To America: Personal Reflections of an Historianby Stephen E. Ambrose
In To America, Stephen E. Ambrose, one of the country's most influential historians, reflects on his long career as an American historian and explains what an historian's job is all about. He celebrates America's spirit, which has carried us so far. He confronts its failures and struggles. As always in his much acclaimed work, Ambrose brings alive the men and/i>… See more details below
In To America, Stephen E. Ambrose, one of the country's most influential historians, reflects on his long career as an American historian and explains what an historian's job is all about. He celebrates America's spirit, which has carried us so far. He confronts its failures and struggles. As always in his much acclaimed work, Ambrose brings alive the men and women, famous and not, who have peopled our history and made the United States a model for the world.
Taking a few swings at today's political correctness, as well as his own early biases, Ambrose grapples with the country's historic sins of racism, its neglect and ill treatment of Native Americans, and its tragic errors (such as the war in Vietnam, which he ardently opposed on campus, where he was a professor). He reflects on some of the country's early founders who were progressive thinkers while living a contradiction as slaveholders, great men such as Washington and Jefferson. He contemplates the genius of Andrew Jackson's defeat of a vastly superior British force with a ragtag army in the War of 1812. He describes the grueling journey that Lewis and Clark made to open up the country, and the building of the railroad that joined it and produced great riches for a few barons.
Ambrose explains the misunderstood presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, records the country's assumption of world power under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, and extols its heroic victory of World War II. He writes about women's rights and civil rights and immigration, founding museums, and nation- building. He contrasts the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout, Ambrose celebrates the unflappable American spirit.
Most important, Ambrose writes about writing history. "The last five letters of the word 'history' tell us that it is an account of the past that is about people and what they did, which is what makes it the most fascinating of subjects."
To America is an instant classic for all those interested in history, patriotism, and the love of writing.
Chicago Sun-Times An exciting classroom lecture by a well-beloved teacher.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel An excellent read...a must for history fans....To America is a love letter to the nation.
Jeff Guinn Fort Worth Star-Telegram Stunning....Stephen Ambrose should be assigned a special, honored place among modern historians....All of us who write or read history are in his debt.
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Chapter Five: Grant and Reconstruction
Ulysses S. Grant was the most popular American of the nineteenth century, both at home and abroad. According to historian Geoffrey Perret he was even more popular than Abraham Lincoln. As no one held a plebiscite during the century, it cannot be proved. And what about Jefferson? Jackson? Or, my wife insists, Mark Twain?
To the people of the nineteenth century, Grant was the only Union general who beat Robert E. Lee, so he was the Man Who
Won the War. But after being at or near the top to his contemporaries, Grant in the twentieth century fell precipitously. He became "Butcher Grant." To the nineteenth-century mind, he was the President who tried to bring about reconciliation with the South, but by the twentieth century his presidency was so disgraced by scandal that Americans ranked him at the absolute bottom of all the Presidents, behind even Andrew Johnson.
The cause of such extraordinary shifts in opinion was certainly not anything Grant did, or did not do. His record is his record. No investigative reporter or historian uncovered documents showing that President Grant had conspired to do this or that, or that he secretly used his positions to enrich himself, or to commit any other criminal or immoral act. Historians teaching the American history survey courses in the twentieth century denounced General Grant for his drinking, his recklessness, his wanton disregard for the lives of his troops, his appalling waste of the tools of war, his bullheaded insistence on attack, and more. They taught that President Grant ran a corrupt administration that was guilty of widespread financial scandal, that abandoned the newly freed African Americans to the mercies of their former owners, that turned the care of Native Americans over to do-gooder religious types, who knew nothing and learned even less, and otherwise was a disgrace. Worst of all, Grant turned the party of Lincoln from one of hope for the common man and for the newly freed slave into the party of big business. Those of us sitting at the professors' feet absorbed what they said and went out to teach it ourselves.
The historians were enunciating and sharpening the public's changed perception of what Grant had done, and why. Before World War I, people regarded Grant's losses in battle as regrettable but necessary. But after the losses incurred between 1914 and 1918, Grant came to be regarded as a general who was no different from Field Marshal Douglas Haig, or Joffre, or Ludendorff, or any of the other generals who want only to sacrifice their men's lives for their own glory. No longer were Grant's losses inevitable, yet suffered in a good, indeed a supreme cause -- they were after 1918 regarded as inexcusable. Instead of praise, they brought on Grant's head calumny.
Actually Grant was a great general, as good as any America ever produced, far better than most. In his first campaign in the Civil War, in Missouri, he learned a lesson that he adopted as his constant guide: the enemy general is more afraid of me than I am of him. He was determined to win, whatever the cost. He personified an axiom used by Dwight Eisenhower in World War II, that in war, everything is expendable, even generals' lives, so long as you win. He won at Fort Donelson, at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga. The essential elements in his victories were his willingness to make decisions and the will to carry them out. After the Chattanooga campaign, his chief of staff, General John Rawlins, said of him, "It is decisiveness and energy in action that always accomplishes grand results, and strikes terror to the hearts of the foe. It is this and not the conception of great schemes that makes military genius."
Grant displayed his tenacity and force of will most effectively in the Wilderness Campaign of 1864. After a drawn battle, the kind that his predecessors in command of the Army of the Potomac used as a reason to withdraw from Lee's front and retreat to the North, he told Lincoln, "I intend to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." He marched south, not north, until he finally forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox.
His success came about not because he was stubborn, but because he was smart. He knew much more than to simply tell his troops to charge. He knew how to handle his subordinates, what to tell them and what to order them to do. More, he understood the nature of the war. Despite the terrible losses the Army of the Potomac suffered, or those it inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant knew his purpose was not to annihilate the Rebels but to force them to lay down their arms and rejoin the Union.
Thus at Appomattox, Grant knew full well Lincoln's wish for leniency toward the enemy. Agreeing with it wholeheartedly himself, he was determined not to humiliate Robert E. Lee or the Southern army. This was partly because he had learned to respect his opponent, even more because he wanted to restore the Union. So he made the surrender terms as generous as possible, indeed the most generous ever given to a defeated army after a long and bloody war. Lee and his army were released on parole, not sent into a prisoner-of-war camp. There would be no reprisals, Grant promised, nor any trials for treason. Grant had the Union quartermasters distribute rations to the near-starving Rebels. The Confederates were allowed to keep their horses "for the spring plowing."
Grant carried no grudge against his former classmates at West Point who had fought against the government. At Appomattox, he talked to Lee about their experiences together in the Mexican War. Later that day, inspecting the Confederate lines, Grant met James "Pete" Longstreet, who had been his best man at his 1848 wedding. "Come on, Pete, let's play another game of brag [a card game]," he said.
These extraordinary terms were granted to an army that had inflicted a half-million casualties on the Northern forces, fighting for one of the worst causes people ever fought for, and with the least excuse. But what Grant wanted, above everything else, was to sheathe his sword. There had been enough bloodshed and there was no need for reprisals.
The total casualties in the war were more than one million; for the Confederacy 94,000 battle deaths, 164,000 killed by disease, and 194,000 wounded; for the Union, 110,000 battle deaths, another 225,000 deaths by disease, and 275,000 wounded. Such losses could never be forgotten and could not soon be forgiven, yet it was essential that a reconciliation take place.
Sadly, the President for the next four years was Andrew Johnson. Abraham Lincoln had chosen him for the number two spot on the 1864 Republican ticket because he was a Democratic senator from Tennessee who had stayed with the Union, the only senator from the South to do so. Lincoln needed the votes of the Democrats and the support of the border states. Johnson brought some of them into line for the Republicans, but he was a Southerner generally who proclaimed that his native state of Tennessee was "a country for white men."
On April 15, 1865, he succeeded the assassinated Lincoln as President. He indicated he wished to follow the politics of moderation that had been outlined by Lincoln, and in his first half-year in office he oversaw the reestablishment of civil government in the South. Ordinances of secession were formally repealed, and the Thirteenth Amendment (that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude can exist in the United States) was ratified in all but one of the former Confederate states. But the most important issue, that of suffrage for the former slaves, he left to state determination -- with the Southern states under the control of former Confederates.
In December 1865, Congress met and the radical Republicans took control, dismantling Johnson's program and substituting its own ideas of Negro suffrage and disenfranchisement of former Confederate soldiers. In 1866 the Radicals won enough seats in Congress to override Johnson's vetoes of their bills, and in 1867 Radical Reconstruction began.
Meanwhile, in 1866 the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee. The KKK was a continuation of the war, an attempt on the part of white Southern planters to maintain at least a part of what they had enjoyed before the war. Slavery was based on terror. Every African American in the slave states had been subjected to random terror -- beatings of all kinds, mutilation, sale to another master, having marriages broken up, the children sold down the river. By law, slaves could not be taught to read or write. They could not organize, or communicate with slaves on another plantation. All this was done by private individuals, reinforced by sheriffs and the law.
By 1867 the KKK's primary goal was to oust the Republican parties from the state capitols in the South. The KKK wanted to replace the former slaves with former Confederates. It was a terrorist organization that usually operated at night, resorting to lynching, murder, arson, rape, whipping, mutilation, and economic coercion to achieve its goals. The aim of the KKK was to terrorize any African American who tried to be a leader of his people, who learned to read and write, or who otherwise displeased his former master.
By the time of the election of 1868 the KKK had about taken over the South, helped in some measure by President Johnson, who had pardoned former Rebels and restored their full rights as citizens at a breathtaking, many thought reckless, pace. Johnson refused to punish the white South, or promote the fortunes of the black South. He was impeached by the House and survived in office by only one vote in the Senate.
Had Lincoln lived, no one knows what he might have done. We do know that Grant stood with him on Reconstruction. For some time, Grant attempted to support Johnson, but soon gave it up, turned against him, and, in 1868, won election.
So it fell to Grant to bring about a reconciliation. The only other men who took over as President when the country was so badly divided were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and even in their cases the nation was not as deeply split as it had been in 1868. Both men were honorable, intelligent, hardworking, but neither could win reelection because of their failure to heal the wounds left by Vietnam. The wounds of 1868 were far more widespread, and deeper.
To denounce Grant as a venal politician, stupid, ignorant, corrupt, is to miss entirely what his administration tried to do, and in some ways succeeded in doing. Most of all, for a time at least, the Grant administration disproved the Democratic assertion in the 1868 election that "This is a white man's country."
When Grant took over, some of the South was still occupied by Federal troops. Southern whites were furious, of course, as were many Northern Democrats, who figured their chances at taking control of the White House were thwarted by the occupation. Like Dwight Eisenhower, the only other West Point graduate to become President, Grant never wanted the job and had tried to avoid it. William T. Sherman said of him early in the election year, "Grant don't want it -- will only take it if he feels it is necessary to save the country."
Grant saw his task, as any decent man would have, as being to bring about peace and reconciliation between the North and South and to enforce the rights of citizens for blacks. He soon learned that he could not do both. In effect, by the end of his two terms he had abandoned the African Americans to white supremacy and conceded the political leadership of the South to former Confederates, in return for keeping a Republican in the White House.
As President, Grant wanted peace and reconciliation and to be President of all the people. There were hundreds of thousands of ex-Confederate soldiers living in the Southern states. They hated the Yankees and everything the Yankees stood for, including most of all peace and reconciliation. And there were millions of former slaves, now citizens. They wanted their rights -- first of all the right to vote. How could Grant be an effective President of both the ex-Rebels and the ex-slaves? Bringing the white South back into the Union could be accomplished only by excluding the former slaves from the body politic, or so it was thought. But denying the rights of citizens, especially the right to vote, to African Americans would be to betray them and the cause for which the Union had fought, and to which Abraham Lincoln had committed the nation and the Republican Party.
What to do with the freed slaves was the number one concern for the North (which had fought to free the slaves and now had the responsibility for them) and the South (which had fought to keep them in slavery and now had to live with them). Difficult enough
by itself, the problem was compounded because many people had mixed feelings or, even more commonly, hardly knew what they thought and had no clue as to what to do. That included Grant. Although born in Ohio, with his father, Jesse Grant, an abolitionist, he had many Southern friends while at West Point. His best friend was Simon Buckner, later the Confederate commander at Fort Donelson, captured by Grant in 1862 for the first victory for the Union in the war. Grant had borrowed money from him in 1855. James Longstreet of Georgia, as noted, was Grant's best man. Jesse Grant had refused to attend the wedding because Julia Dent's family were Missouri slaveholders.
Neither Ulysses nor Julia Grant were slaveholders, but they were not abolitionists either. During the war Grant welcomed escaped slaves into his lines and put them to work digging ditches, erecting living quarters, repairing railroads, and other jobs. When he was fighting Lee in Virginia, in 1864 to 1865, Grant organized the Negro troops into regiments and divisions and used them extensively. In the ill-fated Petersburg Mine Assault, July 30, 1864, the 4th Division, the first Negro unit to serve with Grant in Virginia, was badly mauled. The Rebel infantry fought with a special hatred against armed African Americans. And the Southern leaders from West Point gave their best to their cause.
In the first stages of Reconstruction, Andrew Johnson had refused to grant the demand of the Radical Republicans that African-American males be given the vote. The Radicals had passed the Fourteenth Amendment: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside....Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." That amendment also barred many former Confederates from holding Federal office. But with Johnson's approval, the Southern states, then being run, mostly, by former Confederates, had rejected the amendment.
In January 1867, a delegation from Arkansas -- all white, mainly ex-Confederates -- called upon General Grant. To them, he gave his advice: go home, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and grant Negro suffrage. Not committing himself, he told the delegation that the North was heartily in favor of the amendment and if it were not adopted by the South, Congress would impose more stringent terms. Still, the amendment was not adopted until July 1868 -- when Grant was already the Republican nominee for President and a certain winner.
My mentor, William B. Hesseltine, wrote in 1935 Ulysses S. Grant: Politician, the only full-scale study of President Grant. It was sixty-six years after Grant was elected President before anyone assessed his two terms, and in the sixty-seven years after Hesseltine's book there have been no other books written only about his presidency. In the 1950s Hesseltine liked to say in his seminars that in his view his book would last forever. One attendee said, jokingly, that he thought every book over thirty years old should be pulled from the library's shelves and burned, thus making room for new books written by younger scholars. We all laughed, including Hesseltine, but none of us expected then that fifty years later there would still be no competition for Ulysses S. Grant: Politician.
Hesseltine opens his book with this sentence: "Over Grant's tomb in New York's Riverside Park is inscribed the phrase -- 'Let Us Have Peace' -- which marked the Civil War General's formal entrance into politics." Grant wrote these words at the end of a letter accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1868. Hesseltine goes on to say that the phrase "might well have been the prayer which accompanied his exit from the White House nine years later. In his two presidential terms, fierce political warfare supplanted and almost surpassed in bitterness the military conflict of the four preceding years." Grant was "unprepared by experience and unendowed with the native gifts necessary for a successful political career. Historians and biographers...have written him down as the least worthy of the Presidents."
Hesseltine came down heavy on Grant. He was, Hesseltine charges, "peculiarly ignorant of the Constitution and inept in handling men. His mental endowment was not great and he filled his state papers with platitudes rather than thoughts....His militant qualities of decisiveness and obstinacy which brought success on the battlefield only insured defeat in politics." He set out in 1869 to be the President of all the people, only to end up in 1877 as a partisan hack who was "the 'safe' representative of the more reactionary economic interests of his day."
As the nation's leader, Grant felt he had inherited Lincoln's responsibility to mend the nation, but also Lincoln's self-imposed charge to protect the rights of the freed slaves. In 1870 his administration had seen the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right of citizens (except women) to vote. When in 1871 white groups in South Carolina led by the Ku Klux Klan were attacking the State's Republican government, Grant's Attorney General told him that "There was no question of the existence of these disorders and crimes and as the elections approached they would be increased." Grant moved to prevent it. In a message to Congress, he said "the proof is there" that the state officers were incapable of suppressing disorder. "Therefore I urgently recommend such legislation as shall effectually secure life, liberty, and property and the enforcement of law in all parts of the United States." In the final sentence of his message, Grant said, "There is no other subject upon which I would recommend legislation during the present session." This was called the Ku Klux Act, and was the first Civil Rights Act.
Before it passed, the South Carolina Republican government asked Grant for troops to suppress disorders. He complied by sending twelve companies of infantry and four of cavalry. When more outrages were committed anyway, Grand declared there was more disorder in South Carolina than in any other state and he would use all his power to put down the disturbers. If two regiments would not suffice, he would send ten and keep them there. He issued a proclamation describing conditions in the state and threatening the "use of military force" unless the "insurgents" dispersed within twenty days. They did and the Ku Klux Act was passed.
The white South was not pacified. The determination to keep the votes and the right to hold power from the former slaves ran deep and wide throughout the South. In the summer of 1874, riots broke out in New Orleans. White opposition to Republican Governor William P. Kellogg, who was supported by Grant, tried to wrest control from him and take over the government. Barricades appeared overnight in the streets. Kellogg found refuge in the custom house and wired Grant for troops. Instead, Grant issued a proclamation ordering the rebels to disperse, which in September, under the threat of military action, they did.
Congressional elections were approaching. The national Democratic Party press went after Grant with vigor and delight. You cannot fight a war for the Constitution, the Democrats argued, and then ignore it. Louisiana was entitled to her senators and representatives -- who, if only white men voted, would all be Democrats. "General Grant has vanquished the people of Louisiana," proclaimed the New York Tribune. "He has telegraphed to his generals and his admirals; he has set the army and navy in motion; and the lawful government of Louisiana surrenders." Grant's proclamation was an "outrage" which stood out "in all its naked deformity." It was an unpardonable crime against popular suffrage and the sovereignty of a state. This approach helped in November, when the Democrats took control of Congress.
In his annual message to Congress in December 1874, Grant defended himself. He reminded Congress that he had already called attention to the "fraud and irregularity" in the 1872 election in the state -- this was hardly new nor unique -- before imploring Congress to make sure "there be fairness in the discussion of Southern questions." He said honest, truthful reports from the area, reports that "condemned the wrong and upheld the right," would soon insure that "all will be well." A Negro voter, he added, voted Republican "because he knows his friends are of that party." Many "good citizens" voted Democratic, not because they agreed with the national policy of the party but because they are "opposed to Negro rule."
For those of us who lived in the American South from World War II to the 1980s, we can only say how right Grant was. Since then the rise of the Republican Party in the former Confederacy has brought about major changes in politics. But we still have not achieved what Grant spoke for in his last two sentences: "Treat the Negro as a citizen and a voter, as he is and must remain, and soon parties will be divided not on the color line but on principle. Then we shall have no complaint of sectional interference."
Troubles never ceased in Louisiana. In December, when the newly elected legislature came to New Orleans to organize for the session, Democrats and Republicans alike claimed a majority. Anticipating trouble, Grant sent General Philip Sheridan at the head of a body of troops to the Crescent City. Upon arrival, Sheridan informed Grant that it was obvious that the disorders were the result of the organized and armed White Leagues of the state (Louisiana's version of the Ku Klux Klan). "I think that the terrorism now existing in Louisiana could be entirely removed and confidence and fair dealing established by the arrest and trial of the ringleaders of the armed White Leagues." Sheridan wanted Congress to declare the Leaguers "banditti" and allow him to try them by military courts.
The Democrats set up a howl at this. There were countless condemnatory editorials about Sheridan's use of the word "banditti." Congressional Democrats demanded an investigation. When Grant nevertheless approved Sheridan's course, there was talk of impeachment -- quite a bit of talk, actually. The Senate demanded that Grant provide information on Sheridan's actions.
Grant complied. "Lawlessness, turbulence, and bloodshed have characterized the political affairs of that State," he began. Few residents, before or after the 1870s, would disagree. He spoke of the many instances of mob violence and even political murder in Louisiana. He concluded that Sheridan's words were thoroughly justified. "Honestly convinced by what he has seen and heard there, he has characterized the leaders of the White Leagues in severe terms, and has suggested summary modes of procedure against them, which, though they cannot be adopted, would, if legal, soon put an end to the troubles and disorders in that State."
What he could do, Grant said, he would. The Ku Klux Act gave him the power to prevent White Leagues or any such organization "using arms and violence" from governing any part of the country. He would use the act to protect "Union men or Republicans from being ostracized, persecuted, and murdered on account of their opinions."
Those were brave words, sincerely uttered. But whatever the facts or the law, Grant realized that he could not have both peace and reconciliation and suffrage and other full rights for Negroes. It had to be one or the other. Even the Radical Republicans were deserting him as the 1876 presidential election drew nearer. One of them, the American consul at Nuremberg, Germany, asked the consul at Liverpool, "Is it not too dammed bad that our party should be ruined. I believe Genl. Sheridan told the simple truth -- but the truth is our people are tired out with this worn out cry of 'Southern outrages'!!! Hard times & heavy taxes make them wish the 'nigger,' 'everlasting nigger,' were in hell or Africa."
Grant had never surrendered in his life. He had never given in to the Confederates. But this time he succumbed to the deep rage of the white Southerners, whose fury at the "impudence of those niggers" was so monumental. This was politics, not a shooting war. Grant gave up. He sent no more Federal troops into the South.
The presidential election of 1876, to pick a successor to Grant, was disputed. It pitted Samuel Tilden, Democrat, against Rutherford Hayes, Republican. It was so close that the Congress had to set up a fifteen-member Electoral Commission to decide who won. The commission had eight Republicans, seven Democrats, and as expected each member voted his party's choice. Not until March 2, two days before Grant's term expired, was the count completed. Hayes won with 185 electoral votes, to 184 for Tilden. What had happened was a deal between the Southern Democrats and the Northern Republicans.
The deal was concluded on February 26, 1877, at the Wormley Hotel in Washington. The Southerners said that if the Republicans promised to withdraw all Federal troops from the South, thus insuring "good" government in South Carolina and Louisiana (which otherwise would remain Republican), the South would forgo any proposals to use force to inaugurate Tilden. The promise was made. The South also promised to treat the former slaves humanely.
Of February 26, Hesseltine wrote, "Reconstruction ended, for the Hayes men promised that the troops would be withdrawn from the South. In other words, the Republicans surrendered the Negro to the Southern ruling class, and abandoned the idealism of Reconstruction, in return for the peaceable inauguration of their President [Hayes]."
Grant had sent in the troops that Hayes withdrew. Grant did not complain, but accepted what had been done. He had earlier set a precedent no other President until Eisenhower dared to emulate. He did so to enforce civil rights for African Americans. So did Eisenhower, in 1957, when he sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a court order desegregating Central High. Until then, for eighty years, and more, Southern blacks lived in a system that banned private slavery but kept alive a public segregation that was the disgrace of the nation.
Over the half-century since I first sat in on an American history survey course, I've always been ready to praise Grant as a general, damn him as a politician. I was especially furious at the way he gave in to, or sold out to, the white supremacists. Today I know that he tried to do more for the African Americans than any President until Lyndon Baines Johnson. I realize now that when Grant threw up his hands, he had a reason. It is hard to put anything ahead of "Let Us Have Peace" as a motto, but sometimes I almost wish Grant had done so. Had he been able to garner any support from prominent white Americans, he might have. But with Lincoln gone, there was no chance.
The criticism of Grant the President did not come about so much because of his efforts to help the African American enjoy his rights as a citizen -- something that most white Americans just ignored from the election of 1876 to 1964. Rather, Grantism as a term of opprobrium referred to the scandals of his administration. They were supposedly wide and deep and did irreparable harm to the nation. There was Orville Babcock, Grant's secretary, who pocketed money from the Whiskey Ring for sale of tax revenue stamps. The ring also distributed money to the Republican Party. There was corruption in the War Department and the Indian reservations, where trading post operators paid a kickback to higher officials. There was more, but the scandal of the age was the Crédit Mobilier -- which although Grant gets most of the popular blame for, had taken place before he became President. Grant was never charged with dishonesty himself but he became the target of reformers and critics of all kinds -- including American history professors.
It was the Gilded Age, after all. The Civil War was over, the boom times had arrived. Fortunes were being made, and lost. In its own way, the United States during Grant's administration was somewhat like the United States in the 1990s.
In foreign affairs, Grant's record, thanks in large part to his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, was solid. Most notably, he managed to support Fish in negotiation of the Treaty of Washington (1871), which lay the foundation for the amicable arbitration of U.S.-British disputes left over from the Civil War, including the Alabama claims by Northern shippers against the British for building the commerce raider and selling it to the Confederates.
Grant sent his Farewell Address to Congress in December 1876. He began with a personal note: "It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred." He continued, "Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit." He defended himself: "I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent."
As to the white South and Reconstruction, he characterized the struggle as having been over "whether the control of the government should be thrown immediately into the hands of those who had so recently and persistently tried to destroy it, or whether the victors should continue to have an equal voice with them in this control." It had been expected that the enfranchisement of the Negroes would mean an "addition to the Union-loving and Union-supporting votes."
With the swearing in of Hayes, Grant was gone. He and Julia and their son went on a two-and-a-half-year round-the-world tour, on which he was greeted everywhere by huge, enthusiastic crowds. At the Republican convention of 1880, no delegate wanted Hayes again, and a number of replacements were nominated -- led by General Grant for a third term! When New York Senator Roscoe Conk-ling presented Grant, he opened:
When asked what State he hails from
Our sole reply shall be --
"He hails from Appomattox
With its famous apple tree."
To the Grant delegates it seemed like sublime poetry. On the first ballot, James G. Blaine of Maine got 284 votes, Senator John Sherman of Ohio got 93, two others got 34 and 30 respectively, and Grant led the way with 304 votes (370 were necessary to nominate). Grant held in there for a while, but finally he and Conkling and his supporters gave it up. Dark horse James A. Garfield won on the thirty-sixth ballot, with Chester A. Arthur as Vice President.
Grant moved to New York, where he invested all his money -- it wasn't very much -- in a banking firm that soon was bringing in big profits. The trouble was that his partner, Ferdinand Ward, was a swindler. On the night of May 5, 1884, Grant learned that the bank had failed and all his money was gone. He and Julia went over their assets. He had $80 in cash in his pocket. Julia had $130 in the house. There was a house in Washington, and a small trust fund. The Grants were almost destitute.
Grant recuperated by, of all things, writing. The Century Company asked him to prepare some articles for their projected series, "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War." He agreed to write four articles at $500 each. The articles were an immediate success. Grant raised his fee to $1,000 per article. Pleased with the results, he announced he would write his memoirs. Publishers swarmed to sign him up, but his friend Mark Twain of the Webster Company knew the American public's reading taste better than anyone else and his company offered by far the most liberal contract.
Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, but managed to keep writing. A few days after finishing, he died on July 23, 1885. The book was an immense success, in sales and for his reputation. It proved what a splendid intellect Grant had, what a superb storyteller he was. Whatever my professors thought of him, whatever I told my students about him, he was a great American who did far more good for our country than most generals or Presidents can even approach.
Copyright © 2002 by Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc.
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