Sean Wilentz: The Vindication of Ulysses S. Grant

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008.”]

Ronald Reagan deserves posterity’s honor, and so it makes sense that the capital’s airport and a major building there are named for him. But the proposal to substitute his image for that of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill is a travesty that would dishonor the nation’s bedrock principles of union, freedom and equality — and damage its historical identity. Although slandered since his death, Grant, as general and as president, stood second only to Abraham Lincoln as the vindicator of those principles in the Civil War era....

When one Union general after another proved unequal to the task of leading the army, Lincoln personally elevated Grant, who, with William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, devised the strategy of “hard war” to defeat the slaveholders’ Confederacy. “I cannot spare this man,” Lincoln was reported to have said of Grant after the bloody Battle of Shiloh in 1862. “He fights.”...

As president, Grant was determined to achieve national reconciliation, but on the terms of the victorious North, not the defeated Confederates. He fought hard and successfully for ratification of the 15th Amendment, banning disenfranchisement on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. When recalcitrant Southern whites fought back under the white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan, murdering and terrorizing blacks and their political supporters, Grant secured legislation that empowered him to unleash federal force. By 1872, the Klan was effectively dead.

For Grant, Reconstruction always remained of paramount importance, and he remained steadfast, even when members of his own party turned their backs on the former slaves. After white supremacists slaughtered blacks and Republicans in Louisiana in 1873 and attempted a coup the following year, Grant took swift and forceful action to restore order and legitimate government. With the political tide running heavily against him, Grant still managed to see through to enactment the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination according to race in all public accommodations....

Certainly, Grant’s administration was tainted by oft-remembered corruption scandals. But Grant was never seriously implicated in any of them, although emboldened Democrats and disloyal Republicans, with the help of a sensationalist press, did their best to make the president appear the villain. (Grant ill-advisedly decided to present a stoic public face instead of fighting back.)

In reality, what fueled the personal defamation of Grant was contempt for his Reconstruction policies, which supposedly sacrificed a prostrate South, as one critic put it, “on the altar of Radicalism.” That he accomplished as much for freed slaves as he did within the constitutional limits of the presidency was remarkable. Without question, his was the most impressive record on civil rights and equality of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson....

But Grant came in for decades of disgraceful posthumous attacks that tore his reputation into tatters. Around 1900, pro-Confederate Southern historians began rewriting the history of the Civil War and cast Grant as a “butcher” during the conflict and a corrupt and vindictive tyrant during his presidency. And the conventional wisdom from the left has relied on the bitter comments of snobs like Henry Adams, who slandered Grant as the avatar of the crass, benighted Gilded Age.

Though much of the public and even some historians haven’t yet heard the news, the vindication of Ulysses S. Grant is well under way. I expect that before too long Grant will be returned to the standing he deserves — not only as the military savior of the Union but as one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history....

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Javier Ramirez - 4/6/2010

"uninformed mudslingers like Ramirez"?
yet you dont engage with anything I wrote. Like Beatty you cant be taken too serious if at all.

Javier Ramirez - 4/6/2010

Beatty's elementary playground tactics speak for themselves. Anyone who can only muster up the intellecctual firepower which consists of the words "Read a real book some time" is not someone who knows anyting about history except what they were force fed in gradeschool. Nice try at attempting to sound serious though Mr. Beatty.

Thomas R. Cox - 3/19/2010

The rest of Grant's domestic record is better than historians (and uninformed mudslingers like Ramirez) have been willing to admit; his accomplishments (and attempted accomplishments) go beyond reconstruction. The "best men" of the era dominated the press and other "polite" sources of information that historians long leaned on almost exclusively to shape their--and the public--image of Grant. Yellowstone National Park, the reorganization of the government of the District of Columbia, his attempt at creating a broad-based cabinet immune to control by the Northeastern elite who thought control of Republican policy their right, the proposed annexation of Santo Domingo (to make the U.S. southern coast defensable, as it hadn't been during the Civil War), etc. etc. all present a picture of a president with more vision than textbooks generally show. A new biography iss in order.

John D. Beatty - 3/19/2010

Wilenz isn't "whitewashing" anything quite so much as you are throwing ignorant mud. Read a real book some time.

Javier Ramirez - 3/19/2010

I don't care about whose face is on what and I think it is very pathetic that an academic historian is playing this silly game. What disturbs me even more is that he white washes Grant's history. Grant was a mediocre general at best and even less of a president. His entrance into the war occured three years into it where he faced a south that was already facing extremely depleted resources.

Did Prof. Wilentz leave out General order no 11? Of course he did, but then again this academic magician probably has some convenient answer like the canard that Grant gave about not having read it before he signed it...I bet. What do you think Wilentz's reaction would be if this was issued by a General Jackson? Grant was giving the nickname "Grant the Butcher" for the reckless way in which he sent his troops to the front lines at Cold Harbor. Grant's superior forces were defeated.

Saving the union? Sure he saved the union the same union that exists between a fox's jaw and a rabbit's neck. Not the kind of Union that the founders of this country envisioned but one that academics like Wilentz sure seem comfy with. No surprise there. Prof. Wilentz why don't you and Grant get a room.