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ulysses s grant

18 august 2008

Ulysses S. Grant, like several other Presidents (Madison, JQ Adams, Hoover), poses a problem for historians: how did such a great man turn out to be such a bad President? Josiah Bunting tries to look at Grant without cheerleading, apologetics, or snark to propose at least a fresh start on the "Problem of Grant."

One factor is temperament. The things that made Grant a perfect general didn't translate well to effectiveness as President. Grant gave orders smoothly, but didn't persuade or cajole people. He delegated tasks and stood by his subordinates. He threw a blanket of sheer impassiveness over infighting, incompetence, or even corruption. Like George Washington, he cared a lot what people thought about him, and expressed that concern by appearing not to care at all – a paradoxical affect that led people to love and admire him without taking him seriously as a politician.

But another factor in the problem of Grant is the poisonously tendentious nature of American historiography. Bunting raises the question of whether Grant was really such a bad President after all, especially in the moral sense. Our view of Grant is filtered through a century of historical tradition that sees "Congressional Reconstruction" – the radical program endorsed by Grant – as a vicious affront to white Southern honor. Even after the overt racism of that historiography has evaporated, we can't quite recuperate Grant as the most anti-racist President of his century after Lincoln. He has been too tarnished with a patina of rhetoric that has coated him as the über-carpetbagger.

Bunting argues not only for Grant's fiercely progressive stance on issues affecting African-Americans, but also for his simple enlightenment on federal relationships with American Indians. On the face of it, this argument is a hard sell; Little Big Horn, after all, occurred on Grant's watch. But Bunting's argument parallels one that Sean Wilentz makes about Andrew Jackson, also in the Times Books American Presidents series. If Grant was paternalistic, assimilationist, and a bad listener to Indian voices, his contemporaries were much, much worse. He mitigated the brutality of his government's American Indian policy, and in a century of extreme brutality, there is much to be said for the mitigators.

Grant's administration was plagued with scandals, as everyone knows. But Bunting points out that the American political system was essentially based on scandal. The spoils system that has prevailed in so many federal agencies during the Bush 43 administration, where bureaucrats are chosen for their ideological loyalties to the sitting government, only seems in a 21st-century context like an aberration; in the long view, it's business as usual. Grant appointed his own father as postmaster of Covington, Kentucky. The wonder is that such a strong, disinterested reform movement ever arose to challenge the spoilsmen (who were not finally checked until three Presidents later).

There is so much to admire about Grant as a Union war leader that one wishes he had had the skills to institutionalize his progressive beliefs as President. As it is, we look back and see Grant, obdurate, like a rock, while the tide of radicalism receded around him and finally left him retired and irrelevant.

Grant and his beloved wife Julia rest today in a monument that everyone knows and few visit, the colossal tomb on Riverside Drive that, like so many other landmarks in Manhattan, is more prominent from a distance than from the city's streets. The contrast of Grant's Tomb to the style of its principal tenant is striking. (Never did any American leader feel less, in his heart, that it was all about him.) A better memorial is the statue that stands in front of the U.S. Capitol: Grant on his horse, hat crammed untidily on his head, looking watchfully and imperturbably out at imaginary rebels. He seems to be saying to those who don't respect democracy and human rights: try it again and you'll have to deal with me. That Grant, not the well-intentioned ineffectual President, is a great American hero.

Bunting, Josiah, III. Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Times Books, 2004.