He was a great man, if flawed. He was a humble man who needed great events to uncover his strengths.
Conservatives have divided on whether we ought to defend the monuments of the Confederacy (which, in a better world, should never have been erected) but have been unified about one thing: The iconoclastic mobs were never going to stop with the Confederates. That prediction has been amply justified over the past few weeks, with attacks on statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Catholic missionaries, novelists, saints, abolitionists — even the World War II Memorial and the tomb of an unknown soldier of the Revolutionary War. The latest, on Friday, was a San Francisco mob toppling a bust of Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park.
Why did the mob tear Grant down? Mobs do not answer questions or even need reasons. It is unclear if the “roughly 100 people” targeting statues of Grant, Father Junípero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and Miguel de Cervantes even knew who Grant was. There seem to be two theories advanced by the mob’s apologists: that Grant was a slaveholder, and that Grant made war on Native American tribes. The real-life Grant, our 18th president and a commanding general who smashed the Confederacy, deserves better.
Grant was a great man, if a flawed one. He was, moreover, a humble man who needed great events to uncover his strengths. Understanding both his flaws and the context of his life underlines the greatness of his accomplishments. Reading history requires empathy. People in the past believed different things than we do, sometimes for very good reasons. Things that appalled them as immoral then do not scandalize us now, and things that appall us as immoral now did not scandalize them then. Ideas and tactics that would succeed today would fail miserably then.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning 1619 Project author, waved away efforts to put Grant in context in a since-deleted Tweet: “Hitler was a man of his time, Osama bin Laden was a man of his time.” This is an obscene parallel: Hitler was not the norm among veterans of the First World War, and bin Laden was not the norm even among Saudis born in the 1950s. It is also not how history works. To say that figures of the past were men of their time is not to exonerate them from all judgment but to recognize that judgment requires perspective as to what things were hard, what things were possible, and what things required courage.
Grant always believed that slavery was wrong, though, as with many Americans of his day, it took time for him to be convinced to act on it. He was from the free state of Ohio, and his father was a vocal abolitionist. (Grant’s father was too vocal about a lot of things for the tastes of the soft-spoken, reserved Grant). Yet Grant fell in love with a Southern woman, whose wealthy family owned slaves. His father-in-law remained an unreconstructed Confederate even while living in Grant’s White House literally in the middle of Reconstruction. Was Grant wrong to marry her? Was he wrong, as his critics imply, not to impose sterner patriarchal discipline over his wife and her “property,” and a more unforgiving posture toward his father-in-law? Perhaps he was. But their marriage was long and happy, and Julia Grant was essential to keeping him sober when he needed her help. Dealing with the intransigence of his ultra-Yankee father and ultra-Rebel father-in-law gave Grant a unique appreciation for the nation’s divisions and the careful work needed to accommodate and overcome them.
In 1858–59, living as a farmer in Missouri after washing out of the Army and barely making ends meet, Grant was loaned and then given a slave (William Jones) belonging to his father-in-law. The historical record is somewhat sketchy as to exactly what happened, but Grant was too poor, and too polite, to say no, and had he done so, the man would have remained enslaved. Grant did his best to treat his workers, slave and free, with the republican attitude of equality: He worked in the field alongside his own field hands, and irked his neighbors by hiring free black laborers. He reputedly stepped in once to stop the whipping of a neighbor’s slave; if he did, we know that when U. S. Grant put himself into a conflict, he didn’t back down. His farm, however, was doing badly enough that Grant was reduced to selling firewood on the streets to bring in some cash.
In March 1859, with his own finances teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Grant petitioned for a court order to free William Jones. This was two years after the Dred Scott case, which itself had come out of the Missouri courts’ hard turn against emancipation in the 1850s. True, Grant also cited Dred Scott to explain to his father-in-law why Julia did not want to travel with her own household slaves. It is also true that Grant may have then been unable to support Jones and keep him employed. But freeing Jones rather than selling him was a fairly radical act, and a costly one, for the virtually impoverished son-in-law of a Missouri slaveholder in 1859. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is more or less a secular saint to the mob, was once willing to acknowledge this: “He inherited a slave through his wife, and he freed the slave. But you have to understand what that meant in the 1850s. . . . It would be like walking away from your house, but he just did it on moral principle.”
Grant at the time was politically leaning toward the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, although he moved on from that as well. During the course of the Civil War, he never led the way on ending slavery, but he was more willing to take in runaway slaves and turn them into soldiers than were some other Union generals, notably Sherman. Grant’s own checkered life story — alcoholism, financial failures — made him empathetic to hard-luck stories, and the tattered escapees arriving at his lines were that.
The war changed Grant’s views. He was genuinely heroic — as heroic as any figure of his time — in standing for the civil rights of black Americans during Reconstruction. He didn’t always win, but he never stopped fighting. Yet he also understood that the path forward required the help of white Southerners. He made a point to let Lee and his men go home with their dignity intact. He made friends with John Mosby, the notorious “Gray Ghost,” who eventually became a Republican ally and cheered Grant’s hard line against white terrorism in Louisiana. When Grant founded the Department of Justice and launched a federal crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan, his point man was his gung-ho attorney general, Amos Akerman — a veteran of the Confederate army.
On the other hand, the polarizing experience of the war sometimes colored Grant’s views of other groups. His notorious General Orders No. 11, expelling Jews from the zone of his army, was rooted in genuine concerns about merchants trading with the enemy. It was, of course, also an overreaction steeped in anti-Semitic assumptions, and Grant spent much of his remaining public career repenting of it and building bridges with the Jewish community. The attitudes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan toward Native-American tribes was likewise informed in part by tribes siding with the Confederacy. Stand Watie, the last Confederate general in the field to surrender, was a leader of the Cherokee Nation. The backdrop of Grant’s battles with the Sioux was an 1862 uprising against the Union that resulted in the Sioux being expelled from Minnesota to South Dakota and drove even Lincoln, who avoided the death penalty whenever he could, to order the largest mass execution in American history.
Grant’s Native-American policies were a failure, but they failed in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reasons that every president’s policies between George Washington and Benjamin Harrison failed. He spent the first seven years of his presidency promoting a “peace policy” with the tribes, and was the first president to travel to the Indian Territory to meet with the chiefs. He sincerely believed that the only solution to the endless frontier conflict was for Native Americans to take up the ways of white settlers, with farms and schools. The tribes were unwilling to abandon their way of life; white settlers were unwilling to let them be; and the federal government could not let the inevitable conflicts escalate without putting them down by force, invariably siding against the tribes. Grant seems to have hoped that he could swiftly resolve the Sioux rebellion by sending out the Seventh Cavalry; defeating Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would clear the path for a face-saving compromise. Instead, the worst happened: They defeated Custer, and neither public opinion nor national honor could walk away until the U.S. Army emerged victorious. Events on the frontier had once again spun out of presidential control. Perhaps there was a better way than Grant’s, but nobody ever found one.
Grant rarely spoke of his Methodist faith, but his own mores were very much in line with the evangelical Christianity of the Victorian era. That drove many of his policies, for good and ill. Grant’s record is blighted by his support for the anti-Catholic Blaine amendment; his presidential administration fought against Mormon polygamy, Chinese sex-trafficking, and the use of the mails to promote abortion and pornography.
Few American leaders, other than Lincoln himself, faced greater challenges to American ideals and the American people. Grant labored long and hard to meet those challenges with fairness to all, sometimes (as in economic policy) when that put him far outside his depth, and sometimes (most notably in his relationship with American Jews) when he had to rethink his own prejudices and prior opinions. A mob that would topple Grant may be the inevitable outcome of radical narratives about America; it is certainly a force unworthy of the liberties that Ulysses S. Grant did so much to secure. We could use his like today.