Wherein Lex Berates Walter Russell Mead Concerning Ulysses S. Grant

I read Walter Russell Mead’s last two books, Special Providence and Power, Terror, Peace and War with much profit. I look forward to his reviews in each issue of Foreign Affairs with great interest.

Mead’s favorable review of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power by John Steele Gordon makes me want to read it. I note in particular that in his review Mead says that Gordon “enlivens and explains early financial history” of the United States. This is a topic that Mead emphasized in Special Providence, observing that ignorance of the economic realities of the USA’s first century or so is a serious gap in the knowledge of even educated people. I agree with this and have tried to rectify it in my own case.

So I was a little dismayed that Mead’s favorable review of Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero by Michael Korda made a dismissive and slighting reference to Grant’s ” dismal presidency”, merely.

Not so, not so.

Jean Edward Smith’s brilliant biography of Grant gives a much more complete and fair impression. In an earlier post I summarized Smith’s book thus: “A good summary of Grantís military career, and an eye-opening study of his role after the end of hostilities both before and during his term as president. Grant emerges as one of the greatest Americans, and his administration, despite scandals involving his subordinates, as an effective one, particularly in reviving the U.S. economy after the Civil War.”

In particular, Grant had the guts to hold firm on reestablishing a hard-money currency, and he accepted a sharp recession to do it. He laid the financial foundations for the late 19th Century boom, and he knew what he was doing. He was a 19th Century Paul Volcker, but it was a near-run thing. The USA could have given in to the Jacksonian urge for financial irresponsibility, and become just another Western Hemisphere money sink for European investment, a sucker’s buy. Grant played a critical and unpopular role in preventing that from happening.

I also noted in this post that Grant’s administration actively and successfully sought to resolve all open disputes with Britain. Grant’s rationale for this, again knowingly, and in cooperation with Hamilton Fish, his very able Sec. State, was get access to British investment capital. This successful diplomacy was the true turning point in the Anglo-American relationship, and the foundation of the “Special Relationship” which exists to this day.

These were absolutely pivotal, foundational Presidential initiatives. They required wisdom, foresight and political courage. In addition, Grant helped to reconcile the South to defeat, and prevent any renewal of hostilities by his tough but fair attitude toward the defeated Section. There was no one else who had the stature to pull this off. The South could have been like the Sunni Triangle, or Northern Ireland. That did not happen because Grant was president. But much like the nuclear war that didn’t happen in the 1950s, presidents, especially Republican ones, get no credit for likely disasters that somehow fail to happen on their watch.

Grant was also almost the only guy who wanted to actually protect the freed slaves in the South after the rest of the country was sick of it. And he didn’t want to massacre the Indians, when his old comrades Sherman and Sheridan were perfectly willing to do so. He failed in both efforts, but he made them. Grant was a better man than he is given credit for.

All of this should outweigh the financial shenanigans of some of the people around Grant in our historical assessment of his presidency, particularly since no one has ever suggested that he was personally corrupt. He trusted people and they betrayed him. That is regrettable, pathetic, possibly contemptible. But it takes nothing away from Grant’s substantive achievements.

All in all, Grant’s administration gets a bum rap. The whole gang of 19th Century Republicans get a bum rap. They presided over four decades of peace and fantastic, world-transforming economic growth. Just as Mr. Mead asks rhetorically in Special Providence, if America’s global rise was dumb luck, I’d pose this same question about the domestic policies presided over by the supposed nonentities in the White House from Grant to McKinley. I bet if we dug down, we’d find that a lot of those old guys with their funny side whiskers knew what they were doing better than we give them credit for.

19 thoughts on “Wherein Lex Berates Walter Russell Mead Concerning Ulysses S. Grant”

  1. If for nothing else, he would have been remembered as a master of English prose for this:

    Camp near Fort Donelson
    February 16, 1862.

    General S. B. BUCKNER,
    Confederate Army.

    SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

    I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
    U.S. GRANT,
    Brigadier-General, Commanding.

  2. We do have bias built-in to our studies of history. We tend to concentrate on the dramatic events like wars and depressions while ignoring the time spans where nothing bad happens. In technological terms, we study failure modes but not operational modes.

    You can get interesting observations just by flipping certain assumptions. For example, most people assume that warfare is an unusual occurrence that requires special explanation. Yet if you reverse this proposition and assume that wars occur automatically and that periods of peace require explanation you get a radically different view of history with great emphasis placed on wholly different eras.

    Periods of peace and prosperity are often the “dogs that didn’t bark” in history and it is a shame that those political leaders who presided over them get relegated to the footnotes of history.

  3. Shannon:

    The comment on “dogs that didn’t bark” in history is wonderfully stated.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that the “flipped assumption” advice had never occurred to me.

  4. Do any of y’all know when Grant acquired his bad presidential reputation?

    Were people at the time assuming he was corrupt or inept because of the scandals, or was it only later that those interested in discrediting all the old guys with the funny side whiskers saw in the scandals of Grant’s underlings a chance to write off his achivements and contributions and label him a failure?

    It’s particularly unfortunate that Grant doesn’t get more positive attention these days. Endless descriptions of our “failure” in Iraq betray a mindset shared by McClellan – you mustn’t go into battle until your forces are perfectly prepared and extensively built up, and you’re ready to do the whole thing perfectly with no mistakes. Grant realized that mistakes and setbacks will happen, and winning requires that you accept these things and keep on accepting them and fighting anyway until the other side throws in the towel. We would do well to follow his example.

  5. I don’t know this for certain, but I would guess Grant got a truly bad rap starting in the 30’s when the New Deal coalition started rewriting history books. Reconstruction in particular gets an interesting treatment during this period, told from a conservative, confederate sympathizing, southern Democratic point of view.

    I happen to collect antique books, and I have several old high school to college level textbooks which cover the period. The one from the 1890ís is almost reverential in its coverage of Grant. A volume from the 1910s is still generally positive, although some of the political and economic hardships of the time, and Grantís relation to them, are covered.

    Moving forward to the mid 1930s (near the end of the first Roosevelt term), we find a textbook produced by the federal government, with an art deco eagle symbol on the cover and everything. The treatment of Grant in particular, and reconstruction in general is downright hostile. The section is filled with northern oppression, outrageous acts of the occupying army, and a laundry list of corruption and scandals in the Republican party.

    Now, we know Grant had detractors all along, but he seems to have had a far more positive place in history before the 1920s-1930s. That this period saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to its greatest political power in the South and Midwest is likely no coincidence.

  6. Captain, I envy you your book collection of old textbooks. That could be a very valuable resource. I only have a couple of books in that category. My favorite is S. E. Forman, Essentials in Civil Government from 1908. It shows how far we have declined in so many ways, not least is the quality of the writing meant for high school kids.

    Anyway, the Captain’s take is consistent with my recollection. I think it is in the Jean Edward Smith book where there is a discussion of Grant historiography. Or it may be in the recent book by Joshua Bunting, which is a decent short treatment, though Bunting as a soldier fails to grasp the importance of Grant’s presidency, either. Anyway, Grant’s reputation, like Coolidge’s, and like Eisenhower’s, all suffered at the hands of a professoriate which was hostile and wrote hostile or belittling history books which established what “everybody knows”. The depiction of American economic development is even more wildly falsified in school teaching, but that is a large topic for another time.

    Winston Churchill had the right idea — write the history yourself, and thereby capture the future, or at least the next few decades.

  7. All three of the presidents Lex mentions also had to face a press that despised them. Nineteenth century politicians in particular had to contend with (and sometimes profit from) journalistic standards that make the bias at todayís NYT, CNN, and FOX seem like saintly objectivity.

    the diplomatic omissions in Churchill”s writings were downright conspicuous. Itís hilarious to read him give de Gaulle the kid gloves treatment in the war memoirs, despite how much of a pain the Frenchman was to the Allies. Also interesting is how he glosses over British anger at the price of American assistance prior to the USí formal entry into the war. His historical works are some of the best and most readable of the last century, but there are plenty of holes in the narrative when politically expedient.

    The layers of crap that get added to history are amazing. Its conventional wisdom consists of one fashionable prejudice appended after the other as the decades roll by. Truth is out there, but you gotta dig pretty deep in several holes to find it.

    One of these days Iíll have to post a review of this great turn of the century history of the Spanish-American war Iíve got. The comparison with modern writing and attitudes is impressive.

  8. “Reconstruction in particular gets an interesting treatment during this period, told from a conservative, confederate sympathizing, southern Democratic point of view.”

    “The section is filled with northern oppression, outrageous acts of the occupying army, and a laundry list of corruption and scandals in the Republican party.”

    Are you saying that these things didn’t happen? They most certainly did.

    Actually the revisionism has been from the northern sympathizing side and has come from an odd collection of liberals wanting to paint it as some sort of civil rights crusade and Republicans who want to deflect criticisms of being racists by claiming to be the party that “freed the slaves”. This has all come in the last 40 years. It may seem amazing but it will probably be another 100 years before that story can be told objectively.

    Reconstruction is not a period of time that ANY American should be proud of. It is the period in our history when we most resembled a banana republic with fraudulent elections, mass disenfranchisement (of white southerners), the constitution was shredded (the 13th amendment was done properly, the 14th has still never been legally ratified), a brutal military occupation that can only be glossed over by completely ignoring it, the wholesale theft of every tangible asset in the 10 states of the former confederacy, and the list goes on and on. The boundless corruption of the Grant administration was just common graft the is inevitable when one party overwhelmingly controls the government. That’s the real history lesson to be learned here.

    Ironically reconstruction achieved what the civil war hadn’t: before and during the war, the southern people were deeply divided. Reconstruction treated all of them with equal contempt and united white southerners into the monolithic group they are today. This was actually the exact opposite of what the radical republicans had in mind. Actually, to use the words of General Sherman, what they wanted was to “exterminate” the southern people as a whole.

    Every story needs a “good guy” and a “bad guy”, right now the southern states that seceeded from the Union are the “bad guys” and there is no statement regardless of how outrageous that can be told about that group of people that will be disputed in this age of political correctness, but history is much more complex.

    If you want to find heroes, you aught to look elsewhere.

  9. “the southern states that seceeded from the Union are the ‘bad guys'”

    DS, there will always be people DS who sympathize with the Confederacy, and you are one of them, apparently. This is one of those areas which are impossible to resolve for many people since it is not about the historical record for them but about their understanding of current politics.

    As the disenfanchisement of Southern whites, my eyes remain very dry. After long study, I see it more like this.

    The Southerners who took up arms against the United States were traitors. All of the Southern officer corps should have been hanged. Everyone who wore the Confederate uniform should have been barred from voting for life. All real property held by anyone who wore a confederate uniform should have been forfeited to the Federal government and given to the freed slaves. The 100,000 negro troops should have been kept in uniform as a permanent occupying force. The South should have been kept under martial law until all citizens who were not debarred by participation the rebellion were secure in their civil and personal rights. We should have purchased Santo Domingo, like Grant wanted to do. But instead of sending the blacks there, we should have used it as a penal colony for any Southern white who resisted the occupying force or embarked on Ku Klux Klan activity or any other political terrorism.

    “Reconstruction is not a period of time that ANY American should be proud of.”

    Agreed. The South was treated with kid gloves and it should have gotten the sledgehammer. It is a shame that the blacks were effectively reenslaved because of too much concern about the sensitivities of traitors who killed hundreds of thousands of people in pursuit of a war on behalf of slavery. Grant was too kind to them, far, far too kind.

  10. Lex,

    For the record, I am not a “sympathizer” of anything, I have looked at all sides of the most controversial series of events in American history and have tried to better understand why a man like my great-great grandfather, who owned no slaves, would leave his home in the mountains of Kentucky to join the Confederate army, at the same time that his twin brother decided to join the Union army. The conclusion I came to was much, much more complicated that the simplex view you seem to take.

    As somebody who apparently has studied the period you should know that your prescription is basically what happened, until the American people got sick of calling themselves a Democratic Republic on one hand and acting as military despots on the other hand. The Radical Republicans were eventually voted out and the country got on with its life, leaving sick, twisted, bitter, spiteful old men to dream of retribution that could have been, for a war they started.

    I also find it interesting that if you substitute the word “Continental Army” for the word “Confederacy” you describe exactly what the British would have done to George Washington and all of our ancestors had they not been successful.

    According to you, Reconstruction was not about doing anything for the freed slaves, except to allow them to occupy and terrorize the 95% of the Southern population who never owned slaves, it was about pure hateful retribution.

    I agree.

  11. I take no simplex view. Or simple one, either.

    No doubt if you and I were backdoor neighbors with your gggrandfather, we’d all have fought for our homes and our state, too. And we’d probably have gotten killed for our troubles.

    I note however that every Southern state except South Carolina (of course) sent entire regiments to fight against Secession. The South was hijacked by the Slaveocracy elite and led into a war that would have been hopeless but for the bottomless courage of its men and extraordinary skill and boldness of many of its officers.

    I can and do respect the local patriotism that put many of the men in gray into the field, and the extraordinary military character they displayed during the war. However, the political leadership that chose to initiate a war when it lost an election deserves no respect.

    “is basically what happened” Nope. The Northerners decided not to punish treason that led to devastation and hundreds of thousands of deaths. They stepped aside and let the Southern whites reimpose a near-equivalent of slavery on the freed blacks. The Northerners did not want to send troops to go chasing down the Klan and similar terrorist gangs forever. The Southerners lost the war but to a large degree won the peace — they got their fieldhands back at subsistence cost, with no rights and subject to mob murder if they got “uppity”. So the blacks were kept a subject race for another century or so, and three Constitutional amendments were turned into scrap paper.

    (Where do I say Continental Army?)

    The original question, to advert to that, was whether Grant was underrated. I say yes. You proably should to, since he tried to moderate reconstruction, where most people in power at the time wanted it to be harsher. Then, as the radicals slipped from power, Grant tried not to abandon the blacks in the South, but he couldn’t do it. I don’t see how this makes him the villain even if your view that Reconstruction was unjust to the South were correct.

    And none of this has anything to do with the financial and diplomatic achievements I mentioned, which are too little known and were extremely important.

  12. DS,

    My point was not to deny the specific claims in later textbooks, but simply to show that the authors of the different volumes had radically different political bias, illustrating how history has always been munged by historians with axes to grind.

    However, since we’re on the topic, I too had poor, non-slaveholder ancestors who left their homes to serve in the confederate army. That said, I agree for the most part with Lex’s view on how reconstruction should have proceeded. The privileged, slaveholding, planter classes betrayed their country and started the bloodiest war in American history, all to protect their cushy little lifestyle. Our ancestors paid the price. A firing squad would have been too good for ol’ Jeff Davis and his pals in the rebel political class.

    Sure, reconstruction meant some rich rebels got their houses taken from them, and carpetbaggers came down to profit from the southern losses and meddle, but what really had Johnnie Confederate steamed was that those damn darkies could now vote, hold elective office, and legally marry and deflower lily pure white women.

    To be fair, many, if not most, northerners were equally outraged at this unnatural state of affairs, and so were more than happy to hand the blacks over to their new share-croppin’ lives, under the bootheels of white hood wearing Jim Crow masters. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

    Getting back to the Grant issue, while I do agree with Lex that Grant suffered from later historical judgment, he was by no means a good president. The positives Lex cites don’t, in my opinion at least, overcome the general corruption of his administration. I think there is common agreement among historians that Grant himself was not particularly corrupt, but his staff and cabinet make Nixon and friends look like boy scouts. Inability to find honest subordinates speaks poorly for him. Still, I agree that the common claim of the Grant administration as the “worst” in American history is very unfair.

  13. Captain Mojo,

    Would love to hear from you on the various text books and especiall the title of that Spanish-American War book.

    Aside from having the crooks in his administration discovered why was he by no means a good president? Or do you consider that the primary criterion for judgement? I do consider that a reasonable position if it is the one you hold.

  14. Grant had corrupt people in his administration. Absolutely true. So did, for example, Truman. We hear relatively little about the latter. Why? He was a Democrat and liberal historians generally like him, for civil rights and for seeming to be for the common man, etc. Did Truman’s achievements outweigh these issues of corruption in his administration? In my view, yes. Similarly with Grant. We need to judge these men on the consequences of the major decisions they made and policies they adopted. Grant’s decisions in the financial and diplomatic field were immensely important and successful — permanent peace with the then-global hegemon, access to the world’s capital via London, and a sound-money basis for rebuilding and developing the country. These things did not have to happen. Grant made them happen. Also, the South for all the deficiencies of Reconstruction, did not fall into generalized guerilla resistance. It could have. Grant’s policies and his proven record helped prevent a bad situation from being much worse. Based on all these things, I think we can and should conclude that Grant was a very good president, though for reasons which are not well known or well appreciated.

    Similarly, Truman’s decisions to roll back the nationalization of the economy and to fund private home construction rather than, ala Britain, nationwide federally-run housing projects, was of inconceivably huge consequence. This part of his legacy is too little known.

    To assess a president, we need to look at major challenges he faced, the decisions he made to address those challenges, and the likely existing alternatives, especially the ones which were actually proposed at the time. This approach to the record often leads you to highlight things which are not focused on by historians who think other issues are more exciting, such as personalities or more symbolic actions. Historians and biographers of political figures very often do not understand economics or finance or technology or business, and so do not understand or talk about the impact of policies in these areas. You need to read around and do a little bit of reconstruction (ahem) yourself to fill in important parts of the picture which are often omitted from biographies or most histories. Also, historians like to write about winners, in war and politics and other fields, and they write about them and from their perspective. But the losing presidential candidates, both intra-party and opposing party, represented view held by many millions of people and represented what might have been. Looking at Wendell Willkie or Al Smith or Robert Taft or Henry Wallace or (God help us) Huey Long or Charles Evans Hughes or William Jennings Bryan gives us an idea of what might have been. Michael Barone’s book Our Country is very good on this type of complete picture analysis. Otherwise we end up holding these dead presidents up to an imaginary standard of perfection. Only what was on the table at the time is really in the might-have-been category.

  15. Historians and biographers of political figures very often do not understand economics or finance or technology or business, and so do not understand or talk about the impact of policies in these areas.

    This is a very important point. History is too often confused with political history, which is a mere subset of history and for many periods is not the most significant subset.

  16. Lex,

    It’s kind of surprising to see you condem southerners who took up arms as traitors. It’s difficult to see how their stand is much different than this country’s founders.

    Having been born and educated in Illinois (The Land of Lincoln) it took me many years to come to that conclusion. It seems clear to me that when this country was founded that the agreement (binding the states together) would not have been made if there had been a requirement that the association was one of perpetuity.

    The states seceded and there wasn’t a compact or law to keep them from doing that. Where were Mr. Lincoln and company’s justification? The war waged to prevent the secessions was arbitrary, tyranical and unconstitutional. It seems to me that southerners were acting like free men within the bounds of law and their rights.

    You find their way of life (especially in retrospect), in parts, reprehensible but that doesn’t excuse the violation of the principle of governance by laws, not by men and the tyranny of government over free peoples.

  17. “It’s difficult to see how their stand is much different than this country’s founders.” Can’t agree. They lost an election, so they took up arms. That is the antitheses of what one is supposed to do in a lawful, democratic republic. They could not tolerate a president who said he opposed the expansion of slavery. If the losing side in an election gets to secede then democracy is meaningless.

    Even if the Constitution was not meant to be a perpetual and indissoluble union, a point I disagree with, the way to dissolve it would be a negotiated and mutually agreeable resolution, not shelling Ft. Sumter.

    “arbitrary, tyranical and unconstitutional.” It was law enforcement. Some people tried to set up a government on the territory of the United States. They had no legal right to do so. Many people in many of those states were willing to join the Union cause — there was probably not anything like a Constitutional super-majority in support of secession. These people resorted to violence, they initiated violence. They suffered the consequences.

    “You find their way of life (especially in retrospect), in parts, reprehensible.” That is what the leadership of the South led their people into war for — their “way of life” which was slavery. Various fig leaves have been placed over this fact over the years. Nathan Bedford Forrest put it well. He said he went to war to keep his (slaves) — I won’t type the word he used — and that was what the war was about. Exactly. And he should have known.

    There is a significant plurality of libertarian and conservative thinking which has sympathy for the Confederacy. It seems to be a mix of romanticising the Southern cause and a loathing of federal power. I have never shared it. But I am sure when I am long dead lots of people will still be saying these same things. There is a whole world of people out there who like nothing better than to get into the same old stale issue of whether Lincoln is really a bad guy, etc. I have satisfied myself on the issue a long time ago. It is not an argument with a resolution for many people, but an item of ideological purity. We all look at the same facts and draw our own conclusions about Lincoln. So, knock yourself out if you want to put more stuff on here about that, but I really don’t have an interest in getting into it further.

    My point is: Grant was a better guy than he gets credit for.

  18. Grant gets short shrift for the (generally superb) quality of his generalship, too. I suspect it’s for similar reasons. In his battles, he has an almost preternatural ability to avoid imminent disaster. At Shiloh, for example, Confederates overwhelmed his troops while they were eating breakfast, and almost drove his army into the river. Grant calmly organized resistance, withstood several assaults on the first day, and repelled the Confederates the next. Disaster averted.

    His campaigns repeatedly show targets that were expected to be nearly impossible to take that instead fell easily because Grant was more on the ball than his Confederate counterparts. His armies were well organized, had capable subordinates in key positions, innovative in tactics and strategy, and outfought the Confederates everywhere he went.

    In a just world, Grant would be considered a general on par with Scipio Africanus. In this world, he’s often seen as Bobby Lee’s inferior, despite outfighting Lee every time they met.

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