Grant -- Lessons for Our Times


Lessons for Our Times


I have been immersed in Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant, the leading General of the Civil War, two term President, an extraordinary champion of civil rights and symbol of corruption. There is a lot of resonance and hard lessons for our own turbulent times. This is the same Ron Chernow who wrote “Hamilton”, the biography, not the musical.

The ups and downs of Grant’s life are dizzying. He grew up in a small Ohio town, close to Cincinnati, went to West Point, and then fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War. He began a promising Army career, married and started a family. While serving in Mexico, he had developed a love and appreciation of the country and its people. After the Mexican-American War, he served in remote Army outposts in Humboldt Bay, California and elsewhere and developed an understanding and appreciation for the local Native American tribes and their difficulties with the local settlers over the issues of land use.

The US was in territorial expansion mode (Manifest Destiny) at the time and took Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and portions of Colorado and Utah from Mexico. We were attracting immigrants from all over the world, including economic refugees from the potato famines of Northern Europe and the political refugees from the repressions following the failed political revolutions of 1848. The debates about the Mexican American War were also about whether slavery would be allowed and expanded into the new territories. Both Lincoln and Grant had opposed this war and the expansion of slavery. In the aftermath of the war, Texas was admitted as a slave state and not long after California was admitted as a free state; the California Gold Rush was in full swing.

This was a time of great political ferment -- the collapse and disappearance of the Whig Party due to its internal divisions over slavery, the rise and then fall of the nativist, anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement, and the creation of the Republican Party, which sought to restrict the growth of and ultimately abolish slavery, favored a strong and activist central government promoting economic growth in manufacturing, commerce and transportation, and strong local government investment in public education and infrastructure.  What a difference from today!

Democrats at the time favored a weak central government, state’s rights and local control over issues such as slavery; they were opposed to the national bank and federal involvement in the economy. Again, polar opposites from today’s Democrats!

Republicans at the time favored high tariffs to promote the development of American industry, while Democrats favored low tariffs so the planters and farmers could sell their cotton, tobacco and other agricultural products abroad. In the US, we were in the early days of our democratic experiment and continental expansionism while much of the rest of the world was still governed by monarchies and emperors. England was leading the industrial revolution and the major European powers were about to embark on their next rounds of colonialism.

Part of the lead-up to the Civil War was the debate about whether the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be admitted as free states or slave states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 kept slavery below the 36º 30’ parallel. Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and many Southern Senators argued that the people of each state should make that decision – i.e. state’s rights. The resulting Kansas-Nebraska Act negated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had restricted slavery to the South. Skirmishes preliminary to Civil War broke out in Kansas between settlers and small farmers opposed to slavery and the larger planters favoring slavery. This was followed up by the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, which opined that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that a slave could never be free even if residing in a Northern state which prohibited slavery. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 catalyzed Northern opposition to the steady expansion of Southern slavery and the expanding rights of Southern slaveholders. These actions inflamed public opinion in the North and galvanized public sentiment and fears in the South such that the Civil War was soon to follow the election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican Party President in 1860. While the antipathy between today's political partisans are severe and being inflamed daily by the President, they are nowhere near the country's divisions at the time of the Civil War or during the Vietnam and Civil Rights era of the 60's.

In the remote Army frontier outposts separated from his wife and children, Grant was at a loss, was eventually cashiered from the Army for drinking to excess. He then suffered multiple and successive business failures, failed as a farmer, and was dependent alternatively on his father and father in law for opening new opportunities for his family’s subsistence. Grant’s father was a staunch Ohio Republican, supportive of abolition, a local wheeler dealer, who ran a tannery and leather goods stores while Grant’s father-in-law was a slave owning planter, an ardent Southern Democrat from Missouri. They were on the opposing sides in the lead up to the Civil War.  We see the same stark divisions within families and between regions in today's social fractures.

At the time of the Civil War, Grant was working in one of his father’s stores in Galena, Illinois. A local lawyer, active in Republican Party politics recommended and promoted him for an opening as an officer with the Illinois militia; he excelled nearly at once, winning crucial battles in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, eventually leading to Union victory in the West and control of the vital Mississippi waterway after Vicksburg.

The South had many experienced Army officers and soldiers, while the North had a greater population, industrial and manufacturing strength. The South was unified; the North was not. Many Northern Democrats supported a negotiated peace “at any cost” with the Confederate secessionists. Grant was one of a handful of Union Army Generals who actually won the battles he was fighting, leading to steady promotions and eventually the overall command of the Union Army under President Lincoln. General Lee meanwhile defeated a stream of Union Generals until his loss at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to General Meade’s forces. This coincided with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, Miss. and turned the tide of the war.

Other Union Generals sought to derail Grant’s rise, citing his history of drinking; Lincoln’s reported and possibly apocryphal response was “what brand, let’s order some for my other Generals”. In combination with Generals Sherman and Sheridan and their Union armies, Grant beat General Lee’s and General Johnston’s Confederate armies in the largest bloodiest battles ever fought up to that time, leading to General Lee’s final surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theater by the Booth conspiracy; Grant was supposed to have been in attendance, but had begged off due to exhaustion.

Vice President Andrew Johnson had been a Southern Democratic Senator, the only one who stayed loyal to the Union. He was now President and came into fairly immediate conflict with the Republicans over Reconstruction, Civil Rights and the integration of the ex-slaves, the new Freedmen, into post-war society. Congress passed the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery), the 14th Amendment (prohibiting state discrimination and assuring equal protection of the laws), the 15th Amendment (guaranteeing citizenship and the right to vote to all) and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Johnson vetoed all but the 13th Amendment (which he strongly supported), and Congress over-rode his other vetoes. The proximate cause of his impeachment was his removal of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, over the express direction of Congress to keep Stanton in place. What they were really fighting about was martial law and civil rights in the South. Many in the destroyed and ruined South were fighting to restore their pre-war preeminence. The Ku Klux Klan, under the leadership of General Bedford Forrest of Tennessee and others, was killing, torturing and beating Southern blacks who sought to exert their new freedom and their Northern allies who were helping with education and training in their rights. The US Army under Generals Grant and Sheridan was defending them while President Johnson and other Southern (and Northern) Democrats wanted to look the other way and/or aid and abet the return of political control to Southern planters and other elites. President Johnson was impeached in the House and escaped conviction by one vote in the Senate. Republicans at the time were divided between the Radicals and the moderates; the moderates saved President Johnson’s job.

In the next election, Grant handily beat President Johnson and ushered in nearly 50 years of one party dominance of the federal government. The Klan continued and escalated its violence against Southern blacks and Southern Republicans, and President Grant, the Army, the Attorney General and the local US attorney’s responded with crackdowns on local white vigilantes. Eventually Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, to assist in federal enforcement of Civil Rights and educational opportunities for the ex-slaves; it included temporary suspension of habeas corpus in several Southern counties and it included §1983, the mainstay of most modern day civil rights litigation. They broke the back of the Klan, until it resurfaced again in the 1920’s, 1960’s and yet again today. President Grant was our most pro-Civil Rights President until President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s. He was succeeded by President Rutherford B. Hayes, after the disputed Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, and as part of the bargain for his election, Southern politicians were allowed to resume their suppression of voting and property rights for the ex-slaves. Southern Democrats ruled the region,  enforced racial segregation for the next 90 years and impaired the region's economic development and the nation's social progress well into the 60's.

Grant had little political experience and made a mix of excellent and terrible appointments as a result of his inexperience and political naiveté. Some of his loyal comrades from the Civil War became corrupt once in positions of power. Grant was reluctant to believe the accusations and reality of corruption among those men he had fought with and trusted. He had been a superb judge of talent during the War; he was a far less acute judge of character during times of peace. Grant was used to giving orders and having them obeyed, not horse trading, and was embroiled in nearly immediate conflict with Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts over the Senator’s patronage requests for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the President’s proposed annexation of the Dominican Republic. 

This was the time of the “spoils system”; the winning party could appoint its supporters to all government posts. After the 1881 assassination of President Garfield by a disappointed job seeker, Civil Service Reform professionalized a non-partisan government service. Grant paid only lip service to the need for Civil Service reform; he was a strong believer in rewarding party and personal loyalty.

Grant was a strong supporter of the railroads, the miners, the Western settlers and the other infrastructure investments and improvements needed by the Western settlers as the country expanded in the wake of the devastating war. This was largely achieved through land and mining and mineral grants that made the railroad entrepreneurs wealthy and gave the Midwestern and Western settlers a start in farming and ranching. He helped lay the foundations for a century of powerful economic growth and for the unchecked power of the railroads over Western economic development for the next forty years.

He was also a strong supporter of reform in the Bureau of Indian Affairs where corrupt Indian Agents were stealing funds intended for the tribes. Grant appointed the first Native American head of the BIA, a colleague from the Civil War. Some of his appointees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs became corrupt during their turn at the trough -- a temptation that preceded and succeeded Grant's tenure. During Grant’s Presidency, General Custer foolishly led his troops into the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Grant was not a populist, but rather an economic conservative. He did not believe in inflationary easy money, but rather he was a strong supporter of the return to the Gold Standard, a balanced budget and the repayment of the large federal debts incurred in fighting the Civil War. These policies exacerbated the financial crash of 1873. Not until the Great Depression did the nation learn how to respond to the periodic severe depressions.

Grant was supported by the traditional Republican leadership, but eventually broke with its more progressive elements who had tired of the civil rights struggles in the South and wanted to move on to Civil Service Reform and breaking the power of the big city machine politicians. Grant easily won re-election in 1872. Republicans now became the party of big business until the trust-busting reforms of Theodore Roosevelt.

He was personally of high integrity, but had around him a number of officials, colleagues from the battles of the Civil War, who became quite corrupt.  His father and brothers sought to capitalize on his Presidency. He had a fondness for men of great wealth, whose financial manipulations and over extensions of credit caused and contributed to the depth of the Recession of 1873. Throughout his life, he depended on the generosity of the wealthy, who gave him family homes in thanks for his leadership during the Civil War. There were no Presidential pensions or other perks of Presidential retirement in Grant’s time. Grant was no Cincinnatus returning to his farm, but rather sought to install his family in New York City, a place he could not afford, after his many years of government service. 

After his Presidency, he traveled the world for two years giving speeches, meeting world leaders, helping to arbitrate peace and becoming a much admired international celebrity; he was the first ex-President to embark on such a world tour. After his return to the States, he invested with, partnered with and became a victim of a young whiz kid financier who fleeced him and his entire family of their savings. Eventually he was restored to Army rank and pension by Congress, Finally to save his family from insolvency, he wrote his “Memoirs”, completing them as he was dying of throat cancer brought on by his love of cigars. Mark Twain, his friend and the book’s publisher, thought they were the finest military writing since Caesar.

Slavery, intolerance and racism towards others were our nation's "original sin". Despite the heroism of Grant, Lincoln and the Civil War, and the generations of civil rights leaders and movements since then, our nation's past sins keep coming back to haunt our nation's politics to the present day. We still have much to learn to heal the divisions of 200 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow.

Lucien Wulsin

May 1, 2018








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