed Andrew Johnson—for my money the worst president in American history (at least until, I dunno, 2016 or thereabouts), and of course one for whose proximity to the presidency Lincoln himself bears a frustrating responsibility. While the die was unfortunately already cast for many of the awful things Johnson did between 1865 and 1869 to challenge Reconstruction, African American rights, and all the possibilities of America’s second founding, there’s no doubt that a great deal worse could have been done over the next eight years—and at the very least, that a different next president might have done precious little to push things in the right direction when it came to those unfolding histories. Which is to say, following a historically horrific presidency has to be one of the most important things a president could do, and I would argue Grant it did amazingly well.
That in and of itself makes Grant’s presidency deeply inspiring as well, but I mean something a bit different by my use of that term. I’ve long argued, in this space and many other spaces, that over the quarter-century following the Civil War the U.S. became thoroughly neo-Confederate and white supremacist, profoundly exclusionary on some of the most defining and national levels. No individuals, not even those as powerful as a president, could likely have stopped those trends, and to be sure no individuals were able to do so. But that makes it all the more important to highlight those individuals (as well as communities) who challenged those unfolding histories, who modeled a more inclusive and ideal America in the face of those worst sides of us (then, now, and always). I believe Ulysses S. Grant was one of those individuals, and that his presidency, whatever its scandals and shortcomings, offered an 8-year glimpse into what it would mean to have such inclusive allies at the highest levels of American government. That’s a model and a legacy that can and should inspire all of us as we fight to challenge the worst and extend the best of Reconstruction and America here in 2022.
April Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?