Are liberals and conservatives coming together to add President Grant to our pantheon of heroes? This morning, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz argues in the Times,
Although slandered since his death, Grant, as general and as president, stood second only to Abraham Lincoln as the vindicator of [American] principles in the Civil War era.
The occasion for Wilentz’s op-ed is a proposal by Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) to replace Grant’s portrait on the $50 bill with one of Reagan. To support his position, McHenry argued,
In polls of presidential scholars, President Reagan consistently outranks President Grant. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal conducted one such poll of bipartisan scholars which ranked President Reagan 6th and President Grant 29th.
Although it’s not hard to imagine why Grant remains unpopular in parts of North Carolina, some conservatives hold Grant in the same high esteem as Prof. Wilentz. In December, the Weekly Standard reviewed a new biography of Grant, writing this:
Most scholarly, journalistic, even poetic interpretations of that period cast Grant as hopelessly naïve, appallingly corrupt, and something approaching despicable. Waugh sets about to argue an entirely different assessment. She accepts that, since late in the 1920s, “in the long run, the image of the brutal general and inept president lingers most powerfully.” But she demonstrates that in many, or even most, contemporary minds, “Grant was every bit the equal of Washington and Lincoln, and this linkage was made in countless newspaper articles, eulogies, and speeches just before and after Grant’s death. .??.??. Americans honored Washington the Father, Lincoln the Martyr, and Grant the Savior.”
A revival of Grant’s reputation would be remarkable. I took two years of American history in high school and there was never the slightest hint that Grant was more than a naive and possibly corrupt chief executive.
It would also be unusual if liberal historians advance the revival of another Republican president’s reputation. To give you a sense of Prof. Wilentz’s politics, his main argument for keeping Reagan off the $50 bill is that
[Reagan]’s record on domestic affairs — especially his unsubtle winking at pro-segregationist Southerners and his administration’s fiercely reactionary policies on civil rights — was appalling.
Imagine if Republican politicians started describing the GOP not just as the party of Lincoln, but as the party of Lincoln, Grant and Reagan. The only thing stranger would be if, 120 years from now, liberal historians begin to argue that George W. Bush was a great president.