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.