Ulysses S. Grant, new Founding Father?

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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.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly

4 Comments

  1. Grant is unfairly maligned. His Ku Klux Klan Act was essential in staving off some of the worst “Redemptionist” violence for at least a few years. His Presidency was a missed opportunity – as was Radical Reconstruction in general – and his corruption was real, but he wasn't the disaster he's made out to be. James Buchanan takes the cake there.

  2. “It would also be unusual if liberal historians advance the revival of another Republican president’s reputation.”

    I am curious at the reference to liberal historians changing their minds about Grant. Surely if someone's current politics affected their view of history it would show up as just the oppose with conservative historians biases making them more likely to reflect badly on Lincoln, Grant and the early Republican party. I don't think the United States has ever been governed by a group as liberal, even radical as this group. Their entire rational for existence was no less than to use the power of the United States government to overturn the social order of half of the nation. This is as far as any main stream party in history has ventured from the traditional definition of a conservative; one who works to maintain the status quo.

  3. “Surely if someone's current politics affected their view of history it would show up as just the oppose with conservative historians biases making them more likely to reflect badly on Lincoln, Grant and the early Republican party.”

    You are right. In fact, it's an understatement where conservative politics are concerned. And no, it isn't primarily (much less exclusively) due to being sympathetic for the badly treated Confederacy.

    Criticism of Lincoln comes from a number of honest conservative (typically far right, paleocon anti-government or more extreme libertarian) activists. That's where the name “Comrade Lincoln” comes from and why you may have been related signs or statements with some Tea Party people (who are anti-big government). Lincoln doesn't just have constitutional violations to his credit, and the use of an income tax as well as fiat currency [gasp], but more importantly and generally (with respect to the rest of our history) he presided over the first mammoth overgrowth of the federal government, which is so commonly known that one book on the subject even has a title that is a generic name now for this:

    http://www.amazon.com/Yankee-Leviathan-Origins-

    http://books.google.com/books?.....mwC&d

    In fact, any American who is unaware of this is pathetically as well as inexcuseably ignorant.

    More extreme and more “purist” and more studied libertarians in particular go on to note (Nick Rivera, this is no surprise or mystery to you, for example) that government excess is most noticed during the most handy time for it to engage in excess, which is war time. “War is the health of the state” is not only a famous expression, but also a commonly used phrase by libertarians when addressing this fact.

    It is no surprise that creating “national” (federal) citizenship by Constitutional amendment was one consequence of the Civil War. (It was not intended merely to formally resolve the secession issue.)

    I also believe it merits mention to the intellectually interested something related that I believe: that one thing that could have been done but wasn't done during the Reconstruction (post-Civil War) period was to relocate the federal capital to New York, consolidating political, financial, and cultural capitals of the period, perhaps in time for the 1876 centennial. More centralization and consolidation, making the USA more like Europe with a stronger capital as “head” of the nation, and another slap at the South.

    As to other cricitism by Lincoln, other libertarian-leaning anti-government righties such as DiLorenzo have published material on this subject specifically:

    [examples]

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo6

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo7

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo8

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo2

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo2

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo3

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo3

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo3

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo3

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo4

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo4

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo4

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo4

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo5

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo5

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo6

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo7

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo9

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo1

    http://www.amazon.com/Real-Lincoln-Abraham-Agen

    http://mises.org/etexts/ostrowski.asp

    Thomas Sowell — DiLorenzo is right about Lincoln

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig2/w-williams1.html

    http://www.amazon.com/Lincoln-Unmasked-Youre-Su

    etc.

    He doesn't like Lincoln.

    I'll leave it up to the community as a whole to determine to what extent anti-Lincolnism is a gauge of being on the true “far right,” not merely conservative — anti-Lincolnism as a useful measure or example definining characteristic of “far right.” (It's not necessarily true, but I believe many lefties and for all I know many righties would say it definitely is.)

    The more serious problems we had with Lincoln can be taught here, instead.

    http://www.amazon.com/Constitutional-Problems-u

    The Constitution and the war powers — The legal nature of the Civil War — The law of treason — The treatment of confederate leaders — The power to suspend the habeas corpus privilege — Military rule and arbitrary arrests — Martial law and military commissions — The Indemnity Act of 1863 — The régime of conquest in occupied districts of the south — Legal and constitutional bearings of conscription — The policy of confiscation — The right of confiscation — Restoration of captured and confiscated property — Steps toward emancipation — Emancipation completed — State and federal relations during the Civil War — The partition of Virginia — The relation of the government to the press — Summary and conclusion

    http://www.archive.org/details/constitutionalpr

  4. I got no problem much with Grant, he was a good general who knew what he had to do and got it done and a decent President. I'd much rather see him on Mount Rushmore than Lincoln who doesn't belong their IMHO. Lincoln is near the bottom of my list with FDR and George W. Bush due to his constitutional violations.

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