April 27 marked the 200th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth in Point Pleasant, Ohio.
His personal memoirs, originally published in two volumes, is considered one of the best military autobiographies ever written. He focused on his career as a soldier during the Mexican War and Civil War. Perhaps he would have given us insight on his presidency (1869-1877) in a third volume if he had lived long enough, but Grant was in a race against death to finish writing what he could while suffering from cancer. He finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885, and died five days later.
Although historians now consider Grant a much better president than was once thought, some still paint him as a complicated character. In San Francisco a group tore down a statue of Grant a couple of summers ago. I think if we look at the big picture considering his life and times, he wasn’t so complicated after all.
Here’s some things about Grant that were either passed down by old Lost Causers of the Confederacy to try to make their own mythology seem credible, or those who denounce Grant today for not being even more ahead of his time than he was:
He was a horrible student: First of all, Grant’s father, Jesse, applied to get his son a Congressional appointment to West Point and Grant did not want to go. Secondly, consider that Grant had just turned 17 years old when he entered the military academy in 1839. That year 30 percent of the prospective class was unable to pass the entrance exams to become cadets. That left 60 cadets, but 21 of them couldn’t cut the mustard to graduate. Grant graduated in 1843, ranked 21st out of 39.
He was kicked out of the army for drinking: He was a drinker, but he wasn’t kicked out. He was decorated and promoted for actions in the Mexican War, even though he thought the war was wrong. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory,” Grant wrote. He resigned in 1854 after being sent to the Pacific Northwest and not being allowed to take his family with him. There are accounts that he drank to excess during that time but according to the book General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and The Man, by Edward G. Longacre, there were no official reports of Grant drinking too much and the War Department stated: “Nothing stands against his good name.”
He led the Union in the Civil War, supposedly against slavery, but he was a slave-owner: Like many people in the 19th century Grant had been indifferent to slavery when it didn’t affect him personally. Grant did own a slave that had belonged to his father-in-law when Grant and his wife, Julia, were farming in Missouri after he resigned from the army. But Grant, who decided to give up farming, freed the man through paperwork he filed in St. Louis, in 1859. William Jones would have been 35 years old. According to the National Parks Service, Grant could have sold Jones for a profit of up to $1,500 but gave him freedom instead. That amount of money would be equivalent to about $52,000 today.
He was anti-Semitic: In December 1862, Grant’s army controlled west Tennessee, north Mississippi, and parts of Kentucky and Arkansas. There was a blockade to keep money for crops out of the hands of the Confederacy, but a black market existed. The War Department eventually allowed traders who held permits, to buy cotton as long as they did not travel into enemy territory, but this made it even more difficult for Grant to stop illegal transactions. Making matters worse, Grant’s father tried to get permits for his friends Harmen, Henry, and Simon Mack, Jewish brothers who owned a clothing business in Ohio, for a cut of the profits they made off cotton they planned to buy. A furious Grant’s Order No. 11 stated: “The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department.” This rightly angered Jewish people, soldiers, and President Abraham Lincoln, who had the order rescinded. But reformjudaism.org notes that Grant expressed regret over the order and apologized for it. As president he appointed a record number of Jewish Americans to offices and spoke out against Jewish persecution in other countries. The Jewish Record newspaper in Philadelphia declared: “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew,” when Grant died.
He was corrupt: Black Friday on Sept. 24, 1869 was caused by corruption that was actually uncovered by Grant, and involved his brother-in-law. The mastermind of the plot to corner the gold market, which led to its collapse on Black Friday, was railroadman Jay Gould, for which the ‘gould’ part of Paragould is named (the Para part comes from railroadman J.W. Paramore). He was working with financiers James Fisk, Abel Corbin, Grant’s brother-in-law, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Butterfield on the plot, but President Grant became suspicious, and ordered $4 million in government gold to be sold. A Congressional investigation cleared Grant of wrongdoing, but excoriated Gould for his manipulation of the gold market, and Corbin for exploiting his connection with Grant. Butterfield, who resigned soon after the gold crash, was implicated for giving information to Gould.
As president, Grant enforced civil rights, took action against voter intimidation, and protected the right of African-Americans to hold office. He effectively dismantled the Ku Klux Klan with hundreds of convictions (it didn’t really rise again until the 1920s). He endorsed the 15th Amendment, which prohibited federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” He established the Department of Justice, Office of Solicitor General, and Yellowstone National Park. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 into law, banning discrimination in public accommodations and public transportation. In 1883, however, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, and with its racist interpretation of the 15th Amendment, along with Southern Democratic control of states, the voting rights of African Americans were basically disenfranchised. This was the last Civil Rights legislation until the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
And although he was not the best friend of Native Americans, Grant advocated for their humane treatment at a time when some government officials were calling for genocide. Even though he proposed placing them on reservations, he insisted on giving them protection. Grant was the first president to appoint a Native American as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and his policy was to have Native Americans assimilated into American culture, which is a frowned-upon approach by today’s standards. But, considering the alternative at the time, maybe he was their best friend.
Steve Gillespie is editor of The Daily Press. Email him at email@example.com.