Joan Waugh: Ulysses S. Grant Earned His $50 Bill

Roundup: Talking About History

[Joan Waugh is a professor of history at UCLA and the author of "U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth."]

Shame on the 14 Republican congressmen who last week proposed substituting Ronald Reagan for Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. Their action suggests they need a history lesson about the Northern general who won the Civil War and went on to lead the country.

Having enjoyed brief acclaim during the Mexican-American War, the onetime farmer was toiling in obscurity when he answered President Lincoln's call for volunteers in 1861. He rapidly won fame in the Western theater, scoring decisive and morale-raising victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. When Lincoln tapped him in early 1864 to be the leading general, Grant directed victories that vindicated his strategic vision and guaranteed his president's reelection....

Aided by newly enfranchised Southern blacks in states reconstructed by Congress, Grant swept to victory with his famous campaign slogan, "Let us have peace." As president, he worked tirelessly over two terms to bring about Lincoln's vision of a unified America. He embraced emancipation, working to bring rights to African Americans that even went beyond those envisioned by Lincoln....

Although Grant commanded immense prestige at the time of his death in 1885, a campaign by historians sympathetic to the South whittled away at his reputation beginning in the late 19th century, wrongly portraying him as a drunk, a general who recklessly sent his soldiers into danger and a corrupt, incompetent president. All those images are distorted, reflecting a larger historical amnesia afflicting many citizens. The GOP should defend the former leader rather than trying to oust him from the $50 bill.

There was a time when Republicans did celebrate Grant. In a speech delivered in 1900, for example, Theodore Roosevelt maintained that among the past presidents, the trio emerging as the "mightiest among the mighty [were] the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln and Grant." Roosevelt's deeply appreciative comments reflected the widespread respect of his generation for Grant, and for good reason....

Rather than shunting Grant aside, Republicans should not only unite to keep him on the $50 bill but work to rekindle awareness of his stellar legacy.

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LB Samms - 3/12/2010

Does it follow that because conservatives want Reagan on the 50-dollar bill, that they don't recognize Grant's greatness? Your appeal is not a reasoned one, but is a political one that attacks those who want Reagan recognized---you say they just don't know history (implication---ignorance). As Presidents go, Grant ranks very poorly among presidential scholars and historians. Yet that doesn't lessen his greatness as a general, and we all recognize that. Scholars rank Reagan in the top ten presidents, recently at #6. So without bashing conservatives and their motives, you should acknowledge that they have as good a reason for wanting Reagan on the bill as you have for wanting to keep Grant. The debate is important, but none of the participants or their motives should be denigrated.