The foremost challenge of Grant’s day has not gone away. His response to it merits our attention.
Every few years C-SPAN commissions historians to rank the American presidents. In 2000 Ulysses S. Grant earned a paltry designation of 33 out of the 41 presidents evaluated. The experts ranked Grant near the bottom of such categories as “Moral Authority,” “Vision/Setting an Agenda,” and “Performance Within Context of Times.” Only in the realm of “Pursued Equal Justice for All” did Grant achieve a more estimable assessment, coming in at #18, just ahead of Richard Nixon. This unremarkable positioning reflected Grant’s sour historical and popular reputation. Long ridiculed as a callous, drunk, bumbling military officer, and disparaged as an unqualified, corrupt, and incompetent chief executive, it appeared that Grant’s image would continue to deteriorate with the dawn of the new millennium.
But history is hardly inevitable. Two decades later C-SPAN placed Grant at #20 overall, in between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Even more striking, historians elevated Grant to #6 in the category of “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” What had happened?
A cottage industry of Grant rehabilitation lumbered to life in the 1990s and gained full steam through the 2000s. No longer beholden to the Lost Cause or disillusioned by the mixed success of the Civil Rights movement and the shame of Vietnam and Watergate, historians reassessed Grant within the context of his own times.
Today, during the bicentennial year of his birth, we know better the Grant who existed in fact: a committed general who preserved the Union and a principled statesman who championed emancipation and biracial civil rights. Grant embraced the foremost challenge of his era: defending the United States as a republic of liberty and equality. And to his dying day he never apologized for the signal role he had played in ensuring that a government of, by, and for the people endured for posterity. When he died in 1885 Grant left his fellow citizens with an impassioned plea to remember why they had given their full measures of devotion during the Civil War. “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery,” the ailing Grant penned in his memoirs just before succumbing to throat cancer. The slaveholders’ crusade against the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, “was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
For Grant, the war and its aftermath were tests of right versus wrong. The great national crucible demonstrated to the humble Midwesterner that when anchored to the manifest truths of the American founding, free people and free institutions best express our national character. During his presidency (1869 to 1877) Grant beseeched his fellow citizens to uphold that logic. The American Union, he proclaimed, was a democratic republic that stood athwart the world’s monarchies, aristocracies, and exclusionary ethnic states. To ensure “peace, prosperity and fullest development,” Grant reported in his first message to Congress, the republic must maintain “the person and property of the citizen of the United States in each . . . portion of our common country, wherever he may choose to move, without reference to original nationality, religion, color, or politics, demanding of him only obedience to the laws and proper respect for the rights of others.”
Grant believed that an everlasting Union compelled the defense of political equality; all citizens possessed an intrinsic right to individual sovereignty. The American people had to remain dedicated to upholding “those equal rights under the law which were asserted in the Declaration of Independence.” Grant thus championed passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which ensures the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Joined with the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Fifteenth signaled “a measure of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the formation of our free government to the present day.” It “completes the greatest civil change, and constitutes the important event that has ever occurred, since the nation came into life.”
Grant’s presidency oversaw a second American Revolution that rebuilt a house once divided. The nation now pledged to uphold the innate integrity of all its citizens to live equal before the law. Yet the remnant embers of slaveholding still stoked the white southern soul. By 1868, as African Americans for the first time enjoyed the national right to vote, hold political office, and practice the rituals of democracy, former Confederates committed heinous acts of racial violence and electoral fraud to topple the reconstructed region—once home to the world’s largest slaveholding domain.
To combat the evils of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrorism of white paramilitary insurgents, Grant authorized an unprecedented use of federal force in defense of civil rights. In 1870 he approved the formation of the Department of Justice, whose founding charge was to prosecute the KKK. The following year, and with Congress’s approval, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in various South Carolina counties, deploying the U. S. Army to aid civil authorities in arresting domestic terrorists. Under Grant’s purview the army during the 1870s performed hundreds of counterinsurgent actions, including overthrowing political coups in Arkansas and Louisiana.
Echoing his political hero Abraham Lincoln, Grant announced that Civil War Era had given the United States a “new birth.” Slavery once bred a false conviction that the American Union could host oppressive racial castes and inflexible hierarchies, that the immutable characteristics of birth could consign persons to lifetimes of bondage. But the nation’s better angels had conquered its coarsest demons, liberating the republic from the corrupting claim that one human could enslave another. Of these great changes Grant concluded, “Prejudices, no matter how deeply implanted, must, sooner or later, yield to the force of truth.”
Insurgent violence and notorious court rulings ultimately dismantled the signal gains of Reconstruction. Grant nevertheless beseeched his fellow citizens to preserve democratic political equality for posterity—a legacy that surely resonates today. At a moment when bitter political schisms and competing claims to truth fray the national fabric, we would do well to reflect on Grant’s call in 1875 to maintain the enduring attributes of American nationhood: “free thought, free speech, free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal right and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color or religion.” The United States has never been immune to the force of history. A free people hastens national decline when it espouses dogmas that contravene the privilege of self-government and the right of individual liberty. Grant predicted that future contests over “our national existence” would not be between North and South. Rather, Americans would divide “between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.” Grant’s legacy at his bicentennial invites us to remain ever dedicated to the democratic spirit, properly understood.
Andrew F. Lang, Associate Professor of History at Mississippi State University, is the author most recently of A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, which was a finalist for the 2022 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize.