Ulysses Grant's legacy has had a roller-coaster like journey throughout the years. As a General during the Civil War, Grant enjoyed popularity among many for not being afraid to confront the enemy. After a series of Union generals such as George McClellan that were slow to pursue the Confederate Army, Abraham Lincoln famously said of his new general, "I like Grant, he fights." When reports came back to Lincoln that Grant might like his liquor a little too much, Lincoln suggested that they find out what brand of liquor Grant liked to drink and send a case of it to all of the other Union generals. But General Grant was also criticized for the high casualty counts in some of his battles, prompting his enemies to refer to him as "Grant the Butcher". After the war ended, Grant was probably more popular in the Union states than even Lincoln, and many assumed that Grant was a President-in-waiting. When he did become president, many praised Grant for his authoritative approach to enforcing equal rights in the south, while his reputation was injured because of a series of scandals in which his friends and cronies were caught with their hands in the taxpayers' cookie jar. He was also criticized for considering a third term as President, something that George Washington had declined, but was popular again at the time of his death, in part for his best selling memoirs and for working so hard to finish them so he could leave his family with some financial support. Since his death, the roller-coaster ride has continued.
Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, Grant was a skilled equestrian who had a talent for taming horses. He graduated from West Point in 1843 near the middle of his class, and served with distinction in the Mexican–American War. Upon his return from war, Grant married Julia Dent, and they had four children together. By all accounts they had a good marriage and Grant was a devoted family man. In 1854, Grant abruptly resigned from the army after having some problems with his drinking. He and his family struggled financially in civilian life for seven years and it looked as if Grant was destined to be a failure. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Grant joined the Union Army and thanks to a series of successes, he rapidly rose in rank to general. Unlike many Union Generals, Grant was persistent in his pursuit of the Confederate enemy, winning major battles and gaining Union control of the Mississippi River. In March 1864, after a series of disappointing commanding Generals, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to Lieutenant General, a rank previously reserved for George Washington. For over a year Grant's Army of the Potomac fought the Army of Northern Virginia led by Robert E. Lee in the Overland Campaign and at Petersburg. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, and the war was over.
On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated. Grant continued his service under Lincoln's successor President Andrew Johnson and was promoted General of the Army in 1866. But Grant disagreed with Johnson's approach to Reconstruction, and he identified more with the "Radical" Republicans. In 1868 at the age of 46 he was elected the youngest president up to that time. As President Grant stabilized the post-war national economy, created the Department of Justice, and prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan. He appointed African-Americans and Jewish-Americans to prominent federal offices and in 1871, Grant created the first Civil Service Commission.
In 1872, Democrats and liberal Republicans united behind Grant's opponent in the presidential election of 1872, but Grant easily won re-election. He adopted a new Peace Policy for Native Americans and his administration successfully resolved the Alabama claims and the Virginius Affair. He suffered a defeat when Congress rejected his plans to annex the Dominican Republic. Grant's presidency was plagued by numerous public scandals, especially during its second term. It was also confronted with the Panic of 1873, as the nation sunk into a severe economic depression.
Grant left office in March 1877 and embarked on a two-and-a-half-year world tour that captured favorable global attention for him and increased the international reputation of both Grant and the United States. When he returned, Grant unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination for a third term in 1880. His last years were spent facing several investment reversals and he suffered from throat cancer, the product of a lifelong love of cigars. In his dying days, he wrote his memoirs, which proved to be a major critical and financial success. At the time of his death, he was memorialized as a symbol of national unity.
Historical assessments of Grant's legacy have varied considerably over the years. Historians have hailed Grant's abilities as a military commander. His strategies are featured in military history textbooks. But his Presidency has been stigmatized by multiple scandals, causing it to be ranked as among the worst. More recent biographers and scholars have shown greater appreciation for his achievements in the field of civil rights enforcement.
During his presidency, cases of fraud and governmental mismanagement were uncovered, perpetrated by men that Grant had trusted. Grant was never personally implicated in any of these, but his judgement was seriously called into question when he gave favorable character evidence for his former military aide Orville Babcock, at a time when Babcock's dishonesty and criminal activity seemed very clear.
Grant's attempts to reunify the South with the North, while trying to protect Civil Rights for African-Americans during the Reconstruction era were met with both praise and criticism, depending on the source. Grant's popularity declined with congressional investigations into corruption in his administration and after General George Armstrong Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1877, there was bipartisan approval of Grant's peaceful handling of the electoral crisis following the very close election of 1876.
Grant's reputation soared during his well-publicized world tour. When he died in 1885, Grant was praised as "a symbol of the American national identity and memory". Millions turned out for his funeral procession in Manhattan and millions also attended the 1897 dedication of his tomb.
As time went on, historians and scholars portrayed Grant's administration as the most corrupt in American history. As the popularity of the pro-Confederate Lost Cause movement increased early in the 20th century, a more negative view of Grant became common. Grant's new critics charged that he was a reckless drunk, as well as corrupt. In the 1930s, biographer William B. Hesseltine commented that Grant's reputation deteriorated "because his enemies were better writers than his friends". In 1931, Frederic Paxson and Christian Bach wrote in the Dictionary of American Biography that "personal scandal has not touched Grant in any plausible form, but it struck so close to him and so frequently as to necessitate the vindication of his honor by admitting his bad taste in the choice of associates." These same authors also noted Grant's more positive presidential achievements including settling peace with Great Britain, stabilizing the nation after an attempted Johnson impeachment, and steeing the nation through the Panic of 1873 and the controversial election of 1876.
In the 1960s Civil War historians Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams began the reevaluation of Grant's military career. These authors portrayed Grant as a calculating and skillful strategist and commander. Catton acknowledged that the Union had enormous potential advantages in terms of manpower and industry, but he pointed out that until Grant took over in 1864, it lacked the commander who could successfully exploit that potential. Catton wrote: "Grant, in short, was able to use the immense advantage in numbers, and military resources, and in money which the Federal side possessed from the start. Those advantages had always been there, and what the Northern war effort had always needed was a soldier who, assuming the top command, would see to it that they were applied steadily, remorselessly, and without a break, all across the board."
William S. McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for his critical biography of Grant in 1981. He credited Grant's initial efforts on civil rights, but concluded of Grant that "he did not rise above limited talents or inspire others to do so in ways that make his administration a credit to American politics."
Historians' positive assessments of Grant have grown more favorable since the 1990s. Grant is praised for his efforts to protect African Americans and his peace policy towards Indians, even when those policies failed. Jean Edward Smith's 2001 biography concluded that the same qualities that made Grant a success as a general carried over to his political life to make him an admirable and principled president. Smith wrote: "the common thread is strength of character—an indomitable will that never flagged in the face of adversity. Sometimes he blundered badly; often he oversimplified; yet he saw his goals clearly and moved toward them relentlessly." H. W. Brands, in his 2012 book, wrote favorably of both Grant's military and political careers. He concluded:
"As commanding general in the Civil War, he had defeated secession and destroyed slavery, secession's cause. As President during Reconstruction he had guided the South back into the Union. By the end of his public life the Union was more secure than at any previous time in the history of the nation. And no one had done more to produce the result than he."
Brands noted Grant's forceful and temporarily successful efforts as president to crush the Ku Klux Klan. Though not apparent at the time, many of Grant's modern biographers see him as being on the right side of history on the subject of civil rights. John F. Marszalek wrote, "You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom."In 2016, Ronald C. White wrote another in depth biography of Grant, noting Grant's fight to protect the rights of former slaves, both as a general and as president, and presents a compelling testimony to Grant's principled character that has been overlooked by many of his earlier biographers. Historian Edwina Campbell credits Grant's post-presidential trip around the world with creation of "key aspects of the foreign-policy role of the modern American presidency, and created an image abroad of the United States that endures to this day." Like White's book, Ron Chernow's 2017 biography of Grant continued the positive assessment of Grant's historical reputation.
When Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, more than 250,000 indigenous Americans lived on reservations being governed by 370 treaties. Grant introduced a number of radical reforms and promised in his inaugural address to work toward "the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians." As Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Grant appointed Ely S. Parker, a Seneca Indian, a former member of his wartime staff, as the first Native American to serve in this position. Grant's plan was to replace the often corrupt political patronage system of managing Indian affairs with one that relied much less on the military and instead used religious denominations to take charge of managing the reservations. Both Catholic and Protestant churches responded to his request for help; they were active in 70 reservations in the West. The policy was well-intention, though it resulted in several scandals, including one at the Red Cloud Agency. Both the federal government and national media focused heavily on these scandals, adding to the severe damage to Grant's reputation. Criticism of the policy was not limited to Grant's lifetime. The peace policy involved assimilation with the indigenous people required to engage in farming, rather than hunting, even though much of the reservation land was too barren for farming. The policy also led to boarding schools that have come under intense criticism since the late 20th century.
As for the allegations of Grant's drinking that form a large part of his legacy, charges of drinking were used against him in his presidential campaigns of 1868 and 1872. In 1868 The Republican Party chose Schuyler Colfax as his running mate hoping that Colfax's reputation as a temperance reformer would neutralize the attacks. Contemporary stories of Grant's alleged excessive drinking were often reported by newspaper reporters during his military service in the Civil War. Many of these reports are contradicted by eye witness accounts. According to Jean Edward Smith, "the evidence is overwhelming that during the Vicksburg campaign he occasionally fell off the wagon. Grant took to drink, but only in private and when his command was not on the line. In a clinical sense, he may have been an 'alcoholic', but overall he refrained from drink, protected from alcohol by his adjutant, Colonel John Rawlins, and especially by his wife Julia". There are no reported episodes while he was president or on the world tour, even though the media was well aware of the rumors and watched him closely.
Despite the recent positive evaluation of Grant's presidency, rankings of the Presidents continue to rate Grant closer to the bottom. In an aggregate of twenty different rankings conducted between 1948 and 2018, Grant rates 36th among all 44 Presidents. More recent rankings have elevated his status to above average, finishing 21st in a 2018 APSA ranking, 22nd in a 2017 C-SPAN ranking, and 23rd in a 2009 C-SPAN ranking. Grant's changing legacy offers a valuable lesson about jumping to conclusions and rash judgements when it comes to looking at history in perspective. What do you think? What is a fair rating for President Ulysses S. Grant?