A Review of Charles Calhoun’s “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant”

Over the past thirty years, Ulysses S. Grant has seemingly become a topic of study for every pop historian and Civil War expert in the field. The heavy work of reassessing Grant started with historian Brooks Simpson, but now countless biographies of the man–several of them 700 to 1,000 pages long–have been published in recent years. Several noteworthy figures well-known beyond the academy such as H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have all taken their turn writing studies that can easily be found on the shelves of a local Barnes & Noble store. The accuracy and reliability of these Grant biographies vary. It is easy to look at every new major biography and wonder what else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said.

From my perspective on the ground level of public history, however, I can safely say that even though Grant’s reputation as a whole has improved considerably, the view of Grant’s presidency as hopelessly corrupt and failed still remains. Classrooms throughout the country still point to corruption claims as the one major fact to know about Grant’s presidency, and academic historians not intimately connected to the Grant studies phenomenon still frequently look upon his two terms negatively or not at all. Richard White’s magisterial new overview of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, cites liberally from William McFeely’s problematic Grant biography and subsequently interprets Grant as a vain, publicity-starved executive who did not really care about the protection of black rights in the South. Eric Foner’s equally magisterial overview of Reconstruction barely mentions the Grant administration at all, even though its eight years in office occurred during that era. Kenneth Stampp’s now-dated study of Reconstruction conveys a sentiment still common among most Americans that Grant “contributed little but political ineptitude” during his presidency.

And so, within a crowded field of new Grant scholarship and still widely divergent understandings of Grant’s presidency among history enthusiasts of all levels, Charles Calhoun’s new study of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency manages to say something new about a greatly misunderstood time in American history. In assessing the Grant administration, Calhoun convincingly argues that Grant’s presidency “produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation” (7). Determined to face the new political challenges of Reconstruction in his own way, Grant faced enormous resistance from his critics even before taking office. Given the circumstances, one would be hard pressed to find anyone from the time who could have done any better.

Calhoun’s book works well on two levels. For those already familiar with the issues Grant faced during his presidency, Calhoun provides added depth. For those not familiar with those issues, the book’s clarity allows it to simultaneously function as a useful introduction.

Among the arguments Calhoun makes:

  • Grant expressed great reluctance to run for President in 1868, but felt that it was his obligation to run. President Andrew Johnson had attempted to inaugurate a quick restoration of the Union on his own, without the help of Congress. He worked to re-enfranchise and pardon the mass of former Confederates who had recently engaged in active rebellion against the country. He also proclaimed that America should have a “white man’s government.” By essentially handing the keys of Reconstruction back to those most opposed to it while ignoring the black and white southern unionists who had fought to maintain the Union, Johnson unintentionally pushed Grant into the Republican Party. As Grant would state in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, Reconstruction meant “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,” with assistance from Congress. Grant sought political reunion and sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, but not at the expense of sacrificing the fruits of Union victory: Union, emancipation, and, in his mind, political equality irrespective of race, nativity, or sect.

 

  • Senator Charles Sumner expressed skepticism about Grant’s dedication to the Republican Party and Reconstruction even before he ran for president. Even though many former Confederates bitterly resisted the Reconstruction process, a central theme of Calhoun’s book is that Sumner and his New England cohorts (Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, John Lothrop Motley, etc.) expressed their own vitriolic criticisms of Grant that arguably shaped future negative perceptions of his presidency more than the former group. Sumner believed his long service to the Republicans meant that he deserved the role of Secretary of State. When Grant went in a different direction and the New England cohort did not receive the plum government offices they believed they were entitled to, they actively resisted the administration and led the push to form the Anti-Grant Liberal Republican party. It was common to hear critics who called for “reform” and the end of the patronage system for filling government offices during Grant’s presidency, but with astonishing frequency these critics were often disgruntled office-seekers themselves.

 

  • Calhoun dedicates a good chunk of the book to Grant’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Treaty of Washington, proclaiming neutrality amid growing tensions between Cuba and their Spanish colonizer, and his failed effort to annex Santo Domingo–the Dominican Republic today–to establish a military presence in the Caribbean and provide a black state for African Americans facing persecution in the south. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish’s able administration of the State Department is a central feature of Grant’s foreign policy.

 

  • Another central focus lies in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances, which I’ve written about here. Grant and his first Treasury Secretary George Boutwell successfully lowered taxes, interest rates on government bonds, and the national debt. They desired a return to the gold standard in the wake of paper “greenbacks” being utilized during the Civil War to help fund the government, but were cautious not to return to the gold standard too quickly and subsequently deflate the country’s currency. They concocted a scheme to “grow up” greenbacks until they were of equal value to gold, upon which the government would return to the gold standard. Calhoun also assesses the 1869 “Black Friday” gold ring and the economic panic of 1873. Calhoun argues that Grant became increasingly conservative in his views towards financial matters by the time of the panic, and that this perspective complicated Grant’s and Congress’s efforts to alleviate the depression.

 

  • Calhoun argues that Grant felt a sincere sympathy towards Native American Indians and argued that they had been “put upon” by whites. Rather than advocating for Indian extermination, which some Generals like William Sherman and Philip Sheridan supported, Grant sought peace through a new peace policy and a Board of Indian Commissioners that would clean up the country’s Indian trading posts. Grant, however, also advocated for white westward expansion and acknowledged that the two ideas were contradictory. Implicit in his policy was the belief that Indians would have to assimilate to white ways. This assimilation called for Indians to become Christianized farmers on reservations who would embrace “civilization” and be trained to eventually become American citizens. Some Indian tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek heartily supported Grant’s policies, which were strongly influenced by his friend and Seneca Indian Ely Parker. Other tribes, particularly those in the Plains region, realized that their lands and way of life were becoming extinct. The Peace Policy therefore led to some of the worst battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. Calhoun offers a wonderful chapter on the Indian Peace Policy during Grant’s first term, but I would have liked more analysis of the negative effects of the policy during his second term as the violence increased.

 

  • Grant tried his best to protect white and black unionists in the South and ensure that all would have a chance to enjoy citizenship and suffrage rights. Most notably, the Department of Justice was formed to prosecute white terrorists in groups like the Ku Kux Klan when states and localities refused to bring these groups to justice. This initiative was the first in which the federal government enforced and protected civil rights for Americans, but many white Americans, even those who were sympathetic to the Republican Party, were apprehensive about government overreach and the power of the federal government to intervene in local elections (even though many of these people heartily supported military intervention in Indian affairs). Grant himself even expressed more reluctance to get involved in Southern elections towards the end of his second term, no doubt influenced by a poor economy, growing northern indifference towards southern affairs, and a changing Congress (Democrats gained a majority of House seats in the 1874 midterms) that opposed his policies.

 

  • Corruption did exist in the Grant administration, most notably through the Whiskey Ring Scandal of 1875 and Secretary of War William Belknap’s receiving of kickbacks from the sale of government jobs, but Calhoun offers a strong defense of Grant’s administration on this count. Some Cabinet members like Amos Akerman and Ely Parker were unfairly charged by political opponents with corruption charges. Disgruntled office-seekers called for civil service reform, and Grant expressed willingness to go along with these initiatives as long as Congress played a role in the process. When they continually slashed funds from a Civil Service Commission established in 1871, Grant concluded that civil service reform could not be effectively implemented. As with any claims of corruption today, one must always look at the agenda of the person making the claim. In a heated political climate with much resistance to Grant and Reconstruction more broadly, corruption claims were often used to delegitimize the President’s initiatives. Calhoun’s study, combined with Mark Summers’s Era of Good Stealings, convincingly shows that while government corruption as an issue was very important in the 1870s, actual corruption was not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1850s and 1860s.

I highly recommend Calhoun’s book.

Cheers

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8 thoughts on “A Review of Charles Calhoun’s “The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant”

  1. Hi Nick, I just have to say that after reading your review, and then watching an interview with Charles Calhoun (with John Marszalek) this book is a must have! I was given the Chernow book as a gift, but I have grown to resent it because it now stands between me and the Calhoun book. I did a examination of Grant’s Indian Policy sometime back, so I will be very interested in reading this chapter of the book. All and all, you have done me a great service with your combined review of all the Grant biographies, and now this recent one.

    You are starting to cost me money, bro.

    1. Haha, thanks Shoshana. I enjoy talking about Grant and really enjoyed what Calhoun had to offer in his book. With regards to his chapter on Grant’s Indian peace policy, he offers some fascinating evidence to suggest that his military aide and original Commissioner of Indian Affairs , Ely Parker, had a profound influence on Grant and his formulation of the Peace Policy.

  2. Excellent review! Thank you for taking the time to write this up. I have over 10,000 pages on Grant in my library and have only read about 3,000 so far. This book is on the list I need to read but haven’t yet. I have also pre-ordered Kahan’s work due for release in May. This will be the first work I’ve read devoted solely to Grant’s presidency, and I imagine Kahan’s work will be similar, but much abbreviated (I think it’s only around 250 pages).

    Grant’s presidency has already enjoyed a rehabilitation in my eyes after reading the bios by Jean Edward Smith, Ronald White, Ron Chernow, H.W. Brands, and Geoffrey Perret (I sold my copy of McFeely’s before even reading it, I just didn’t want to waste my time on it).

    I am looking forward to this much more in depth look at his presidency, as the aforementioned bios only spent about 150-250 pages on it. I am curious to see the threads of conservatism present in his policies. I was pleased to see you mention that Calhoun touches on Grant’s fiscal conservatism in this work. Times were different in many regards, but as much as guiding principles can be reduced to their simplest form, Grant strikes me as the father of the modern Republican party more so than Lincoln. Lincoln faced circumstances more dramatic and distinct than any other president has faced, and stands uniquely apart from others. But Grant, on the other hand, dealt with issues that required less extreme measures (though by no means unextreme at all, as they were still significant and highly impactful), and he did so guided by principles that have generally been at the heart of modern conservatism since his presidency.

    Anyways, thanks again for your helpful and insightful review!

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for reading the review, J.L.! You make a really interesting point about Grant and modern conservatism. I’m hesitant to make too many connections given the many shifts in policy and platform by the Rs and Ds, but I do think there’s an argument to be made about Grant’s fiscal policies and the evolution of the Rs from the party of greenback to one of the gold standard and a close relationship to big business. Other aspects of Grant’s presidency such as Reconstruction/Civil Rights enforcement and his Indian policy were not as conservative, I would argue.

      1. Connecting 19th century party policies to present day ones is a tricky and delicate process indeed. Circumstances are so unique and distinct, not to mention it’s easy to look back and see what we want to see. Of course, it also requires one to reduce their defining characteristics of the parties to the most simple and easy to distinguish principles, without doing so in a partisan manner that seems to elevate one while putting down the other. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done! I’m just grateful that if anything, BOTH parties have overcome some of their dubious principles from this time period and made progress towards solidifying what made them good and trying to shed what has held them back. The history of party politics is a sticky business indeed as it often becomes driven by those same party politics as they fight to be seen in the best possible light.

        I’m curious what your favorite books are on Grant, and what biographer you feel did the best job conveying the true Grant as you have come to know and understand him.

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