Sometimes friends disagree, and this is one of those cases where they do.
Today on Salon there appears a commentary by Joan Waugh offering a summary of Ulysses S. Grant’s life story and an assessment of how Americans remember him. According to Waugh, they don’t hold him in very high esteem, despite the fact that he was such an important figure in American history. After all, she contends, Grant’s record is one of signal accomplishment and laudable intent, between preserving the Union, assisting in the destruction of slavery, advocating black rights, and overseeing reunification.
And yet, despite all of this, Grant’s legacy today is largely forgotten. His memoirs are unread, his monuments are unvisited and in disrepair, and his reputation is synonymous with brutal warfare and overwhelming corruption in public office. In the 1950s, comedian Groucho Marx would pose a standard question to contestants on his quiz show, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tom?”" The answer in 2011 seems to be “Who cares?”
I’m not sure that Grant’s legacy is largely forgotten. I’d argue that it is contested, which is different altogether. And I wonder whether Waugh’s portrayal of how Americans remember him is a bit extreme. However, that portrayal helps set up Waugh’s contention that there’s a need to “rehabilitate” him. As she says:
Perhaps Grant’s rehabilitation is on the horizon. The 150th anniversary of America’s most devastating conflict will produce a flood of books, articles, exhibits, conferences and the like recasting and reinterpreting the dominant military, social and political events and figures that make up the story of this endlessly fascinating war. Will a serious reconsideration of U.S. Grant, one of the major architects of both victory and reunion, be in the offing? It should be.
I can’t take this seriously (and Joan Waugh is a good friend of mine). For some two decades we’ve had biography after biography and study after study offer a new understanding of Grant that effectively challenges the stereotype she claims exists. Her own scholarship is part of that new understanding, and she’s ably summarized the new understanding elsewhere. Indeed, I’d argue that Grant’s generalship has had its advocates for some time, from JFC Fuller to Bruce Catton and Kenneth P. Williams and T. Harry Williams to James McPherson. In my own work on Grant as a political figure I drew upon the work of people like William B. Hesseltine and David Donald as well as the encouragement of scholars such as James Mohr and Michael Holt, all of whom convinced me that there was more than enough to challenge the stereotype of failed, corrupt, and bumbling president, a challenge which seems to have been met, given Grant’s recent standing in presidential polls and some pieces that celebrate the president as well as the general. To pretend this all doesn’t exist is, I contend, a mistake.
There’s something of a pendulum at operation here, and what I most fear, twenty years after my first book on Grant appeared, is that we may replace a largely negative view of Grant with an equally distorted positive view of him that goes too far in the other direction. I know that two decades ago my work was viewed as the counterpoint to William McFeely’s 1981 biography, but as I do my own work, I find myself more critical of Grant than recent biographers Geoffrey Perret and Jean Edward Smith. I’m finding things that surprise me in ways that warn me not to get caught up in this cry to rehabilitate as I revise and reconsider.
Let me give you one example. You may recall that in 1869 Grant found himself entangled by his brother-in-law in the efforts of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold market, leading to what became known as Black Friday. Although a few historians have suggested that perhaps other members of Grant’s inner circle were involved in improper activity (including Julia Grant herself), most people accept that Grant exercised poor judgment in associating with Fisk and Gould before belatedly awakening to what was going on.
Fair enough. Grant continued to deal with his brother-in-law, which I think was understandable in some ways but questionable in others. After all, others closer to him would take advantage of their relationship to the hero of Appomattox to line their pockets (hello, Orvil Grant!). Nor do I believe Grant was quite aware of what was going on at the time, although he seems to have been somewhat suspicious of Fisk and Gould, just not suspicious enough or guarded enough. But you would expect Grant to maintain his distance from Gould and Fisk thereafter. In Fisk’s case that was simple, for Fisk would be murdered in a few years. Not so in the case of Jay Gould, however. As I do work on Grant in the 1880s there’s Gould popping up here and there as someone with dealings with Grant. No, they were not intimate friends, but Grant didn’t exactly exclude Gould from his life, either, and that finding complicates images of Grant as naive and personally pure (just as my discussion of this complicates claims that I’m some sort of Grant apologist).
I’m adverse to calls for rehabilitation. I’m sympathetic to calls for reassessment. There’s a difference. To say that Grant is in need of reassessment as if none has been taking place, to me, is misleading; to issue a call for his rehabilitation seems to me to be mistaken. Sure, I’m aware that people have adopted a more positive view of Grant in part due to my work, but that’s not what I’m about. If others want to rehabilitate (as both Perret and Smith have claimed they so desire), well, that’s their choice.
Again, friends do disagree. (PS: But read the letters section for continuing evidence that Joan Waugh’s not altogether off the mark about some people).