Monday, February 21, 2005

Ulysses Grant

In connection with my research for my own play on the early years of Ulysses Grant, I recently read Ulysses Grant by Michael Korda and Ulysses Grant by Josiah Bunting . Bunting's book, part of the American Presidents series of 200-page histories, is more objective, more thorough on Grant's foreign policy (which Bunting feels is underrated). Korda's book, part of some other series of 200-page histories, is more impressionistic and opinionated. Korda tries to make a lot of hidden comparisons between Grant and Bush, where, Bush, of course, is lacking (why else would an author bring a thing like that up?)

Here are some comparisons that I have come up with:

Both were indifferent students – Bush at Yale, Grant at West Point -- neither man really chose where they went to college. They basically went where their fathers sent them.

Grant was an outstanding horseman, but because of his indifferent class standing, could not get a cavalry assignment after graduating West Point.

Bush appeared to be an outstanding aviator, but personal traits, still largely obscure to a general reader, seemed to prevent him from flying as much as he should.

They went through long middle periods, roughly 13 years in Grant’s case (split equally in the Army and outside of the Army), perhaps even longer in Bush’s case, where each flitted from business opportunity to business opportunity. In all cases, the opportunities were created not from their own efforts but through family connections.

They were both seen as quiet men, withdrawn, and despite each having fathers who were sucessful leaders, neither was seen as likely candidates for leadership positions.

Both had problems based on their love of the bottle. It seems to me, without going through 100s of pages, that both were held back by their alcoholic phases, that it cost both of them real trouble in life, but just how much trouble may be overstated in the "popular" biographies of each men. Through it all, each man knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was slated for greatness.

Perhaps as a result of their business failures, Grant, and to a lesser extent Bush, seemed to over-romanticize the skills of business people, and felt that business skills were more important than the skills other people had.

Grant's Presidency was wracked by business scandals. Virtually none of those scandals were about Grant personally, but some of them were caused by family connections. Although history has been very unkind to Grant because of his business scandals, it seems to me that the general public held the scandals against Grant very much.

Bush's Presidency has also been wracked by business scandals that seems to concern the media more than the general public.


In showing how overstated the Grant scandals are, both Korda and Bunting borrow heavily from Grant Reconsidered by Frank Scaturro , another short book, which was actually Scaturro's senior thesis at Harvard. However, they each fail to make the point that Scaturro's makes, a point that really has not been discussed in any of the recent full-blown Grant biographies either:

Grant believed that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the primary victory of the Civil War, the one that should be consolidated by the victors, was the legal equality of the freed slaves.(not the social equality or economic equality -- Grant was a 19th century man). Grant basically failed at his attempts to make Reconstruction beneficial for the freed slave, and the result of the contested election of 1876 was to end Reconstruction altogether. However, Grant's attempt to help the freed slave, feeble though they were, were the only serious attempts to be made by an American President for the next 60+ years.

It is the animosity Grant caused by these views -- his views of slavery as a root cause of the Civil War, and his view that legal equality was a proper use of the Union victory of the Civil War -- that has caused history to give Grant failing grades as a President. Was he a great President? No. Was he dealt the hardest hand of any President from 1865-1918? Yes. Did he play his hand reasonably well? Yes. Was he a better President than any of Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Arthur and Benjamin Harrison, all 19th century Presidents who are often ranked above Grant? Yes