The story of our most underrated president can teach us a lot about America and its prejudices. In addition, the shoddy treatment of Ulysses S. Grant (R-Illinois) 1869-1877 shows how scholars can distort history to satisfy their own prejudices.
Grant is often listed as one of “America’s worst presidents,” yet the historical record does not justify those claims. For instance, I recently listed America’s five worst presidents as James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania), Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey), James Madison (R-Virginia), and Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee).
Yet I quickly received a comment asking why Grant was not on list? Grant is not on the five worst list because he does not belong there. Indeed, I do not believe Grant belongs on the list of 10 worst or even 20 worst presidents.
Unfortunately, Grant is the target of what amounts to a 147-year smear campaign by racists. “This man has suffered from more misleading stereotypes than perhaps any other figure in American history,” author Ron Chernow tells the PBS News Hour.
Grant was a Far Better President than You Think
“You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom,” historian John F. Marszalek says of Grant at the Huffpost.
The highlight of Grant’s presidency was his dedication to Reconstruction; an effort to protect African-Americans and expand their rights, Nick Bauman notes at the Huffpost. For example, Grant sent federal troops South to protect blacks from the Ku Klux Klan.
Moreover, the Klan Grant fought was not a bunch of beer-swilling good old boys. It was a well-organized guerrilla army composed of highly experienced Confederate veterans.
In fact, the Klan Grant fought was led by the Confederacy’s best field commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. Some military historians consider Forrest America’s greatest cavalry man. In addition, Forrest pioneered hit-and-run tactics widely used by 20th Century armies and guerrilla movements.
During Reconstruction blacks could vote in the South and elect several African Americans to Congress. Grant’s war against the Klan; which Northern “intellectuals” widely opposed, was among his finest moments. Adam Gopnik notes in The New Yorker. Notably, a group of white Northern thought leaders; including Henry Adams and Horace Greeley, organized a political party just to oppose Grant’s reelection in 1872.
Why Do Historians Pick on Grant?
However, most historical accounts focus on the corruption in the Grant administration and the president’s drinking. Yet Grant’s real crime was probably challenging white supremacy and fighting racism.
Yes, Grant was a heavy drinker and probably an alcoholic, Chernow admits. However, several presidents including George Washington himself struggled with alcohol use and faced accusations of public drunkenness. In addition, at least one President, John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) was probably a sex and methamphetamine addict.
Yet the only presidents many historians criticize for substance use are Grant, and Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio); who is widely and falsely believed to be of partial African American descent. The cynic in me thinks that is no coincidence.
How Racists Destroyed a Great American’s Reputation
“The idea that Grant would do things that would ensure citizenship rights for blacks was just awful and so he had to be knocked down,” Marszalek says of 20th Century historians.
Consequently, historians tried to destroy both Grant’s military record and his reputation as president. In fact, Grant was probably America’s greatest general responsible for several of the most important Civil War victories; including Shiloh and Vicksburg. Notably, it was Grant to whom the venerated Southern icon Robert E. Lee surrendered.
“So, he was an extremely sophisticated military strategist,” Chernow says. Cherow believes Grant was the architect of Union victory in the Civil War. “It was really Grant who had a master plan, a comprehensive plan for ending the war by coordinating the movements of all of these various armies.”
Grant’s real crime was defeating Lee and destroying the Confederacy. To explain, it was Grant’s willingness to endure high causalities and constantly engage Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia that destroyed the Confederacy. Thus Grant defeated Lee by maintaining constant pressure that neutralized the Confederates’ advantages of quick movement and tactical surprise.
Moreover, the reality of the aristocratic Lee being outwitted by a cigar-chomping former storekeeper was too painful for Southern patriots to accept. So Grant is the victim of some ugly class prejudice because of his family’s retail business.
However, Grant is not the only President some intellectuals consider stupid because he did not attend an Ivy League school. Notably, another former shopkeeper Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) often faces similar criticism.
How President Grant Fought Racism
As President Grant’s crime was to oppose Southern Democrats’ efforts to restore White Supremacy in the South.
“So, as Frederick Douglass said, Ulysses S. Grant was “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of our race.” Chernow points out. Even Grant’s most questionable presidential policy; a plan to annex the Dominican Republic as a state, was an effort to help blacks.
To explain, Grant tried to annex the African majority Dominican Republican to create a black majority state. Consequently, blacks could have gained some permanent representation in Congress, in particular two U.S. Senators. The annexation plan failed because of the opposition of U.S. Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) a noted opponent of slavery.
Moreover, Grant also fought for citizenship for Native Americans, Smithsonian reports. As President Grant even appointed a Native American, Seneca Ely S. Parker, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Unfortunately, the racist Chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners William Welsh accused Parker of corruption and drove him out of office. Thus, the charges of corruption in the Grant administration were largely the work of 1870s racists. Furthermore, Native Americans did not receive citizenship until the 1920s.
America’s Worst Presidents or America’s Greatest White Supremacists?
Finally, I will compare Grant to men I consider three of America’s worst presidents. In particular, there are three bad presidents who were also white supremacists; James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, and Andrew Jackson.
First, Grant vs. James Buchanan
Grant: vigorously fought the Ku Klux Klan and its terrorist campaign to deny African Americans their constitutional rights. Notably, Grant’s administration tried to prosecute 3,000 Klan members.
Buchanan: refused to use the Army to stop Southerners from organizing the illegal Confederate government, stealing U.S. military supplies purchased with taxpayers’ money, and illegally seizing federal property in 1860 and 1861. Thus, setting the stage for the Civil War.
Second, Grant vs. Woodrow Wilson
Grant: vigorously worked to extend voting rights allowing African Americans to serve in Congress and as governors. Appointed non-whites to government offices. Maintained friendships and good relations with influential people of color like Frederick Douglass and Ely S. Parker.
Wilson: extended Jim Crow segregation to the U.S. Civil Service, and Washington D.C. Refused to listen to non-white leaders’ appeals for their nations’ freedom from European colonialism at the Versailles Conference after World War I.
In fact, Wilson was so racist, he refused to meet with African Americans or allow African American guests at the White House. Yet, Wilson claimed he sent over 60,000 Americans to die to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I.
Also Grant started no wars and sent no troops overseas. Wilson sent millions of Americans to Europe to fight for causes he did not believe in freedom and democracy.
Third, Grant vs. Andrew Jackson
Grant: tried to extend citizenship to all Native Americans and appointed a Native American as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Jackson: ordered the army to drive Native Americans off their land so white profiteers could steal it. Caused the deaths of thousands of Americans in the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign known as the Trail of Tears.
Grant: called corrupt because of the Crédit Mobilier scandal in the building of the Union Pacific railroad. To clarify the scandal involved contracts the Federal government gave a company building the first transcontinental railroad Note: they wrote the contracts several years before Grant’s presidency, during Abraham Lincoln’s (R-Illinois) and Andrew Johnson’s (D-Tennessee) administrations.
Jackson: fired most federal officeholders and replaced them with his political allies in the most blatant act of political corruption in American history. In fact, Jackson was the architect of the spoils system in which politicians used federal jobs to reward supporters.
Under the spoils system, politicians forced federal employees to donate their salaries to the party to keep their jobs. Thus, Jackson was both racist and corrupt.
Grant Shows the High Cost of Fighting White Supremacy in America
The smear campaign against Grant should show Americans how deeply ingrained racism is in our society. Moreover, the treatment of Grant demonstrates how racism can corrupt our best educated citizens and warp their thinking.
Notably, two of the terrible presidents I discuss often get admiring treatment by historians: Wilson and Jackson, were staunch white supremacists. Disturbingly, the historians will forgive Jackson’s incompetence, corruption, brutality, and racism; and Wilson’s incompetence, hypocrisy and warmongering, but not Grant’s drinking.
Hopefully, America can learn the truth about Ulysses S. Grant and emulate Grant’s heroic fight against racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, too many whites will learn the wrong lesson from Grant’s story. That lesson: is we will destroy you if you oppose white supremacy.
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