How Did Ulysses Grant Become a Caricature?

Guest post by Cynic

What follows is a guest-post by All-Star commenter Cynic. What I love about this post is it shows how historians affect our national memory, and the public discourse. Here, Cynic focuses on the Dunning school of historians. It comes in response to a review by H.L. Mencken of a Grant biography, highlighted last week by Kid Bitzer.

As an aside, it's a real pleasure to open the house up in this fashion. Cynic has more than earned it...

Here's H.L. Mencken summing up Grant in 1928:


He made costly and egregious blunders, notably at Shiloh and Cold Harbor; he knew the sting of professional sneers; he quailed before Lee's sardonic eye. His eight years in the White House were years of tribulation and humiliation. His wife was ill-favored; his only daughter made a bad marriage; his relatives, both biological and in-law, harassed and exploited him. He died almost penniless, protesting that he could no longer trust a soul. He passed out in gusts of intolerable pain.

Grant's reputation was, during his own lifetime, subject to the savage swings of partisan opinion, lifted by triumphs and tarnished by scandals. Even so, he always retained the deep affection of large numbers of Northerners, particularly veterans. His funeral in 1885 brought all of New York into the streets. His tomb was paid for by tens of thousands of individual donations, an unprecedented undertaking, and a million or more thronged to its dedication a decade later. In death, it seemed, he had been elevated from flawed mortal to secular saint. 

It did not last. The North, buoyed by victory, moved on. The South, mired in the past, did not. Young men growing up below the Mason-Dixon line felt keenly their inherited grievances and lingering resentments. Around Professor William A. Dunning of Columbia gathered a group of talented young Southerners, interested in telling their side of the story. Dunning, better known at the time for his works of political theory, had a decidedly jaundiced view of human motives. He saw idealists as hypocrites, whom he could not abide. 

It was perhaps inevitable that, confronted with so idealistic a project as Reconstruction, he could see only corrupt scalawags, venal carpetbaggers, and inept freedmen. This view was tinged by his racism, leading to his notorious definition of the latter stages of Reconstruction as "a social and political system in which all the forces that made for civilization were dominated by a mass of barbarous freedmen." And Grant, of course, presided over it all. 

Compared to his students, Dunning was actually the soul of restraint. They denounced Grant as an unimaginative butcher in war and a corrupt, blundering drunkard in peace. Their view would later be ratified by the debunking biography that prompted Mencken's reflections. Why did their portrait prevail? In part, of course, because they still cared enough to offer it, at a time when few in the North cared to revisit the era. 

But racism played a crucial role. Dunning and his students wrote in the age of empire, as America conquered colonies and took up the white man's burden. Much of the nation was convinced that the logic of racial hierarchy conferred the right, and indeed the responsibility, to govern lesser peoples. Whites warring with whites over the enslavement of blacks seemed a hideous and regrettable mistake. So, too, efforts to enforce a false equality, or worse yet, to invert the hierarchy of the races by placing blacks in positions of power. The madness of empire was not a sectional malady; and in retrospect, both the Civil War and Reconstruction seemed misbegotten. 

The first efforts at revision came at mid-century, when a small group of historians writing for popular audiences recast Grant as a quintessentially American hero, a self-made man rising from obscurity, and prevailing through determination and common sense. This was the Cold War, when a nation wanted to find heroes, and to believe in its own virtue. More importantly, it was the Civil Rights era - the Union cause again seemed noble, and its general-in-chief worthy of attention. These works, though, were largely confined to Grant's military record. Then, as the heady early days of the movement gave way to the frustrations of persistent inequality, Grant was excoriated for not doing nearly enough, at best indifferent to black suffering and at worst a racist. 

 More recently, we've seen a renewed appreciation of Grant as both a general and a statesman. It's tempting to chalk this up to a more reasoned and impartial assessment of the record, a conceit common to every generation. Even if that might explain the conclusions, though, it could not explain the sudden flood of interest - a half-dozen new biographies, some monumental, after prolonged neglect. My own guess is that this reflects renewed optimism regarding the trajectory of racial relations. Grant's reputation is forever tied to the causes he imperfectly championed. His victories, in war as in peace, were the products of slow, steady, determined action. When our own gradual progress toward a more perfect union seems to be yielding results, we look to him as an inspiration. His straightforwardness, and his flaws, render him relatable; his triumphs and his dreams, inspirational. But perhaps that is better posed as an open question: why does Grant interest you?

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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