In the wake of an armed insurrection upon the U.S. Capitol and members of Congress a few weeks ago on January 6th, a well known-quote among those of us who study Ulysses S. Grant went viral. The quote is from an 1875 speech President Grant made to U.S. Civil War veterans attending a reunion of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee in Des Moines, Iowa. Grant, known for his reluctance at public speaking, allegedly wrote this speech in thirty minutes:
“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.”Ulysses S. Grant Address to the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, September 29, 1875
For many of us who were horrified by the insurrection and outraged at the politicians who helped enable it, Grant’s message appears to have foresight and relevance to today’s world. After all, critics would argue that the effort to stop the counting of the Electoral College vote was rooted in ignorance and blinded by an ambition to overthrow the results of a free and fair election. But was it also rooted in superstition?
This is where we may have to take a step back to look at the context of Grant’s speech and, I would argue, proceed with caution before gleefully sharing it on social media.
During the Reconstruction era, a growing number of European immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were making their way to the United States. Many of these immigrants were Catholics. For the Republican Party, this growing population was a point of concern. Before the Civil War, some Republicans had been members of the nativist American “Know Nothing” Party or, at the very least, harbored anti-immigrant sentiments. Republicans also believed that Catholic immigrants continued to hold their allegiance to the Pope. They were ignorant of the values inherent to living in a society governed by republican (small r) institutions and in need of further education. As such, many of these new immigrants identified with the Democrat Party in the 1860s and 1870s.
Grant summarized this nativist mentality in an interview with John Russell Young during his two-and-a-half-year world tour (1877-1879). In explaining why he was a Republican, Grant argued that the Democratic party was made up of two elements who were at war with the Union: former Confederates who clung to the righteousness of their cause and immigrants. Regarding immigrants, Grant remarked that they “[have] not learned what the Union is . . . [they are] an element which has not been long enough with us to acquire the education or experience necessary to true citizenship . . .” (See page 269-270 of Around the World with General Grant, Volume II)
There was also an expansion of public schools throughout the country during Reconstruction. Some of this growth can be attributed to state legislatures in the former Confederate states–which now included African American men who voted and were elected to office–passing laws that guaranteed a universal education for all children within those states. Other reasons for this national growth, however, were the desire to promote Protestant values and morals, educate children to be lawful citizens, and to promote loyalty and obedience to the nation. In other words, the Republican party aimed to create a national, Protestant-based culture amid the dramatic changes of emancipation, westward expansion, and mass immigration from poor European countries with large Catholic populations.
Two major issues emerged at the intersection of public education and immigration. The first regarded religious instruction and the second regarded funding for Catholic education. Many schools offered religious instruction based on the King James Bible. Although claiming to not endorse any particular religious sect, the use of the King James Bible was clearly an endorsement of Protestantism. Rejecting the use of Protestant bibles and teachings in the public school classroom, Catholics worked to create their own school system (one that still remains in the U.S. today) based on Catholic teachings. Since public schools received public funding while teaching Protestantism, the Catholic church argued that it was only fair to use an equal amount of public funds to support Catholic education as well.
Historian Ward McAfee points out that by 1875, public education and anti-Catholic sentiment had become “winning issues” for the Republican Party. After dealing with the Panic of 1873 and growing national sentiment against Reconstruction, Republicans lost control of Congress after the 1874 elections. However, “the school issue allowed the Republicans to present themselves as the champions of progress, fighting against medieval forces of ignorance and superstition from Rome. Anti-Catholicism allowed the party to keep the Southern issue alive, despite the country’s clear rejection of racial equity in 1874 . . . in the North, the Democratic party was the handmaiden of the Roman Catholic church seeking to destroy the public school” (190). One example of Republican success was Rutherford B. Hayes winning the Ohio governorship in 1875 (one year before winning the presidency) based partly on opposition to using public funds for Catholic schools.
Broadly speaking, this is the context in which President Grant made his 1875 address.
Grant argued that the soldiers who fought to maintain the Union had also fought to promote public education. “How many of our comrades of those days paid the latter price for our preserved Union! Let their heroism and sacrifices be ever green and in our memory,” Grant argued. “Let not the results of their sacrifices be destroyed. The Union and the free institutions for which they fell, should be held more dear for their sacrifices.”
“Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence,” Grant continued. “The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation . . . Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the state nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, Pagan, or Atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”
To Grant’s credit, he appears to go further than some of his Republican colleagues by trying to avoid a double standard. Keep the church and state forever separate and keep religion out of the schools entirely, he argues. However, one can also see how the use of the words “superstition” and “sectarian” were clearly targeted at the Catholic Church. It’s also worth pointing out that Grant returned to this theme in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress later that year. In it, Grant proposed a constitutional amendment that would, among other things, guarantee a public education to every American child free of any sectarian division of public funds of “religious, atheistic, or pagan tenants.” He also proposed that religious institutions be taxed at the same rate as businesses, a move seen by critics as unfairly attacking the wealth and resources of the Catholic Church, although technically at that time the tax would have taken on a larger burden for Protestant institutions throughout the country.
Finally, McAfee reminds us that the Catholic church was very critical of President Grant’s Des Moines speech. The Catholic World remarked that “the reading of the scriptures as a public ceremony is as distinctive to [Protestants] as the celebration of mass would be to Catholics.” If Republicans were truly committed to the separation of church and state, there would no longer be any scripture readings and other Protestant practices in the public school classroom. Democrats were also anxious to jump on the issue, with one article written by New York Democrats remarking that “the President at last changes front in the face of his victorious opponents, discards the ‘bloody shirt’ as an obsolete rag, and, nailing to the mast the black flag of Know-Nothingism, unsheathes his sword for a ‘religious war’ [with Catholics].”
(Grant’s speech also prompted the controversial Blaine Amendment, which was never ratified nationally but passed in a majority of states in the 1870s. You can read about it here).
Was Ulysses S. Grant anti-Catholic, or simply going along with the desires of his party? Based on my own studies, it appears that Grant personally respected individual people of all religious and counted people of the Catholic faith as among his friends. Historian Tyler Anbinder also points out that Grant “was not an obsessive nativist.” He rarely resorted to nativism or anti-Catholic sentiment in his public life compared to other Republicans. However, it does appear that at the very least Grant did harbor skepticism and concern about the Catholic church’s growing influence in U.S. affairs. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Grant wrote of the conditions in Mexico and stated his opinion that the Catholic Church’s influence in all facets of political and social life had created a weak, impoverished nation. Sadly, Grant family members later removed some of his letters from this time in his life from his official papers because they felt that the letters were too anti-Catholic. Equally important, Grant also spoke of his brief association with the Know-Nothing party while living in St. Louis (1854-1859) in his Personal Memoirs. Rather than disavowing that association, Grant remarked that he had nothing to apologize for and that the reason he left the party was not because of its anti-immigrant platform, but because of its secret oaths:
I have no apologies to make for having been one week a member of the American party; for I still think that native-born citizens of the United States should have as much protection, as many privileges in their native country, as those who voluntarily select it for a home. But all secret, oath-bound political parties are dangerous to any nation, no matter how pure or how patriotic the motives and principles which first bring them together, , , , Nevertheless, if a sect sets up its laws as binding above the State laws, whenever the two come in conflict this claim must be resisted and suppressed at whatever cost.Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume I
In the end, while I think the cherry-picked quote from Grant’s 1875 speech seemed to resonate with many people and spoke to their frustrations about misinformation, ignorance, and political violence in the present, the same people who shared the quote failed to recognize the context in which it was made and may not realize how Grant’s words were perceived as bigoted by many Catholics at the time. As Abraham Lincoln stated in 1862, be careful about what historical quotes you choose to share online.