The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

This outstanding book comes to us from the pen of Professor Charles W. Calhoun, the Thomas Harriot College Distinguished Professor of History emeritus at East Carolina University.

Professor Calhoun dispels myths that have grown up around the Grant Presidency because he didn’t parrot what other historians said about Grant. Instead, he went back to the original sources. He tells us, “My aim in this book, therefore, was to try to ‘get it right’ in treating the important questions of the Grant era. To do that, I realized that I would need to go beyond secondary works and resort primarily to a close examination of original sources.” [p. xi]

People have considered Grant to be completely new to politics and to have had no skills transferable to the presidency. As Dr. Calhoun tells us, “Among Grant’s assets was the administrative expertise he had gained in the Mexican War and as a commander with ever widening responsibilities during the Civil War. He had learned how to run a large organization, how to assess the totality and the details of a situation, how to delegate tasks and manipulate subordinates to achieve his ends. Yet, even though his service as general of the army in Washington for four years after Appomattox had entangled him in politics, Grant still had much to learn about civilian issues and the workings of the political system. As something of an outsider, he enjoyed a degree of political independence; in 1868 his party had needed him more than he had needed the party. Hence, he momentarily harbored a sense that he could manage his office with little regard for partisan imperatives. He soon learned, however, that to achieve his goals, a president must also be a party leader.” [pp. 2-3]

Many commentators say Grant didn’t pick his subordinates well and stayed loyal to them far longer than he should have. There’s an element of truth to this, and Dr. Calhoun addresses it. “During the war, Grant had justly earned a reputation as a good judge of men. He appreciated their strengths and could detect their weaknesses. In assessing his performance in the White House, however, Grant’s critics convinced themselves that he showed little of this kind of discernment. In part, the divergence flowed from the differences between the profession of arms, in which Grant was a natural, and the profession of politics, in which he was a neophyte. In the army, he had developed a sense of what to look for in his subordinates; his shift to politics required new criteria by which to weigh men’s attributes. No one, certainly not Grant, would claim that he chose wisely in all his appointments. His cabinet was a mixed lot, and in its deliberations he reserved for himself the power to decide. To assist in administration, he assembled an efficient White House staff. Eventually, as he gained his footing as the head of his party, he looked to state and congressional leaders of the Republican Party to serve as his field lieutenants in the political warfare he waged. … Similarly, as he had in the army, Grant exhibited a deep sense of personal loyalty in forging his new political relationships. A highly sensitive person, he appreciated the fidelity of proven friends and stood by those who stood by him. This mutual sense of loyalty could inure to the benefit of the administration and the country, as in the case of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, a valued public servant whom the president repeatedly persuaded to remain in government service. But Grant was also loath to dismiss an officer under fire, and he sometimes remained loyal to individuals beyond the time when, by unworthy acts, they had betrayed his loyalty.” [pp. 3-4]

Perhaps the biggest knock on Grant was the claim his presidency was a failure due to numerous scandals surrounding it. Dr. Calhoun takes this on as well. “The portrayal of Grant as a presidential failure originated in the intense and unrelenting criticism leveled by his contemporary political foes. It reverberated in subsequent historical treatments that made his administration’s record seem less than the sum of its parts. Many enemies demonized Grant because he had bested them, and they were determined to see him fail. Some members of the northeastern elite found little to their taste in this mere military man and specimen of ‘western mediocrity.’ Democrats in Congress employed the legislature’s investigative function to discredit the administration in any way they could. Partisan journalists acknowledged few restraints in their attempts to blacken Grant and his policies. Even within his own party, many Republicans who had failed to receive patronage or other recognition embraced ‘reform’ and became uncompromising critics. Grant’s antagonists found him guilty of all manner of vices: an abiding laziness as well as an overbearing Caesarism; ineptitude as well as cunning; vulgarity, brutality, dishonesty, stupidity, avarice, and a hunger for power without the talent to wield it for the public good. Their bitterness drove them to strictures that far exceeded Grant’s supposed offenses. Attacking his character as well as his capacity, the presidents adversaries managed to put his flaws ahead of his virtues in the minds of many of his contemporaries. Grant had stout defenders and remained widely popular among his fellow citizens, but in retrospective accounts of his presidency, historians and others paid much more attention to the relentless execration by his enemies. Hence, for decades, most historical writing on Grant’s presidency magnified its blemishes and slighted its achievements.” [pp. 4-5]

Another aspect of the book is its bringing to light Grant’s successes, which have been either hidden or forgotten for too long. “He pursued important initiatives on a variety of fronts. In some cases he posted significant achievements; in others the outcomes fell short of his goals. He obtained substantial legislation to protect African Americans’ rights in the South. When he tried to enforce these new laws, however, Democrats and even some of his fellow Republicans denounced his efforts as despotic ‘militarism.’ This reflected their own inherent racism and political cupidity more than any genuine fear for the safety of the Republic. But their opposition played into the hands of the South’s white supremacists, who eventually prevailed. As president, Grant implemented economic policies that righted the government’s financial ship after the storms of civil war. He emphasized fiscal restraint and monetary stability in an era of turmoil and rapid change. Still, the persistence of depression after the Panic of 1873 illustrated the limits of conservative orthodoxy. Grant was the first president to institute civil service reform, but his balanced program fell victim to wrangling between implacable reformers and entrenched spoilsmen. Exhibiting genuine sympathy for Native Americans, he pushed for their more humane treatment, although in the end, his peace policy did not fully eliminate war. Grant’s biggest defeat came early when he failed to convince the Senate of the strategic and humanitarian importance of annexing Santo Domingo. The bitter fight over that issue poisoned relations between the president and his opponents and colored impressions of the administration ever after. Indeed, in the perception of many at the time and later, that struggle eclipsed Grant’s greatest accomplishment in foreign affairs: the settlement of the Alabama claims and the securing of peace with Great Britain through arbitration.” [pp. 6-7]

Calhoun goes into great detail on all the above throughout the book. It’s deeply researched, compelling writing, and thoroughly grounded in primary source material. It seems as though each chapter busts another myth. For example, the myth tells us Grant ran for president because he didn’t have anything else to do. Calhoun shows us Grant saw it as the best way to secure the results of Union victory. Far from simply drifting along as the myth would have us think, Grant had a definite goal in mind. Perhaps Grant’s severest critic was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Calhoun shows us Sumner’s enmity stemmed from Grant’s failure to offer him the Secretary of State job, Grant’s refusal to treat him as the oracle of foreign policy he thought himself to be, Grant’s not granting him the amount of patronage he wanted, from Grant’s engineering his removal as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee and Sumner’s own dismissive attitude toward Grant the westerner and military man. When told Sumner didn’t believe in the Bible, Grant’s wit showed when he responded, referring to the imperious senator, “Of course he don’t, for he didn’t write it.” [p. 86]

The book does much to recover the real story of Grant’s presidency, which has been in the ascendancy in historians’ assessments in recent years. Dr. Calhoun concludes, “During his eight years in the White House, Grant was am activist president, winning some policy battles and losing others. To a degree, he remodeled the office of president, traveling extensively, creating a White House staff, and energetically pursuing a legislative agenda. But these steps toward modernity earned scorn from contemporary critics, who sent up the cry of Caesarism and thus undermined his contributions to the evolution of the presidency. For many of his opponents, his worst sin as chief executive was his assertiveness–his dominance of politics and governance, grounded in his formidable popularity. But in the end, his political adversaries saw a way to win the public relations battle by stigmatizing his administration with corruption. Over time, corruption has been relatively constant in American public life, but at some times more than others, partisans aggressively deploy allegations of wrongdoing to assault their political adversaries. As Mark Summers has shown, in the post-Civil War era, ‘corruption had less important consequences than the corruption issue.’ In a period marked by acute if not overwrought sensitivity to ‘corruption,’ Grant’s administration exhibited enough delinquency to provide his enemies a convenient brush with which to tar his presidential reputation in perpetuity.” [pp. 592-593]

Even though this is a balanced account, modern-day Grant haters will no doubt charge Professor Calhoun with being a hagiographer. His conclusion has a ready answer for this. “As John Russell Young presciently observed, ‘Calumny has fallen upon the memory of Grant with Pompeiian fury,’ so that ‘to tell the truth about him, sounds like unreasoning adulation.’ ” [p. 593]

At 593 pages of text, this is a large book. The size may turn away some readers, but serious students need to read this book. It’s an excellent account of Grant’s performance as president and of what his administration did and tried but failed to do. I highly recommend it.

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6 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I believe that we have made complete recovery from damage done by McFeely! Gone are the days of desperately thumbing through my dog-eared copy of Scaturro’s President Grant Reconsidered as the only source for ammo to beat off the President Grant haters. Actually, the rehabilitation of Grant’s presidential reputation has made a steady incline over the last decade with the Rons (White & Chernow, respectively) and others publishing biographies that include well-researched sections on the Grant presidency. Calhoun’s book is of a particular delight for me, because after reading Simpson’s Triumph Over Adversity, I really have no desire to rack up another military history on Grant (in order to read about his presidency), thus, this book fits the bill until….(another eagerly anticipated book on the Grant presidency magically appears 🙂 )

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shoshana. I’m not so sure we’ve completely recovered from McFeely’s hatchet job on Grant, but we’ve made significant strides. Like you, I’m eagerly waiting for Fruits of Victory to make its appearance, especially since it will be more biographical. The Calhoun book is an analysis of Grant’s presidency, not a biographical sketch of Grant [and there’s nothing wrong with that approach].

  2. Clint Geller · · Reply

    Al, I continue to be amazed by the tremendous throughput of scholarly material you manage to review in this outstanding blog. My hat is off to you.

    1. Thanks, Clint. I’m way behind in my reviews. I have a few books waiting to be reviewed now. After the school year I should have the time to get to them.

  3. Nancy Abbott · · Reply

    I wonder if he’s related to the evil one?!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Certainly possible. Could be an offshoot.

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