A Letter to the Editor of the Missouri Humanities Council on Ulysses S. Grant’s Record on Civil Rights

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The Missouri Humanities Council publishes a magazine twice a year that is full of insights into the work of various humanities organizations in the state. Each issue also features a number of articles on Missouri history. For the Fall/Winter 2018 issue, Executive Director Steve Belko wrote an article entitled “Reflections on the Humanities: Letter from the Executive Director” (56-60) that focused mostly on the life and actions of reformer Henry Schoolcraft during Missouri’s early years of statehood in the 1820s. At the end of the article, however, Belko states the following:

In the end, Schoolcraft’s scheme was for naught, as the Missouri Question permanently ended the emancipation movement [in Missouri], and massive bloodshed would ultimately settle the question of slavery. Ironic, it is not, that massive bloodshed ultimately resolved the Indian Question as well. And we can, arguably, attribute the resolution of both questions to a single individual–Ulysses S. Grant–as general and president. Hence, the bicentennial of our statehood and of the start of Schoolcraft’s professional career, in Missouri, coincides with the start of the sesquicentennial of the Grant administration, which, as a sequel to civil war, oversaw the destruction of the freemen’s civil rights and the culture of the American Indian. Still, neither tragic event–civil war nor Indian war–ever resolved the issue of race.

Those comments got my attention, to say the least. Letters to the editor were encouraged, so I decided to write a response a few weeks ago. Here is what I stated:

“Dear Dr. Belko,

My name is Nick Sacco. I read your recent essay with the Missouri Humanities Council about Henry Schoolcraft with much interest. While I enjoyed the essay as a whole, I was taken aback by some of your comments about Ulysses S. Grant in the concluding paragraph of the essay. If my reading of your arguments is correct, you state that:

1. “Massive bloodshed” resolved both the question of slavery and the “Indian Question.”

2. The resolution of both of these questions can be attributed to the actions of Ulysses S. Grant both as Union General (slavery) and as president (Indians).

3. Grant’s presidency oversaw the destruction of both black civil rights and Indian culture, the primary responsibility of which falls solely on Grant’s lap.

While I certainly agree with number one in regards to slavery, I take exception to your rather simplistic interpretation of Grant’s role in arguments two and three. As a basic matter of historical interpretation, it is a reach to attribute major world-changing events to the actions of a single individual. For example, contemporary historians have rightly shied away from previous interpretations of Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” given the numerous other forces–the Union Army that Grant was a part of who conquered new territories and established contraband camps as the war became one to end slavery, enslaved blacks who resisted enslavement and took actions to aid the Union war effort, antislavery politicians and reformers, and even Jefferson Davis and the Confederates in overplaying their hand by attempting to secede–that also played a role in ending slavery. Grant evolved in his attitudes towards slavery during the Civil War and did in fact come to embrace emancipation and black enlistment in the U.S. military. But it is a stretch to attribute the end of slavery to Grant.

Likewise, it is not fair to attribute the resolution of the “Indian Question” to Grant. In fact it would be fair to argue that the “Indian Question” has never been resolved given the continued rates of poverty and suicide among American Indians, particularly ones living in reservations, that remain some of the highest in the country today (a somewhat similar argument could be made about African Americans in contemporary society). Here again, a multitude of forces contributed to ongoing conflicts with the various Indian nations during Grant’s presidency that cannot be whittled down to the actions of one person.

Your third argument is also questionable. Grant is not the primary person responsible for the destruction of the freepeople’s civil rights during Reconstruction. Grant supported the various Reconstruction Amendments and repeatedly called upon the white south to live in harmony with the freedpeople. He called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, helped establish the Department of Justice to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and consistently decried violence at the polls and terroristic massacres of the freedpeople throughout the south. The Grant administration, if anything, was criticized by both Democrats and conservative Republicans for going TOO far in prosecuting the KKK, which in turn led Grant to back away from military intervention in most cases after 1872, although his rhetoric criticizing racial violence continued. Once again, a combination of other forces–growing northern apathy to Reconstruction, an anti-Grant Liberal Republican political movement that called for an end to military intervention in the south during the 1872 election, continued resistance from the white south via violence and fraud at the polls, an economic depression in 1873, anti-Reconstruction Democratic victories in the 1874 midterm elections, Supreme Court decisions like United States v. Cruikshank that hobbled federal enforcement efforts–all coalesced to push Reconstruction towards its end. It is also noteworthy that when Grant’s name was thrown around for a possible third term in 1880, the most vocal supporters of that effort were black politicians–including those who were members of the “Immortal 306” who stood by Grant at the 1880 Republican National convention–who believed Grant was the best candidate to reestablish federal efforts at protecting black civil rights. Why would they support someone who they believed had destroyed their civil rights?

To be sure, I take a much more negative view of Grant’s Indian Peace Policy. While Grant acknowledged that the Indian nations of the west had historically been “put upon” (Grant’s words) by whites, his policy essentially called for the nations to be imprisoned in reservations, stripped of tribal sovereignty, and forced to assimilate into white Anglo-Saxon Christian society or else. The Peace Policy was, in my view, a form of cultural genocide. But again, putting the sole responsibility of destroying American Indian culture squarely on Grant’s shoulders is not only unfair but also diminishes both past and future conflicts over the role of Indians in American society. The various nations who continued to survive long after Grant left the White House were undoubtedly devastated by other federal actions such as when the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed and episodes like the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to occur. I might also add that not all Indian nations held the same view about Grant’s Indian policies. For example, the Choctaw Nation actually took the step of giving Grant a peace medal and thanking him for his efforts at peace when he left office. Some nations embraced assimilation while others–particularly the Sioux–resisted Grant’s efforts. Grant also relied on Seneca Indian Ely Parker to serve as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the beginning of his presidency and considered Parker a trusted confidant when it came to Indian policy. These details do not diminish or excuse the real hardships the various nations faced during Grant’s presidency or the fact that many historians look upon this aspect of his presidency in a negative light, but it does complicate the narrative by demonstrating that the Indian nations were not of one mind about Grant’s policies.

In both cases, claiming that Grant alone destroyed black civil rights and American Indian culture and that these questions were “resolved” diminishes the efforts of blacks and Indians who continued to resist their oppression and fight for their civil rights after 1877 by subtly erasing them from the narrative. It also leaves out the actions of future presidential administrations who had to deal with these same unresolved questions throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20 century.

I am not sure what resources you used in drawing your conclusions about Grant, but Charles Calhoun’s recent book on Grant’s presidency is the most comprehensive study of its kind and a necessary corrective to the common perception that Grant’s presidency was a complete and utter failure, particularly when it came to black civil rights.”

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2 thoughts on “A Letter to the Editor of the Missouri Humanities Council on Ulysses S. Grant’s Record on Civil Rights

  1. Your letter masterfully sums up complex historical events and gives a clear and nuanced response to the article. It is a much needed antidote to the demonization poor Grant has been subjected to, as well as to the overly simplistic way that American history is remembered. Well done!

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