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Ulysses S. Grant: American Giant

Ron Chernow’s new biography rehabilitates the great Civil War general and champion of Reconstruction. But it glosses over the central issues of labor and property that would stifle black equality for a century.

Composite photo of Ulysses S. Grant on horseback at City Point. Library of Congress / Wikimedia

No public figure has ever ascended so high in the American popular imagination during his own lifetime, only to sink so low in posterity.

In life, Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most admired Americans in US history. He was the highest ranking general since George Washington and the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two consecutive full terms. Pressured from below, Grant amassed the best civil rights record of any president until Lyndon Johnson, and contemporaries ultimately ra­­­nked him alongside Washington and Abraham Lincoln as part of the “founder-martyr-savior” triumvirate. His posthumously published Personal Memoirs became one of the best-selling works of nineteenth-century American literature. Grant was given a state funeral and interred in the largest tomb on the North American continent.

In death, however, Grant became a barometer of attitudes toward Reconstruction; his stature plummeted in direct proportion to Jim Crow’s ascent. Opponents slandered his war record as that of a drunken “butcher” whose uninterrupted battlefield victories owed only to luck and overwhelming manpower. To some, Grant was a caricature of the political corruption and financial unscrupulousness of the Gilded Age. His memory, inseparable from Union triumph and black advancement during Reconstruction, became a foil to the “Lost Cause,” the cultural narrative that underpinned segregation and provided a salve for Rebel defeat, viewing slavery as benign, secession as a matter of “state’s rights,” and Confederate soldiers and leadership as superior.

As a steward of emancipation and black political equality, Grant’s memory had to be sacrificed on the altar of sectional reconciliation, white supremacist politics, and the elevation of former Confederate officers to the ranks of demigods. Later generations of Grant’s enemies paired his final Civil War campaigns with the industrialized slaughter and needless sacrifice of the Western Front in World War I, owing to their limited mobility and the ubiquity of trenches. By the 1970s, Grant’s Tomb had fallen into disrepair. Once a site of Unionist memory and the celebration of African American civil rights, the colossal mausoleum had become a metaphor for the tarnished reputation of its occupant.

However, recent years have seen a dramatic surge in sympathetic histories of the general-president, with Ron Chernow’s newest biography, Grant, representing a milestone in critical reassessment. In the 1960s, Civil War centennial-era popular works and the rise of social history produced the germ of Grant’s rehabilitation, but post-revisionist scholars of the civil rights and Vietnam War eras often focused Grant’s limitations. William S. McFeely’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography portrayed an irresolute defender of formerly enslaved people, as well as an inconsistent and corrupted politician. But the historians’ reading of a “passive Grant” has been waning for decades. While Grant covers much of the same interpretive ground as other popular texts, including Ronald C. White’s 2016 American Ulysses, Chernow’s volume constitutes a new peak in sales and exposure.

Like its more recent predecessors, Grant skillfully dislodges a host of pernicious myths. Chernow extols Grant as instrumental in securing emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, and winning Union victory. A master strategist who cultivated a model relationship with his commander-in-chief, Grant, a proponent of “hard war” against the Slaveocracy, was the Civil War’s greatest and most visionary general, Chernow argues, as well as an adept (if excessively trusting) president who performed ably in the face of relentless obstacles. Addressing his opponents’ charges of so-called “Grantism”— the notion that the Crédit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring scandals reflected singular malfeasance — Chernow recalls that while all postwar presidential administrations featured corruption, opponents singled out Grant’s misconduct in part because of his administration’s support for Reconstruction and black civil rights.

To his credit, Chernow leaves no doubt as to Grant’s commitment to emancipation and African-American rights. Hoping to outpace other biographies with a “systematic account” of Grant’s relationship to enslaved people and civil rights, Chernow contends that Grant was the general best suited to both embrace and utilize emancipation, and thus steer overall Union strategy. Tracing his subject’s “startling leaps” on issues of race, he shows that Grant regarded the destruction of chattel slavery as opening the way to making black men into free landholders, and voting citizens. Chernow also rightly maintains that the eighteenth president was the single most important figure of the Reconstruction era. He tied black rights to the safeguarding of the Union (and Republican) cause; he afforded black leaders unprecedented access to himself and his White House; and he made global abolition a feature of his foreign policy.

Grant’s boldness in advancing the Fifteenth Amendment, crusading against the Ku Klux Klan, and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1875, are all on display. He had hoped for a much larger military force to defend freedpeople and oversee the South’s postwar transition. And political realities eventually obliged Grant to retreat from Reconstruction during the latter half of his second term. But Chernow depicts a subject who was strikingly inclusive—of African Americans, Native Americans, and, eventually, Jews—and continuously at the forefront of his own party in protecting black rights. Grant consistently rejected the moral equivalency of the war’s two sides and viewed Reconstruction not as a “tragic era,” but as a noble experiment.

Free Labor Illusions

But rehabilitating Grant to affirm the righteousness of the Union cause tells only part of the story. The other part requires scrutinizing the Grant’s, and the Republicans’, postwar program to redress the damages of slavery. Civic rights combined with race-neutral markets could not overcome vast disparities in power. Like free-labor ideology, which viewed wage work as a temporary condition and held that prosperity required only hard work and thrift, Reconstruction contained profound contradictions and the seeds of its own demise.

In overlooking farmer and worker activism and neglecting his subject’s relationship to what Karl Marx termed a “new era of the emancipation of labor,” Chernow’s study embodies some of the defects of liberal history. He slights both Grant’s reputation among common people, especially Northern workers, and his cultivated political image as a good-faith member of the laboring sets.

Countless working people pinned their hopes on the “Galena Tanner,” as a symbol of free labor and the “right to rise.” Although seemingly apolitical during the 1840s and 1850s, Grant earnestly came to believe that slave labor promoted ignorance, created an underclass of “poor white trash,” and “degraded” all labor in the process. Pushed by the National Labor Union, he oversaw a mandated eight-hour workday for federal workers. He stressed his working-class bona fides through campaign imagery depicting himself a workaday tanner, replete with workman’s apron, at the head of a “Workingman’s Banner.” During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Grant pointed out the hypocrisy of opponents of Reconstruction who had “thought it ‘horrible’ to employ Federal troops ‘to protect the lives of negroes,’” but now had no objection to “exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatened.” Hated by both reactionary anti-black Democrats and rich northeastern Brahmins, some of them former Radical Republicans, Grant’s “plain western ordinariness” was for many common folk symbolic of American democracy and the promise of social mobility.

Likewise, Grant was commemorated in black Emancipation Day celebrations, at black colleges, worker collectives, and political clubs, where he was associated with emancipation as an antiracist partner. Even in death, Grant’s memory remained a frequent motif among socialist trade unionists, the Union Labor Party, and the Knights of Labor. Samuel Gompers, who used Civil War memory to promote labor loyalty and industrial patriotism, was active in Grant Day celebrations, administering the Ulysses S. Grant Monument Municipal Inaugural Committee.

Grant’s renown among industrial workers spanned the Atlantic. On his post-presidential world tour in 1877, he was greeted by British workers throughout the industrial cities of England. To the Old World elite, Grant was an unrefined curiosity. But to the working classes of Sheffield, Sunderland, and Birmingham, he was “the incarnation of republicanism” and “democracy in the house of aristocracy.” Workers told Grant and his entourage that the British working class wanted the American Republic saved for the same reason the ruling class wanted it destroyed: because it represented a “reproach to aristocracy.”

For his part, Grant praised the workingmen of Manchester for their wartime fidelity to the Union cause, describing a special solidarity between allies of human liberation and the city’s tradesmen. In Leicester he assured a delegation of workers that the laborer was “the author of all greatness and wealth.” And in Newcastle eighty thousand working people from across the North Country — miners, dock workers, carpenters, masons, painters, and tanners representing dozens of union and workers’ organizations — greeted Grant with placards with chains of bondage being broken, and others that read “Welcome to the Liberator,” “Nothing like Leather,” and “Welcome, Hero of Freedom.”

MP Thomas Burt, former secretary of the Northumberland Miners’ Association, introduced the ex-president. He expressed the unmatched admiration in which the region’s laboring classes held the Union hero, reminding the crowd that the American War of the Rebellion was a contest for both freedom and labor, and that their honored guest had “proclaimed the dignity of labour by breaking the chains of the slave.” Grant then thanked the working people of Tyneside and explained the relationship between war and production. He avowed that while workers furnished the tools and bore the costs of wars, which always “fall upon the many, the producing class, who are the sufferers,” it was also true that labor created everything in life worth fighting for. It was, as one biographer noted, “a speech Karl Marx could have made.”

Yet workingmen concurrently criticized Grant as a symbol of buccaneer capitalism and Gilded Age excess — the most powerful politician in an era of Robber Baron monopoly, soaring inequality, predatory speculation, and the impersonal relations and brutal exploitation of industrial capitalism. As McFeely acknowledges, the advantages of Grant’s humble background and his obvious ability to identify with ordinary people were often wasted through elitist personal and political pursuits. Although Democratic depictions of Grant as a tool of the “money oligarchy” often had white supremacist overtones, organized workers and interracial farmer-labor movements to the left of the Republican Party frequently censured Grant as an imperialist (for his designs to annex what is now the Dominican Republic) or a “tool of plutocrats.” The International Workingmen’s Association nevertheless lobbied the president for a federal jobs program during the Panic of 1873 to offset unemployment and wealth inequality and prevent “needless suffering endured in the midst of plenty.” Though Grant pondered the idea, what could have been a precursor to the New Deal was swiftly nixed by party leadership.

At the same time, more and more workers charged that Republicans had abandoned the free labor ideal to conciliate Big Capital. As the party shifted from Radical to Stalwart control, workingmen insisted that Grant’s 1868 campaign slogan, “Let Us Have Peace” be changed to “Let Us Have a Piece.” Labor firebrands such as Wendell Phillips warned that the rise of financial elites within the party of Lincoln was sure to create “an aristocracy of capital.” Indeed, Greenbackers, socialists, and other reformers and revolutionaries, looking to capture the “pure Republicanism of Thaddeus Stevens,” yoked their identities to the early Republican Party and distanced themselves from the contemporary party.

Meanwhile, Grant’s limitations were the limitations of his social habitat. Chernow paints his subject as possessing racially liberal and economically conservative inclinations and attempting to walk a tightrope between the old abolitionist and new business wings of his party. While the author seems to view this “social liberal/economic conservative” position as pragmatic and politically astute and therefore fundamentally reasonable, such a view assumes that economic policy has a separate existence, and that laissez-faire is possible without hierarchy and violence. It isn’t. On the contrary, even well-intentioned Republican ideology mostly espoused a nebulous and fictive equality of opportunity. This faith in the so-called impartial competition of a “self-correcting” market empowered the owners of property and lent moral legitimacy to growing exploitation and widening power discrepancies between capitalist and producer. The Republican economic program was, in effect, a type of utopian capitalism. Even the “free market” of competitive labor and the gold standard proved far from “natural”; it had to be socially and legally constructed and then legislated into being. In fact, the very existence of organized labor was antithetical to the Radical abstraction of “free labor” as a system of merit and unlimited mobility that rendered class extraneous.

Missed Opportunities

In reality, a successful Reconstruction — and freedom as defined by freedpeople — required radical transformation beyond the political. Detractors may argue that laissez-faire was the only alternative, or that expanded economic democracy — let alone social democracy or revolutionary socialism — was simply not within view in 1868. That might better describe the pre-industrial bourgeois radicalism of Tom Paine, or even the antimonopoly visions of the Jacksonian-era Locofocos. But the redistributionist demands of US industrial workers, who called for their own social reconstruction, and of freedpeople, who craved land reform and “homes for all,” belie such claims. Of course, those demands made precious little headway among elites. Like Lincoln, Grant possessed a reputation as a “friend of the working man,” well-earned due to his common origins and paramount role in emancipation; however, also like his former commander-in-chief, Grant viewed himself as having sprung from the “on the make” petty bourgeoisie and, like his party leadership, retained little coherent understanding of particular workingmen’s issues, largely ignoring the existence of a permanent wage-earning class with its own set of political interests.

But that Grant was a capitalist is far less significant than the fact that both parties, in the eyes of many Gilded Age workers, had abandoned the ideal of the small-producer economy, showing just how oppressive corporate capitalism had become. Unfortunately, Chernow too often blames interpersonal matters or what he deems entirely intractable structural forces rather than ideological impediments and broader economic deficiencies for Reconstruction’s defects, asserting that Grant was undone “not so much by his policies…but by personalities.” Moreover, the author’s failure to explore Grant’s relationship to labor and large segments of the working class is unfortunate because worker appraisals — their critiques, projections, and symbols of collective struggle — lay bare their hopes for the man and the era. They also reveal the postwar tension between radicalism and liberalism, and the profound limitations of the latter.

No issue better embodies the conflict between the era’s bourgeois liberalism and the politics of economic radicalism than the redistribution or decommodification of land. Citing the demands of former slaves, scholars have long identified the nonfulfillment of “40 acres and a mule” as central to the collapse of African American rights. W.E.B. Du Bois declared that anything less than wholesale land reform represented “an economic farce.” “A forty acre freehold would have made a basis of real democracy in the United States,” he maintained in his 1935 Black Reconstruction, and “might easily have transformed the modern world.” Writing three decades later, Kenneth Stampp claimed that the economic vulnerability of former slaves put their social and political rights in jeopardy and “strengthened the white man’s belief in their infinite superiority.” Eric Foner concurred, insisting that land redistribution would have had “profound consequences for Southern society, weakening the land-based economic and political power of the old ruling class” and “affecting the former slaves’ conception of themselves.”

Ultimately, leading Republicans, many eager to reenergize cotton production, could not abide the possibility that black radicalism in the South might unite with labor radicalism in the North. “The failure to advance economic democracy lent fragility to the impressive political achievements of African Americans,” according to Michael Kazin. “As long as most black people worked directly or indirectly (as sharecroppers) for illiberal whites, they would remain poor — and their influence in government would be vulnerable to attacks.” As David Montgomery argued, while the Republican Party proved useful in establishing equality before the law, political rights alone did not translate into social equality. This was because vast material disparities effectively denied wage workers equal political participation. Economic power underlay political power, and economic reform was needed to make political equality effective.

Yet, in a tome of over 1,000 pages Chernow devotes a mere five sentences to land redistribution. Dismissing land reform and exonerating his subject and other political elites, the author ultimately concludes that there was no way to secure black rights without a prolonged military presence, and that such a presence was “politically impossible.” What was politically possible —largely because the nation’s power brokers were compelled to make it possible — was granting free lands to white homesteaders in the West, land discounts to poor whites in the South, and, most especially, immense land giveaways to railroad corporations, which received nearly two hundred million acres from the federal government during the postwar period while landless freedpeople toiled as sharecroppers. Many of their aspirations, and the collective hopes of untold workers, lay in confronting other forms of property in addition to property in man.

To the extent that it overturns reactionary narratives and underscores the radical potential of the American past, Chernow’s Grant should be commended as a gain for truth. But his stress on the importance of political rights without discussion of how the market renders those political rights vulnerable (or even futile) is the primary shortcoming of liberal accounts of the Reconstruction era — and of liberal politics today. The crucial lesson of Reconstruction, and in some sense of Grant’s life, is that while safeguarding legal and political equality against long and violent odds is both noble and necessary, material inequality and the placement of property rights above worker and community needs merely generates new forms of unfreedom for working people.

William McFeely was wrong. The problem with Grant was not his apathy toward black rights. The problem was, in no small part, the problem of free labor: the failure of party leadership to apprehend and the disinclination of political institutions to accommodate the reality that achieving social equality requires a willingness to actively challenge capital.