Preview 2: Ulysses S. Grant


From Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S. Grant:

“The Greek poet Archilochus, known to us from a few surviving fragments of preclassical poetry, made a familiar distinction between hedgehogs and foxes: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ By political conviction, which for Ulysses Grant was coterminous with moral conviction, the president was a hedgehog: he believed in the preservation of what he understood to be the legacy of the terrible war that he had fought under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. He had come by that conviction in the hard school. The war in which he had begun his service as a civilian volunteer in the governor’s office was to have been a simple affair of military chastisement: the Union would defeat, quickly and without great effusion of blood, a misguided enemy – errant sisters, states that had followed a false god that seduced them to fight for their independence from the Union. Within a year, he had seen that the war would be no such thing, and by 1863 he understood that slavery was the issue central to the war’s resolution, and that victory meant the end of slavery, along with the citizenship and enfranchisement of blacks. To achieve that end guaranteed bitter contention of the kind that might survive the achievement of the end itself. It required constitutional amendments with strong enforcement mechanisms. Enforcement became therefore the duty of the national government, whatever interventionist scruples might impede the willingness to execute that duty. The southern states, most of them ‘redeemed’ by 1871, simply would not enforce the law, and yet Grant’s own party had also begun to abandon its obligation, its congressional leaders no longer the passionate foot soldiers of the Northern Cause. The president — and here lies his title to the gratitude of succeeding generations — was its best and steadiest guarantor.

“In war Ulysses Grant was not especially distinguished as a tactician; as a strategist and leader, he stood far above his contemporaries. As steadfast upholder of the war’s final legacy during his term as president, Grant was the central force in the achievement of civil rights for blacks, the most stalwart and reliable among all American presidents for the next eighty years.

“Historians have criticized Grant for the partisan bias in his decisions to authorize military intervention in the southern states, but it was his most effective response to southern Democrats and sympathetic terrorist organizations whose main purpose was to ‘keep down’ African Americans and the Republican candidates and officeholders who represented their best hopes. The ‘bias’ reflects credit on Grant. Frederick Douglas offered this encomium: ‘To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy.'”


“Grant fought for and supported during his administration an Indian policy that for its time was humane, generous in instinct and intent, far ahead of the conventional cultural and political wisdom of its day. It failed to understand that what needed to be protected was Indian culture itself. But the attempt wasadmirably conceived. It is a testimony to the odd blindness of American historiography that it has never received its due.”

Published in: on December 2, 2008 at 10:55 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] selected excerpts from Bunting’s Ulysses S Grant, see our earlier posts here and […]

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