My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Ulysses S. Grant, the Eighteenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Grant by Ron Chernow.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Ulysses S. Grant is one of those Presidents that I only knew for his Civil War service and drinking problems. Indeed, as I have discussed my reading of the Presidential Biographies, I was often told Grant was one who would be ranked low due to the corruption on his cabinet and his drinking. Yet, as I discovered in this truly excellent biography by Ron Chernow, the story is much deeper and complex than that. Indeed, I don’t think I’m mistaken to say that Grant is certainly one of the most underrated Presidents we’ve had. Moreover, he was an altogether decent man.
Grant was born in Ohio. His father had a tannery business, among other businesses, and Grant detested the smell and sights of he gruesome business. Instead, he joined the military where he distinguished himself as a marvelous equestrian. He distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, though he was personally opposed to what he felt was a poor decision to go to war. He made enemies in the military, and they sought to undermine him by spreading rumors about his drunkenness. These rumors would dog him his entire life, and into the modern era. They were not unfounded. Chernow dedicates no small amount of time discussing both the reality of Grant’s alcoholism and the myth that developed around it. For one, in Grant’s time, alcoholism was seen as a moral failing rather than an addiction that needed treatment to overcome. That misunderstanding continues in part to this day. Due to this view of alcoholism as moral failing, the rumor mill that surrounded Grant about alcohol came up again and again, fed by his political and military enemies in order to undermine his moral and other status. Grant did binge drink. He tended to do so in certain situations: after battles, for example. Yet he also worked hard to fight alcoholism in himself and others, making a pact with his longtime friend and adviser, John Rawlins, to help him keep from drinking. It is also likely he promised his wife he would not drink, and she defended his character to the end of her life. Moreover, he was free of scandal regarding women, and, though a few unsubstantiated rumors arose about this as well, it seems clear Grant was quite loyal to his wife throughout his life. The rumors of alcohol, though, did get him out of the military.
Then, the Civil War began, and Grant was called to defend the Union, which he did with gusto. His political views had, in part, formed in response to his wife (a Southerner who owned slaves) and against his father, with whom he had a strained relationship. The Civil War changed these views as well. He had leaned towards abolition, but through the war this conviction solidified. As he continued to rise in power in the Western Theater of the Civil War, he became agitated by setbacks surrounding logistics. This led to him issuing General Orders No. 11, what Chernow calls the “most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history.” These orders stipulated that Jews would be expelled from his military district, which included parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He blamed certain Jewish traders as source of black market goods and transactions, and he felt his actions were justified, not to mention going along with the general anti-Semitism of the time. Grant’s story of interactions with the Jewish people was not over, though, as we’ll see in his Presidency.
Grant continued to thrive in war, and won many hard-fought victories against sometimes larger armies and fortifications. His victory over Vicksburg catapulted his fame, and Lincoln ultimately placed him in charge of the armies fighting Lee. Grant’s reputation as a butcher is unsupported by his actual actions on the battlefield and after. In victory, he was cordial and even kind towards the defeated enemy. He was a grand strategist who burst fortresses with tactics rather than a sea of bodies, though the latter was often the result of the type of battles that were being fought. Grant ultimately defeated Lee and the South, of course, leading to a Union victory.
Next, Grant dedicated himself to healing tensions in the country, though he also felt that the rights of the newly freed slaves would need military protection. He and Andrew Johnson repeatedly clashed as the latter’s policies undermined what Lincoln had done and what Grant hoped Reconstruction would accomplish. Grant ultimately decided to run for President and won against Horatio Seymour. Several states were still ineligible to vote in this election.
Grant’s Presidency was certainly not perfect. It is true that his administration was marred by several scandals. Many of these were due to Grant’s nature as a person: he simply trusted his associates far more than he should have, and this would come back to truly bite him in later years. The list of scandals is long, ranging from monopolies on gold, to custom houses, to tax evasion scams. Almost all of these were done by appointees of Grant, his cabinet, or people he trusted. Lingering attacks on Grant about his alcohol use continued throughout both of his terms, as well.
Moreover, Grant’s attempts to deal fairly with Native Americans failed badly. He attempted a policy he called the “Peace Policy” in which he would honor treaties the United States had made with Native American groups. He even worked to get citizenship for Native Americans. He believed that Native Americans were largely provoked by whites who then attributed any conflict to the Native Americans (658). He appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the Commisioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that position. Grant and Parker planned for a gradual granting of citizenship to Native Americans. Of course, part of this plan was absorption of Native Americans and this would involve effectively “robbing Indians of their rightful culture” (as Chernow puts it, 659). Native Americans largely rebuffed Grant’s plan for them, not wishing to be made into white people’s idealization of “civilized.” Unfortunately, during this time period, the slaughter of buffalo herds by white men, in addition to continual incursions by white people on Native lands, and the greed of people for gold in Native lands led to conflict. The Peace Policy devolved into a series of raids and wars against Native Americans, including the infamous “Battle of Little Bighorn” in which Custer, whom Grant had dispatched, was killed and made into a folk hero–a status undeserved, to say the last. Grant’s Peace Policy was perhaps well-intentioned, but it was also a failure. He wished to see Native Americans integrated into the United States, not particularly aware of whether this was something they desired or not; and he ultimately dispatched troops to fight those same people. It is tragic in a number of ways, because Grant, unlike many of the Presidents we have already looked at in this series, truly did seem to view all people as… people.
In the South, the Ku Klux Klan rapidly arose to try to suppress black voters and power in these states. Unlike Andrew Johnson, who practically encouraged such violent terrorism, Grant responded to these militaristic racists by fighting them. He and his attorney generals–though largely the first, formed a Justice Department that would expand federal powers to prosecute criminals in states. As part of his enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, Grant charged his attorney general, Amos T. Akerman, to vigorously defend black voters. Grant worked to pass additional enforcement acts specifically targeting the KKK and other groups that were terrorizing blacks trying to vote. This gained him praise from such luminaries as Frederick Douglass. Grant then went to the length of suspending Habeas Corpus when he was told that the KKK was murdering people before they could testify against them. He and Akerman managed to convict more than 1000 members of the Klan, ultimately leading to what was truly a massive, militaristic, terror organization to losing much of its power. After the Colfax Massacre, Grant worked to try to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the Supreme Court overturned the few convictions Grant managed to get, he was enraged and, in an eloquent condemnation of the moral state of the country, said:
Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana, while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime. (quoted on p. 759-760)
Ulysses S. Grant (18th President – Original Ranking #3)- Often dismissed as a footnote for his Presidency and talked up as a General instead, Grant was, in fact, one of the more effective Presidents when it came to some areas where it mattered most. A principled man, when he identified an evil, he worked vociferously to attack it. His war on the KKK was effective and waged with as much acumen as he dealt with troops on the battlefield, helping to end at least some of the terror levied against black citizens. He worked to rebuild relationships with Jewish citizens after making a poor choice earlier in his career. He tried (but failed) to walk a line between honoring treaties with Native Americans, bringing peace, and pleasing whites intent on expansion.
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