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Why have historians treated President Grant so unfairly?

In a post about the movie “Lincoln,” I said in passing that Ulysses Grant is probably our most underrated president. John added that Grant was an “excellent” president.

The case for Grant’s presidency can be found in President Grant Reconsidered by Frank Scaturro. He shows, as Brooks Simpson also has, that Grant adopted the correct approach to Reconstruction – i.e., the least bad approach. Scaturro also shows that Grant’s economic policies were sound and produced excellent results.

Furthermore, Scaturro demonstrates that the corruption charges against the Grant administration are vastly overblown. Of the 25 men Grant appointed to the cabinet, corruption charges have been substantiated against only one – William Belknap, who was involved in a relatively minor scandal involving Army trading posts (Grant’s private secretary, Civil War hero Orville Babcock, was also corrupt). The underlying events surrounding the major scandal of the time, Credit Mobilier of America, occurred before Grant became president.

Yet, when I was studying history as a teenager, Grant was rated one of our two worst presidents, along with Harding. These days, with the administrations of Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson in well-deserved disrepute, Grant is no longer on the floor. However, to my knowledge, he remains near the bottom.

Why? The answer lies, of course, with the historians. American history is written mostly by intellectual snobs and leftists. And during much of the 20th century, the history of Grant’s era was written disproportionately by Southerners. None of these overlapping cohorts had any use for Grant.

It requires no discussion to show why this was true of Southern historians. Mercifully, the history of the Reconstruction era has been heavily revised in the past 30 years. Yet, as Scaturro observes, Grant’s reputation hasn’t benefitted much. This speaks to the influence of the intellectual snobs and the leftists.

Grant’s fate with the snobs was sealed by Henry Adams. The savage attack he launched against Grant in The Education of Henry Adams, published commercially almost 100 years ago, is still quoted today. It reflects criticism that Adams had articulated privately for decades.

Adams wrote of Grant that “his type was pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave dwellers.” He added that “Grant had no right to exist; that Grant should be called, and should actually and truly be, the highest product of the most advanced evolution made evolution ludicrous.”

These are good one-liners, I suppose, but what was the source and the substance of Adams’ beef with Grant? In his autobiography, Adams is fairly candid about the source. Initially, he considered Grant the new George Washington. But one event, the reading of Grant’s cabinet list, turned Adams’ opinion 180 degrees.

Adams admits that “to the end of his life, he wondered at the suddenness of [his] revulsion” upon hearing the list. But Adams is able to explain the basis for the revulsion: “He knew, without absolutely saying it, that Grant had cut short the life which Adams had laid out for himself in the future.” That life would have consisted of a major role in big time politics.

Actually, in Adams’ telling, only one cabinet selection had this effect – the choice of George Boutwell, the former Governor of Adams’ home state of Massachusetts, for Secretary of Treasury. In Adams’ view, Boutwell would have been satisfactory as Interior Secretary. But at Treasury, where the patronage was, Boutwell “meant. . .the total extinction of anyone resembling Henry Adams.”

Adams spelled this out with even more candor in a letter he wrote early in Grant’s first term:

My hopes of the new administration have all been disappointed. . . .My friends almost all lost ground instead of gaining it as hoped. My family is buried politically beyond recovery for years. I am becoming more and more isolated as allies go.

In sum, Adams’ problem with Grant was that of, in effect, a disappointed office seeker.

Boutwell may not have fancied Adams and his family, but he was a fine Treasury Secretary, as will be seen when I get to Grant’s economic record. Even on personnel issues, the source of Adams’ discontent, Boutwell was sound by the standard of his era. Scaturro describes him as “a pioneer in the advancement of personnel administration who both enacted stringent examinations between 1870 and 1872 and oversaw the first competitive examination in the U.S. civil service in 1870.”

But what of Adams’ claim that Grant was “pre-intellectual”? Adams appears to have formed this impression mostly on the basis of one meeting — during which Adams thought that Grant resembled the Italian leader Garibaldi — and on the basis of an anecdote in which Grant allegedly “seriously remarked to a particularly bright young woman that Venice would be a fine city if it were drained.”

Adams does not say how he knows that this comment was serious. Grant might have been having a private laugh at the “bright young woman’s” expense. In any event, Grant’s opinion of 19th century Venice offers no real window into his presidency.

Even without the verdict of Henry Adams, adopted wholeheartedly and with embellishment by Gore Vidal in his superficial historical novel 1876 and to a lesser degree by Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, Grant would not have stood a chance with historians because his pro-capitalist policies were uncongenial to leftist historians. As historian Ari Hoogenboom says:

The historian is usually liberal, more often than not a Democrat. . . .The post-Civil War period stands for all the historian opposes. It was an era of Republicans, of big business domination, of few and ineffectual attempts at government regulation, of weak executives, and of an essentially nonprofessional civil service. The historian naturally dwells upon the shortcomings of the period.

All Republican presidents from Grant through McKinley suffer from this bias (as do many subsequent Republican presidents), but it’s odd that Grant suffers the most. For one thing, as Scaturro shows, he was anything but a weak executive (see his use of the veto, for example).

In addition, Grant pursued highly successful economic policies. The Resumption Act, which provided for resumption of specie payments, helped quickly end the depression that followed the Panic of 1873. Scaturro calls this “about as sharp a positive turn in the economy as the nation has ever seen.”

More generally, Grant’s policies helped overcome severe fiscal problems stemming from the Civil War. According to Scaturro:

Under [Grant’s] administration, policies were pursued that reduced inflation, bolstered recovery from the mild depression of 1867-68, promoted economy in federal expenditures, and substantially raised the nation’s credit [worthiness]. Both taxes and the national debt were reduced during Grant’s presidency, by approximately $300 million and $435 million respectively. One-fifth of the national debt was eliminated.

George Boutwell played a major role in formulating the policies that helped produce these results.

Grant, moreover, was no enemy of the working class. In fact, he disagreed with the decision of his successor, Rutherford Hayes to send in troops to put down the great railroad strike of 1877. Here is what Grant wrote:

During my two terms of office, the whole Democratic press and the morbidly honest and “reformatory” portion of the Republican press thought it horrid to keep U.S. troops stationed in the Southern States. And when called upon to protect the lives of negroes – as much citizens under the Constitution as if their skins were white – the country was scarcely large enough to hold the sound of indignation belched forth by them for some years.

Now, however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens.

Unfortunately, historians have been no fairer to Grant than the Democratic and reformatory Republican press were in his time. Like those press men, they have had their axes to grind.

JOHN adds: Grant was also a great writer, as anyone who has read his autobiography can attest. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to be a great writer if you’re stupid. There is a certain irony in the fact that Grant was a better writer–a better historian, in fact–than virtually all of the historians who have assailed his supposed intellectual shortcomings. One wonders whether they had the wit to notice.

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