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.
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
In the great lexicon of “Commonly-Used Words that Mean Absolutely Nothing in Contemporary Discourse,” the term “biased” is perhaps the most meaningless of all. Go through a few Amazon book reviews of recent historical scholarship and you will undoubtedly read reviews that don’t actually engage in the book’s content but claim that the author is “biased.” Scroll through social media and view discussions about essays in online news sources, and sure enough you’ll see people complaining about bias.
Complaining that a writer has a bias is more often than not a completely meaningless gesture that simply intends to end discussion about a particular topic. Rather than engaging the writer’s argument, claiming bias means shifting the argument towards questions about the writer’s motivations. And more often not, this exercise is speculative and the critic really doesn’t know anything about the writer’s motivations or his or her scholarship and personal experiences. If you cannot explain those motivations or clearly explain what the author is biased for or against, then claiming “bias” is meaningless.
I’ve experienced claims of “bias” in my own writing on this website. One of the most popular essays I’ve written here explores Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery before the Civil War. As you can see in the comments of that essay, several readers claimed that I was “biased,” overly generous to Grant, and that I wouldn’t be so generous to Robert E. Lee. While I’ve mentioned Lee in passing in various essays here, I have never made him a featured subject and have never discussed his relationship with slavery, so there’s no proof I would actually treat Lee differently from Grant. The claims against me are speculative in nature, based on feelings and a speculative judgement that I would be biased in that case. In reality, these claims against me say more about the reader than my scholarship and are a perfect example of why claiming “bias” is meaningless.
All writers approach their subjects with biases shaped by past life experiences, education, and political motivations. Having biases is in fact perfectly natural. The burden of proof in determining whether those biases irreparably damage the writer’s argument falls onto the critic, however, and thinking about bias claims this way actually makes the task of convincingly arguing that an author is biased all the more difficult. Even when the case of a writer being biased is completely noticeable, such as the case of Dinesh D’Souza’s relentless distortion of history and the Ku Klux Klan to support his hatred of the Democratic Party, focusing on the writer’s arguments is a far better course of action that speculating about his or her personal motivations.
Focus on the game, not the players.
My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
A couple weeks ago the Journal of the Civil War Era announced that they had overhauled the design of their blog, Muster. A couple days after that I received an email stating that the blog was looking for writers to contribute essays on a regular basis, and that I was invited to join the team. So…I’m very pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to Muster. I will be writing roughly five or six essays a year and offering a particular focus on interpreting the Civil War era within a public history setting, although that will not be my only focus. I’ve written previously for Muster before becoming a regular contributor, with the most recent essay focusing on the Frank Blair statue at Forest Park in downtown St. Louis.
The team of regular correspondents now writing for Muster is truly outstanding, and I am greatly honored to have been asked to be a part of this exciting initiative. My first essay as a regular correspondent should be up next week – we’ll see what happens from here!
When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.
There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?
In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.
Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.
To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
The folks at the Journal of the Civil War Era gave me another opportunity earlier this week to write on their blog, Muster. In this essay I briefly discuss the political life of Missouri politician and general Frank Blair, Jr., and his statue in St. Louis’s Forest Park. It’s a statue I’ve seen numerous times and one that, frankly, has a textual inscription that ignores Blair’s blatant racism and support for colonization of African Americans. My thinking on public iconography of late has centered on the inadequacy of the medium in actually conveying accurate historical content to viewers. As I state in the essay, more and more I feel like the work of educating people about historical events and people must start in the classroom and museum, not the public square.
Stay tuned for more essays on this blog in the near future. I have made a point of trying to get more of my essays published to larger platforms beyond this blog over the past year, but I still have a lot on my mind about history and memory that will find a home here in the future 🙂