President Grant: A case of misfortune?
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's forces to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Grant became one of the nation's biggest war heroes. Yet his success on the battlefield did not necessarily translate so well to the White House.
His Eight Annual Message (1876) is an important document and it should be re-examined. First he tells Congress:
"It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training."
Misfortune is what people think about when they think of President Grant, not General Grant. Grant was right; he did not have the necessary knowledge of the workings of government or the political skills to navigate party politics. The president did not have a grand vision for the country, either, and he relied on people he trusted who were not cabinet members or government officials who had the experience.
His administration experienced many scandals; the biggest was the 1869 Black Friday and the attempt to corner the gold market by James Fisk and Jay Gould. In the 1872 election, liberal Republicans left the GOP to create their own party to oppose Grant's re-election because they felt Grant was too corrupt. Horace Greeley ran on the Liberal Republican Party ticket, but he was easily defeated. These scandals left a lasting shadow on Grant's reputation, even well into the twentieth century as he was ranked number 31 in the 1962 Historians Poll.
However, recent historians and political scientists have been examining Grant's record on civil rights, and it showed some of the boldness found on the battlefield. In this annual message, Grant writes:
"...beginning of my first Administration the work of reconstruction, much embarrassed by the long delay, virtually commenced. It was the work of the legislative branch of the Government. My province was wholly in approving their acts, which I did most heartily..."
He supported the Radical Republicans and actively pressured for ratification of the 15th Amendment and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1875). Grant took some advantage of the Enforcement Acts and the Ku Klux Klan Act and used martial law and federal troops to suppress the Klan and restore law and order. In the end, racism was too deep, and interest in Reconstruction faded away. One could argue he was also hampered by the fact no one subscribed to a strong executive; it was the age of Congress.
In another part of the annual address, Grant shows a keen perception:
"History shows that no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes. But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."
As we look back on Grant as a leader of armies, he was not perfect either, but his intent was clear.