Nonfiction: President Clinton Looks Back at President Grant

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“The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” ends shortly after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, and as Chernow states in his introduction, many biographies of Grant skip over his presidency as an “embarrassing coda” dominated by multiple scandals. As Chernow puts it, “It is sadly ironic that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest.”

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Ron Chernow Credit Beowulf Sheehan

For all its scholarly and literary strengths, this book’s greatest service is to remind us of Grant’s significant achievements at the end of the war and after, which have too long been overlooked and are too important today to be left in the dark. Considered by many detractors to be, as a general, little more than a stoic butcher, Grant, in the written terms of surrender at Appomattox, showed the empathy he felt toward the defeated and downtrodden — conditions he knew from harsh personal experience. The terms presented to Robert E. Lee carried “no tinge of malice” and “breathed a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” He notably allowed the exhausted and starving Confederate regulars to keep their mules and horses, knowing from the rough experience of his failed Missouri farm (Grant presciently named its log cabin “Hardscrabble”) that only by putting in a crop as soon as they returned home would these destitute farmers — and their families — have a chance to survive the coming winter. Grant also knew that if the country had any chance of being brought back together, it needed something other than a harsh peace. In making national healing a priority, he — like Lincoln — took the long view.

Grant’s tendency toward empathy with the downtrodden and defeated would return again and again, and not always to his advantage or credit. He didn’t hesitate to appoint family and friends far above their abilities, and to remember even the smallest favor done on his behalf while he was a struggling civilian. There’s a wonderful exchange in the book when Grant as president offers a political appointment to a friend from his prewar days in St. Louis, when he was broke and dependent on his slave-owning (and openly contemptuous) father-in-law. Grant reminded the friend that “when I was standing on a street corner … by a wagon loaded with wood, you approached and said: ‘Captain, haven’t you been able to sell your wood?’ I answered: ‘No.’ Then you said: ‘I’ll buy it; and whenever you haul a load of wood to the city and can’t sell it, just take it around to my residence … and I’ll pay you for it.’ I haven’t forgotten it.”

After Appomattox, and the assassination of Lincoln, Grant moved to what he then called Washington City to lead the Army through the war’s aftermath. Chernow notes that, as a general, Grant had nearly always fought on unfamiliar ground, which required a kind of concentration that could support a state of continuous reassessment. Washington was also unfamiliar ground, and continuous reassessment was just as vital to political success as it had been to victory on the field. Grant proved a quick study, even after he had professed to be “no politician.”

For example, he saw early on that the new president, Andrew Johnson, who many feared would be much harsher on the South than Lincoln would have been, had begun to lean hard — and dangerously — in the opposite direction. “Mr. Johnson,” Grant writes in his memoirs, “after a complete revolution of sentiment, seemed to regard the South not only as an oppressed people, but as the people best entitled to consideration of any of our citizens.” Needless for Grant to say, this favor of Johnson’s fell to white Southerners only. He began to bring the weight of the presidency down on the side of those who championed what became the infamous Black Codes, designed to force freed slaves to continue to work on plantations in conditions much like those before emancipation.

As Grant’s and Johnson’s political differences grew wider, Grant, as General of the Army and immensely popular, began to suffer the ire of the increasingly besieged Johnson, who demanded fealty and, when frustrated and convinced of disloyalties real or imagined, tended to lash out. “It grated on Johnson that Grant,” Chernow says, “a mere subordinate, had been endowed with … godlike powers over Reconstruction.”

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Credit James Nieves/The New York Times

Contrary to Johnson’s claim, the power Grant had to oversee the fate of the postwar South was hardly godlike. A former social club named for the Greek word kuklos, or circle, the Ku Klux Klan had begun “to shade into a quasi-military organization, recruiting Nathan Bedford Forrest as a leader” — and vowing “to ‘support a white man’s government’ and carry weapons at all times.” By the time of Grant’s election as president in 1868, the Klan was targeting black voters and their supporters with “murders and mutilations in a grotesque spirit of sadistic mockery.” The Union that Grant had been instrumental in saving as a general was splintering anew even before he took his oath of office. As Chernow writes, “If there were many small things Grant didn’t know about the presidency, he knew one big thing: His main mission was to settle unfinished business from the war by preserving the Union and safeguarding the freed slaves.”

And there was a very real chance Grant, and with him the country, would fail.

For that new mission, Grant needed cabinet members, staff and advisers every bit as masterful as his wartime lieutenants. His choices were notably hit-and-miss, but his very first appointee from a Confederate state proved to be one of his best. Amos T. Akerman of Georgia, Grant’s second attorney general, was “honest and incorruptible” and “devoted to the rule of law.” When Congress created the Department of Justice the same week as his appointment, the attorney general became overnight the head of “an active department with a substantial array of new powers.” Those powers were sorely needed to fight the Klan and what Chernow appropriately calls “the worst outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history.”

Grant signed three bills, collectively known as the Enforcement Acts, to strengthen federal powers in combating Klan terrorism, which had already claimed thousands of lives, the vast majority of them black. After the laws were in force, “federal grand juries, many interracial, brought 3,384 indictments against the K.K.K., resulting in 1,143 convictions.” Almost as important as the convictions was the message they sent. As Akerman told his district attorneys, “If you cannot convict, you, at least, can expose, and ultimately such exposures will make the community ashamed of shielding the crime.”

By the end of his first term, scandals had begun to take their toll, but at the same time the Klan — at least in its original incarnation — had been essentially destroyed. “Peace has come to many places as never before,” declared Frederick Douglass, an ally and admirer of Grant’s. “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.” However short-lived, it was an important victory not only for an enlightened version of Reconstruction but also for the beneficial use of the powers of the federal government to promote the general welfare and safety of all Americans, not just some.

As president, Grant appointed a record number of African-Americans to government positions all across the board, including the first black diplomat. Douglass once noted “in one department at Washington I found 249” black appointees, “and many more holding important positions in its service in different parts of the country.” Early in his presidency and at the height of his popularity, Grant had also been a booster of the 15th Amendment, giving former slaves the vote, and many believe his support was key to its ratification by the states, which was far from guaranteed. Grant himself minced no words in describing the magnitude of the amendment’s passage, saying in a message to Congress upon its ratification, “The adoption of the 15th Amendment … constitutes the most important event that has occurred, since the nation came into life.” He knew the right to vote is the heart of democracy and did not hesitate to defend it, a legacy today’s Supreme Court and Republicans in Washington and across the country should embrace, not abandon.

Chernow shows a fine balance in exposing Grant’s flaws and missteps as president, and the ill-fated turn that Reconstruction took after a promising start, while making it clear that Grant’s contributions after Appomattox were as consequential to the survival of our democracy as any that came before. As Americans continue the struggle to defend justice and equality in our tumultuous and divisive era, we need to know what Grant did when our country’s very existence hung in the balance. If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, his steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.

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