Historians revise history constantly. That’s a key component of the job: seeking out and assessing new information, considering and reconsidering the motives of participants, and pondering the authenticity of documents and other accounts.
But revising history is different from “rewriting” history, which involves ascribing positive or negative motives to actors based on predetermined outcomes, ignoring information that contradicts those preordained outcomes or faulting historical figures by holding them to modern standards and values incompatible with the past.
This is evident in recent analyses of Ulysses Grant’s presidency. Grant, the Union general who served as president from 1869 to 1877, was graded near the bottom of U.S. presidents just 70 years ago, ranking No. 28 of 30 chief executives in 1948. Conversely, in 2017 Grant was rated No. 22 of 43.
This is curious, given that unlike such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Grant’s Administration didn’t have the benefit of classifying secret information for decades. In other words, it’s not like a horde of secret files were released 75 years or a century after Grant left office, giving historians solid reasons to reassess his presidency.
Grant’s eight years in the Oval Office is the subject of Philip Leigh’s last book, U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency (published by Shotwell Publishing, 2019).
Leigh ascribes Grant’s revival to two factors: Modern historians tendency to focus on the racial aspects of Reconstruction – and to ascribe egalitarian motives to Grant’s decisions when they were almost certainly political in nature – and an inclination to minimize or even overlook the corruption that was a hallmark of his presidency, including concerns that Grant himself was involved in the graft.
Today’s historians, many of whom came of age during or after the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, too often fail to critically evaluate Grant’s motives for supporting black civil rights, particularly voting rights, during Reconstruction, Leigh writes.
“His policy is commonly portrayed as a noble stand for racial equality. They fail to adequately examine evidence that his prime motive may have been to gain the political power that a routinely obedient voting bloc could provide to Republican candidates,” Leigh states.
Grant was opposed to black suffrage at the end of the War Between the States, but by 1868 he was warbling a different tune. That change, however, did not encompass extending the franchise to other minorities such as Native Americans and Chinese Americans. The Republican Party was less than two decades old when Grant was first elected and securing a compliant voting base to help the party become established was crucial to its long-term survival.
Regarding integrity, the Grant Administration’s ethical lapses rival those of the Harding, Nixon and Clinton administrations.
There were at least 10 major scandals during Grant’s two terms, including a gold speculation ring that resulted in the nation’s economy spiraling into a recession, the Whisky Ring, in which whisky distillers bribed Treasury Department officials who then aided the distillers in evading taxes, and the breach of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, when Grant, seeking a means to get the country out of the Depression of 1873, approved an 1,000-troop expedition into the Black Hills, sacred land of the Lakota Indians where gold had been discovered. Grant appointed a commission to buy mining rights from the Sioux, but the commission reported that force was necessary to begin negotiations. Grant proceeded to launch an illegal war against the Plains Indians, then lied to Congress and the American people about it.
Corruption would be discovered in seven federal departments: including the Navy, Justice, War, Treasury, Interior State and Post Office. Nepotism was prevalent, with more than 40 of Grant’s family members benefiting from government appointments and employment. And several of Grant’s close aides and cabinet officials were indicted.
Grant himself exhibited dubious standards which, were a politician to act similarly today would surely end their career and possibly result in prison time. In 1866, prior to entering public service, Grant accepted a $30,000 home in Washington, D.C., raised through public subscription that netted the general $100,000 in all.
When Grant was ready to move into the White House, he initially agreed to a deal to sell the home for $40,000. Treasury Secretary designee Alexander Stewart led a subscription to purchase the home for $65,000 for Union General William T. Sherman. When the money was raised, Grant turned his back on the agreement with the first buyer and pocketed the $35,000 difference, according to Leigh.
Six months into his first term, Grant accepted a vacation home on the New Jersey coast. The 27-room structure cost $35,000, money raised by seven donors, including a Philadelphia newspaper owner and the owner of the Pullman Co., which manufactured railroad cars, according to Leigh.
A century and a half after Grant became chief executive the office of the president has changed so much that contrasting mid-19th century presidential administrations and those of today is extremely difficult. The manner in which information was recorded and archived (or, as in the past, wasn’t archived), and the present access to public information, inadequate but a far cry from that of the 1860s and ‘70s, make an apples-to-apples comparison impossible, for example.
Still, Grant’s Administration was a marked period of corruption, when speculators and rouges fleeced both the public trust and the public treasury, while the common citizen, whether white or black, worked diligently just to simply keep their heads above water.
U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency is a well-done, easily understood work. In it, Philip Leigh cuts through the presentism that pervades so much current historical writing and examines the facts of 1869-1877, delivering an appropriately unflattering appraisal of Ulysses Grant’s eight years in office.
(Top: Ulysses S. Grant and his family at 27-room New Jersey beach home given to president by wealthy donors.)