The Magazine


A Better President Than They Think

Aug 3, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 45 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Ulysses S. Grant is universally ranked among the greatest American generals, and his Memoirs are widely considered to belong with the best military autobiographies ever written. But he is inevitably named, by conservatives as well as liberals, as one of the worst presidents in American history.

The common verdict on Grant is that he was "an ignorant and confused president," as historian Thomas A. Bailey puts it. His administration was "the all-time low point in statesmanship in our nation's history," declares the usually perceptive C. Vann Woodward. Of Grant's tenure, Richard Hofstadter writes, "not much need be said." Even the conservative Paul Johnson calls him "a boob." Over and over again historians have quoted the venomous comment of Grant's contemporary, Henry Adams: "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin." His administration, we are told again and again, had a level of corruption never surpassed in American history.

This consensus, however, is being challenged by writers outside the professional historians' guild. Last year the prolific Geoffrey Perret published a biography which looked at Grant's presidency afresh and rendered a not altogether negative judgment. It impressed no less a reader than Bill Clinton, who, before a recent taping, told Newshour host Jim Lehrer that Grant has gotten a "bumrap" and (perhaps self-servingly) argued that Grant's involvements in scandal were much less than generally thought.

Now comes Frank Scaturro, amateur historian, New York lawyer, and president of the association that refurbished Grant's Tomb for its centennial last year. In his new President Grant Reconsidered, Scaturro makes a convincing case that Grant was a strong and, in many important respects, successful president. It is an argument full of significance for how we see the course of American political history.

Scaturro begins by disposing of the charges of corruption. Grant certainly used the spoils system, but so had every administration since Jackson's, and none more than Lincoln's. And Grant actually made some moves away from it: He appointed a civil-service reform commission, and his treasury secretary, George Boutwell, instituted the first civil-service exam.

The famous Credit Mobilier scandal, involving Grant's vice president, Schuyler Colfax, concerned a bribery committed before Grant was president. The picturesque Whiskey Ring was formed during Johnson's administration and uncovered during Grant's. The fabled attempt by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold market was foiled when Grant ordered Boutwell to sell gold. Charges that Grant defended administration officials who broke the law turn out to be unfounded. The prosecution of Grant's secretary Orville Babcock was promoted by a treasury secretary planning a run for the presidency, and Babcock was acquitted. The one genuine scandal, Scaturro argues, was the bribing of war secretary William Belknap, and Grant fired him.

The legend of extraordinary corruption during Grant's presidency derives primarily from the complaints of those who loathed him at the time. Some of these complainers were southerners who hated his Reconstruction policy. Others had more self-interested motives. In 1869, Grant's first year in office, Henry Adams wrote a friend, "My hopes of the new administration have all been disappointed; it is far inferior to the last. My friends have almost all lost ground instead of gaining it as I hoped. My family is buried beyond political recovery for years. I am becoming more and more isolated." When Adams and such other elite Republicans as George Curtis and Charles Eliot Norton complained that Grant did not appoint men of intelligence and standing, they had themselves in mind.

Moreover, Grant refused to talk in a way that charmed them. He was a Coolidge or an Eisenhower, not a Woodrow Wilson or an Adlai Stevenson. But Grant's silences, Scaturro argues, are not evidence of stupidity. Even as a general, he seldom said much, but he wrote his orders swiftly in a clear and graceful prose that left no doubt about their meaning. He wrote his Memoirs in the same way, even though wracked with pain from the cancer that was killing him. Beneath the silence a strong mind was at work. His contemporaries who looked for style missed the substance of Grant, and almost all historians since have been happy to repeat their verdict.

For modern southern historians, the reason has been simple: The victorious Yankee general Grant was the one president who tried seriously to enforce blacks' rights during Reconstruction. He was the enemy, and treated as such. For modern progressive historians, however, the answer has been more complex.