Ulysses S. Grant: A Great General, But Still a Mediocre President

Some historical figures maintain their reputation, whatever our contemporary concerns. George Washington has remained one of our most admired Presidents for the entire history of the Republic. James Buchanan settled in the doghouse as soon as he left office and has stayed there ever since. But the assessments of most Presidents and public figures lying between these poles of excellence and of failure wax and wane depending on our current preoccupations.  Biography can be the most presentist of historical disciplines.

No subject exemplifies these vicissitudes more than Ulysses S. Grant. When the nation wanted to emphasize the reconciliation of the South and North and forgot about civil rights for African Americans, Grant was derided both as a general and as President.  He was said to have defeated Robert E. Lee only because of his greater willingness to sacrifice the lives of ordinary soldiers and the greater industrial might of the North. His Presidency was treated as a travesty almost as bad as Buchanan’s—that of a man in office over his head with a high tolerance of scandalous behavior of subordinates.

But today we see more of American history as a struggle for civil rights and thus Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography attempts to raise Grant to the pantheon of American generals and to a more than respectable position among American Presidents.  Chernow is more successful in promoting a reassessment of his career as a warrior than as a statesman.

Chernow shows that Grant was a great general both tactically and strategically, His idea of running past Vicksburg with gunships was the turning point in the battle that was itself the turning point of the Civil War. He largely came up with the strategy of making Generals Sherman and Sheridan pincers that strangled the South, while he forced Lee to defend Richmond in a war of attrition that Lee could not win. And Chernow shows that Grant was in fact more sensitive to the losses of troops than Lee.  Chernow’s evaluation has received recent support from data driven evaluations of generals where Grant rates far higher than Lee, if not yet close to the greatest general of all time, Napoleon.

Chernow is right to highlight the best of Grant’s Presidency—his effort to enforce civil rights, including the voting rights, of the newly freed slaves, even to the point of sending in federal troops.  As Mike Rappaport and I have argued, the greatest constitutional tragedy of America was a failure to follow original meaning, that of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments during Reconstruction.  Many politicians and judges were complicit in this failure, but Grant was generally a conspicuous and noble exception.

But sadly the other weaknesses of his Presidency—corruption, policy mistakes, and a lack of political deftness weakened the Republican party in general and his faction of it in particular, leading to the contested election of 1876 and the pulling out of federal troops in the deal that gave the Presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Chernow is correct that Grant was not personally corrupt, but his appointments of corrupt individuals, including even his own chief of staff, created a stench emanating from his administration that wafted out to voters.

Moreover, he needlessly alienated important Republicans, like Senator Charles Sumner by pursuing polices that seemed odd then and positively foolish now, like his relentless effort to annex Santo Domingo. Grant came into the Presidency with relatively little knowledge of the world beyond military affairs and it showed not only in foreign policy judgments of his own but appointments in matters outside his ken. The description of his attempts to appoint a Chief Justice are almost comical. He came up with a variety of candidates, including the greatest spoilsman of the age, Roscoe Conkling, and an ancient jurist who was to resign before the end of his Presidency, before appointing the undistinguished Morrison Waite.

To be sure, Grant faced an enormous political challenge because the Republican party was dividing between the Stalwarts (his own faction), who supported civil rights, but favored patronage and crony capitalism, and the liberal Republicans who had tired of pursuing civil rights, but were for “good government”  reform, including creation of the civil service. An adept politician might have found someway to reconcile these factions, for instance by taking some measures on reform that were not so strong as to turn off the Stalwarts. But Chernow provides no evidence that Grant could turn his military skills at tactics and strategy to politics.

Thus, in my view Grant remains a mediocre President whose contributions on civil rights could not survive the weaknesses that infected much of the rest of his administration.