“The line of progress is never straight.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In reading Ron Chernow’s formidable biography of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), it’s remarkable to consider these past 155 years since the Civil War and know, on the one hand, how much the United States has changed for the better, and on the other, how much some Americans have not changed at all. The racism, hate, and suppression of former slaves that provoked the secession of the South from the Union and the resulting Civil War are still present in the hearts and minds of far too many Americans.
Frederick Douglas regarded President Grant as the greatest friend to black Americans of any President to that point in American history, including Abraham Lincoln. But, it took far more than one President’s support and advocacy to turn the tide of history from brutal enslavement to freedom and equality. As much as Grant advocated on behalf of the rights, safety, and well-being of the 4 million former black slaves, the South reversed the gains made in the Civil War and during Reconstruction until the 1960s’ civil rights movement. Through whipping, shooting, wounding, maiming, mutilation, and the murder of black women, children, and defenseless men, white supremacists led by the Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1865) did everything possible to terrorize black Americans and create an Apartheid-like South.
As I waded through this 959-page presidential biography, I gained a sense of Grant’s heart, soul, mind, character, dignity, and leadership, his strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. He was an uncommon president, perhaps one of the greatest in American history. A graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican wars, Grant was modest, quiet, and innately intelligent. His calm demeanor, strategic mind, and dogged determination inspired millions of Union troops during the Civil War including President Lincoln himself, America as a whole, and most international leaders in the last third of the 19th century.
Following President Andrew Johnson’s short term of office after Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical abolitionist Republican Party clamored for the heroic but hesitant Major General Ulysses S. Grant to run for President in 1868. He did so less from ego than a sense of duty winning comfortably both the popular vote and Electoral College. Grant’s political naiveté, however, made it difficult for him to cope effectively over two terms (1869-1877) with a scandal-ridden Washington, D.C. political culture and the violent resistance to Reconstruction by southern white Democrats. Yet, his accomplishments were significant including support for and advocacy of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution respectively outlawing slavery, granting citizenship to all born and naturalized persons, and securing the right to vote for all citizens of the United States – women’s suffrage would come on August 18, 1920 almost exactly a century ago.
One can’t help but compare the Obama and Trump years to Lincoln’s and Grant’s successes and reversals of fortune. Whereas Presidents Lincoln and Grant were tenacious, visionary, and of common moral cause in keeping the Union whole and bringing freedom and equality de jure to all Americans (including Native Americans and Jews), their legacy was undone to a great extent by racist, intolerant, and violent Southern State thugs and Northern racists.
Whereas the Obama-Biden administration brought back economic stability, expanded health care, sought greater equity for all Americans, promoted environmental responsibility, and engaged constructively in international agreements in their two terms, the Trump-Pence Administration has sought to undo and undermine most of the Obama-Biden accomplishments in just shy of 4 years.
Today’s Trump Republican Party, of course, bears little resemblance to the 19th century Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant. Whereas President Grant sought to expand citizenship and voting rights in fair and free elections for every born and naturalized American citizen, Trump’s Republican Party openly disdains expansive voting rights and an inclusive democracy, albeit far less violently than the 19th century South.
Ron Chernow’s biography Grant (publ. 2017) is a tour de force in research and writing and well worth the time to read especially for those who value history but know little about President Grant, the Civil War, his hopes for Reconstruction, and its chaotic and violent aftermath.