Our New President

As a general, Ulysses S. Grant was invariably and gloriously successful. The people have now summoned this same prompt officer to the President of the United States, and that he will be.

Ulysses S. Grant illustration
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Not the least surprising development of the latest war in this country was the man who ended it. This was not, or at least it ought not to have been, owing to anything more than the personal peculiarities of the result; for the exigencies of the contest on the side of the Union were so great, and our resources in military leadership were so scant, that it was inevitable its chief hero ought to be a man comparatively, if not absolutely, insignificant before. General Scott was our only first-class officer at the outbreak of the Rebellion, and his advanced age and his infirmities, as well as the conviction impressed by the uniform teachings of history upon all reflecting minds that every great crisis must furnish its own controlling actors, made his supremacy merely nominal, till the first battle of Bull Run swept it away entirely. There was a tradition, indeed, in military circles, that Scott’s brilliant campaign in Mexico was much more largely due than the outside public were aware to his Chief of Staff, whose admirers even went so far as to claim that he was the real hero of that successful invasion. Many at the North looked to see him wielding the forces summoned for the suppression of the Rebellion. He proved, however, not to be above the miserable Southern weakness of “going with his State,” which took him out of the lists of genuine heroism forever. The problem, then, of eventual military pre-eminence on the Union side was not unlike that which some good public moralizers are so fond of impressing upon us. The future President of the United States, they tell us, is at this moment playing in the streets; and we cannot doubt the fact, though we know it is utterly useless to scour the country for the purpose of guessing which particular boy it is that is destined for the White House.

The lot fell, as the world knows, upon Ulysses S. Grant. Though it appeared capricious in comparison with his former estate, yet, as the result of his actually established merit, it followed as logically as a demonstration of Euclid, and as practically as an engineer’s experimental verdict upon a new piece of ordnance. We venture to say that no commander of ancient or modern times ever won his fame more honestly, by a clearer, more thoroughly tested and more enduring title, than General Grant. In the first place, there was nothing about the man calculated to wrest a snap judgment in his favor either from the army or the people. He was not dashing in mind or manners; his personal appearance was not such as to awaken the least suspicion that he was above mediocrity; he was as plain as an untutored Westerner and as reserved as an educated Yankee; while of prestige he had absolutely nothing. A West Point education and service in Mexico were all that secured him appointment in the army. Thenceforward he made his own way; his only political support being one faithful Congressman, who was kept busy in shielding him from detraction, and would have failed after all, had it not been for a President eminently just and patient. But long before Grant reached his meridian, he had the loyal country so far, and only so far, favorable to him that it was prepared to appreciate military worth wherever it might he found. Indeed, the people at that time hungered and thirsted for military merit, hoping to see their great armies, commanded by the most promising officers in succession, decimated, without making any apparent headway toward the suppression of the still-augmenting Rebellion. Neither they nor the government had any prejudices springing from party sources or elsewhere, which interfered in the least with their recognition of the coveted reinforcement of effectual general-ship. All the Union officers in the field, wanting that, would have been set aside to make room for any drummer-boy that had chanced to show it. For this very reason then, and no other, this obscure Illinois colonel was advanced rapidly to the head of our forces, and crowned with a title expressly created in token of his unprecedented achievements. He was tried in every serviceable capacity; as an executive officer under the direction of others, in independent movements, in combinations, in dashes, in protracted sieges, as a strategist, as a tactician, on the offensive,—never on the defensive, however,—in the West, at the East; against all the Rebel generals, from Floyd up to Lee; in all gradations of rank, from colonel of volunteers up to Lieutenant-General holding finally in his hands the control of a million of soldiers, driving all our armies abreast, and directing in person the death-blow of the Rebellion. In all these positions and spheres he was invariably and gloriously successful. General Grant’s military reputation, then, is that about him which is of itself palpable to all mankind, fixed and secure. Whatever he may have seemed before he won it, whatever he may have been, is nothing to the point in this respect. We may resort to his early record under the curiosity naturally inspired by the reflex light of his glory in the field, or to seek glimpses of that which was to come; but nothing that our search may reveal can affect the reality and solidity of his military fame.

The truth is, however, the narrators of General Grant’s early life present us nothing but a pleasant, hazy background for the grand portrait now so familiar to the civilized world. They succeed in showing that a graduate of West Point, named Ulysses S. Grant, was kept alive till the fortieth year of his age, when the Rebellion broke out; and that is about all they can do. We are not overlooking Grant’s service in the Mexican War. It was meritorious, it was honorable to the second lieutenant, who was promoted to a brevet captaincy; but it was simply the average career of an average cadet. Those who knew him best, then and there, with their wits sharpened by the suggestions of actual service, were as utterly unsuspicious of his pre-eminent capacity as those brilliant Congressmen who strove to effect his removal for incompetency, even after the capture of Fort Donelson. The remainder of his ante-rebellion career may be easily run over as follows: He spends two years on garrison duty at Detroit, where he is remembered only for his superior horsemanship; thence he goes for a few months to Sarkett’s Harbor; in 1852 he is transferred to California, where, in association with other officers, he leases a club billiard-room, which enterprise fails; in July, 1854, he sends in his resignation, in accordance with a previous intimation that it would be accepted, remarking to a friend, as he does so, ”Whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer”; from 1854 to 1858 he is a Missouri farmer, but not well-to-do, for he fails continuously to make both ends meet; at the opening of the year 1859, he becomes a member of the firm of “Boggs and Grant, Real Estate Agents, St. Louis”; fails of success again, having failed in the mean time to obtain the situation of county engineer; in 1860 he is established as a clerk in his brother’s leather store at Galena, Illinois, on a salary of six hundred dollars per annum, raised to eight hundred dollars when the war broke out in the year following.

During the whole of this period of Grant’s life, we have no reason to believe that any human being, except his wife, had any idea or suspicion of the real powers of the man. His neighbors at “Hardscrabble” looked upon him as a clever fellow, but a poor former; Boggs lectured him for his want of tact in the real-estate business; his brother, the head of the leather store, thirteen years his junior, thought it was rather a stretch of generosity to call his services worth eight hundred dollars a year.

It is easy for us to laugh at this blindness; but what intelligible connection can even we point out between the Grant of that day and the Grant of this? It is like-putting the towering genie into his sealed vessel again. We shoud all say, for instance, in looking at the main characteristics of Grant’s public career, that he had that precise combination of qualities which would have insured him success in any of the ordinary pursuits of life. His was not the merely aggressive energy of Suwarrow, the headlong heroism of Garibaldi, or the restless brilliancy of his own chief lieutenant. He was what might be called a common-sense general, displaying that mingled patience and promptitude, system, adaptation of means to ends, foresight, and economy (so signally exemplified afterwards in his temporary charge of the War Department), which are accounted the main requisites for business prosperity. And yet we see nothing of them at this period preceding the war. The problem is one for the curious in studies of character. Instances of a similar nature, however, abound in history, from the two Cimons of ancient Greece to Cromwell, Toussaint, Patrick Henry, and Lord Palmerston of modern limes. It is usual to say that these men ripened late. Perhaps the better statement would be, that their powers lay dormant for want of the particular incitements necessary to awaken them, and the congenial field to give them scope. They were like the machinery which is temporarily disconnected from its motive-power. The engine is in silent motion, here and there a drain is rolling and a piston playing back and forth, but there is no practical result. By and by a little lever is moved, when instantly the bands are tightened, the cog-wheels come together, the entire mechanism becomes vitalized with its driving force, and it executes the work for which it was created. Many men take no such new departure, have no visible turning-point in their career; from first to last they show what they are, no matter how their fortunes may vary. With others, their awakening either depends on slight circumstances, hardly perceptible to their associates, or else it requires a total change of condition and relations; while there possibly may be those who carry their powers through life with them like letters of introduction to fame, which they never deliver.

Another curious point is this: what was General Grant’s self-estimate during this period of his obscuration? Did he cherish in secrecy that brooding consciousness of a great destiny in reserve which has characterized the early years of so many able men,—at once a prophecy and the means of its fulfilment? This, of course, is a question upon which there can be but scanty evidence. What there is, however, happens to be in the negative, tending to the conclusion that his brilliant emergence was as much a matter of surprise to him as to others, if, indeed, the capacity to be surprised is to be reckoned among his endowments. If he had his day-dreams, they must have been of generalship; if he had innate confidence in his own powers in any respect, it would naturally have been in his powers for command. And yet when a friend first advised him to apply for a colonelcy, he said: “To tell you the truth, I would rather like a regiment, yet there are few men really competent to command a thousand soldiers, and I doubt whether I am one of them.” But it is observable that from the moment he fairly got at work in the field he went about everything with the easy and masterly vigor of a man who has found his place. At a time when our other leading officers, including the intrepid Sherman himself, were dismayed by the magnitude of the crisis, Grant appeared to think only of getting at the enemy. He was continually forming plans for aggressive action, pointing out to his superior officers openings for attack, and begging for permission to seize some strategic point here or make an assault there. Whenever he was allowed any discretionary power, he employed it to the full. His principal traits were never more strikingly displayed than in his undertaking to capture Fort Donelson, after he had been but seven months in the service. One day he said to a correspondent who was about to start for New York, “You had better wait a day or two.” “Why?” “I am going over to attack Fort Donelson to-morrow.” “Do you know how strong it is?” “Not exactly; but I think we can take it; at all events we can try.” In fact, the fort was held by twenty-one thousand men, with sixty-five pieces of artillery, while Grant advanced to its attack with fifteen thousand troops, afterwards reinforced to but little above the strength of the enemy, without a single field-piece, and without tents or baggage, though it was in the middle of February. He had the co-operation of Foote’s gunboats, but they proved of slight use, owing to the height of the river-banks on which the fortifications stood. Any disinterested military observer would have said that he had not one chance of success to a thousand; yet succeed he did, through the very audacity of his assault, his accurate knowledge of the Rebel commanders, and the quick fertility of his expedients. The achievement differed, to be sure, from the great campaigns of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Richmond, for it did not involve the broad combinations and the skilful handling of large masses of troops which only experience can effect; but the same boldness, self-reliance, and mastery of circumstances were exhibited at Fort Doselson which we find even in the climax of his triumphant career. These qualities attest a generalship not the product of schools nor of any amount of training, but inborn and akin to genius.

When we thus glance at this picture and then at that,—at the Grant before the hour of the rebellion struck, and at the Grant since known to history,—we can hardly be surprised that strange theories have been suggested by the amazing contrast. We can even be indulgent to the phantasmal idea that the American people have been unconsciously preparing the way for a resistless usurper,—for another Cromwell of another Puritanic cause, for another Napoleon intoxicated by military glory, even for another Louis Napoleon, nicotinized, silent, and brooding. This notion, perverse as it is, is a thousand times more respectable than the attempt of certain presses during the last presidential canvass to represent the Republican standard-bearer as only an ordinary fighter of extraordinary luck, an imposing nobody, a “smoke-enveloped accident.” The former pretence evidences a real, though distorted, appreciation of some of Grant’s most salient qualities; the latter in only the projection of the silliness of its authors. It is to be observed, however, that those who profess such lively fears of the designs of the President elect are men like Alexander H. Stephens, who cherish a hatred and horror of the cause which he has vindicated in war and will establish by his civil administration. Doubtless the unexpressed thought of these men is something like this: Suppose that President Grant should, after all, find that the end for which he has fought and toiled—the supremacy of the loyal cause, so called,—was apparently endangered in the last days of his administration by the triumph of his opponents at the polls, would he quietly retire, at the end of his term, and see his work undone? Not at all. He is just the man to seize the supreme power and hold the government till he has ineffaceably stamped his policy upon it, leaving the vindication of his memory to future ages.

The inventors of this chimera have beheld General Grant through the distorting mists of enmity and fear while he was demolishing their fabric of treason, and they now see him called to erase its final vestiges. If to patriots he is a phenomenon, to the disloyal he is an apparition. He has horrified them so often that they imagine he is capable of anything. The truth is, however, they have exaggerated and drawn erroneous deductions from a single trait in Grant’s nature which reminds one of the usurpers of history. He has what may be called the terrible temperament. This, indeed, is often allied with winning qualities. Julius Cæsar was amiable and magnanimous. Cromwell was devout and peace-loving. “Was the Emperor a kind-hearted man?” asked an American scholar of Marshal Soult. “He was indeed,” exclaimed the Marshal; “you might disappoint him time and again, and he would always overlook it if he could find the least excuse for doing so.” The present Napoleon is said is have shuddered at the sight of bloodshed in the Italian war, while the friends of his régime maintain that he has never used more severity than the occasion, from his point of view, has required. But the one characteristic common to all these historic personages, and possessed by Grant as largely as by any of them, is an inexorable will. The men of this temperament seem to be taken up into a sphere of their own, where all the doubts, hesitations, sense of responsibility, and fear of adventure which belong to ordinary human nature are left behind, and there remains nothing but the object in view and the resolve to gain it. Human life, however valued in other relations, becomes of no account when it stands in the way of the end to be attained, or else it is but an instrument for carving out success. When Grant was asked how he felt amid the fearful carnage and the uncertainties of the struggle in the Wilderness, he answered that he felt he was “bound to go to Richmond.” We have called this the terrible temperament, because there is in it something preternatural, fatal, and unnerving to the mass of mankind; but it is the heroic temperament as well, and its illustrations are found among the great scholars, the inventors, the saints, and the regenerators of the world.

It was natural that this indomitable energy of General Grant, which first signalized his merits an a commander and was the means of his breaking down the Rebellion, should make a more vivid impression upon his enemies than upon his friends, but it really affords no excuse for overlooking the total character of which it forms but a single element, and which stamps the theory we have been considering as the sheerest of grotesque illusions. Indeed, great energy, as Emerson has well remarked, is generally but the result of a rare harmony of character, and not of the exertion of the will in control or defiance of the other faculties; it is rather as if all the powers of the man, like the entire momentum of a battering-ram, lay directly in a line behind the impinging point. Not more conspicuous is this tenacity of Grant than his respect for law, his devotion to the will of the people, his love of free institutions, his disinterestedness, modesty, and equanimity. The language of panegyric in this relation suits neither our tastes nor our purposes; but may not the array of the successful commanders of all times—not excluding even the august name of Washington—be searched in vain to find one who has borne his honors more becomingly in every respect than this General of ours who, at middle age, with the first military reputation among his contemporaries, finds the paths of seemingly equal civil glory just opening before him?

Any endeavor to project the essential features of the character we have been contemplating upon the canvas of the future, to show what sort of a President has been foreshadowed by the General, suggests the questions, Are we sure that we have yet all the elements of the problem before us? Is it probable that a man who has exhibited such a colossal development in seven or eight years has already finished the process, seeing that he is still is the prime of manhood, and is entering on a new arena full of incitements? Putting aside these questions, however, we think it will be entirely safe to say:–

First, General Grant will be President in fact as well as in name. As we have seen, he never was a man to hesitate about exercising any amount of power that might be confided to him. In Jackson’s place, he might not have said, “I take the responsibility"; but he would have taken it, nevertheless, and said nothing about it. Even one of his associates in the Galena leather store understood this peculiarity well enough to give Governor Yates of Illinois, who had confessed his inability to get at the special capacities of “this Captain Grant,” the following good advice: “The way to deal with him is to ask him no questions, but simply order him to duty. He will obey promptly.” The people have now summoned this same prompt officer to the President of the United States, and that he will be. If any individuals high in position or prone to intrigue indulge the hope of managing or improperly influencing Mr. Johnson’s successor, it only remains for them, seeing how blind they have been to the plainest pages of recent history, to take a lesson or two in the school of experience and pay their tuition.

Secondly, it is but a reasonable calculation that General Grant, in the discharge of the duties of the Presidency, will win a substantial success not unsuited to his martial renown. Indeed, nine tenths of those who have risen above the folly of confounding the gift of popular oratory with executive talent concede already that he has all the main requisites for administering the affairs of the country at this time, except, possibly, the information derived from long civil experience. His generalship reveals governing ability of the highest order, circumspection only matched by energy, and an unerring faculty for selecting the right men for subordinates. As to the possible deficiency alluded to,—and we must always bear in mind that there is no special training school far the Presidency,—General Grant is the son of his time, and, though he may not be learned in the statesmanship of books, he comprehends his own age. Starting with that political tabula rasa, the mind of an army officer,—having really voted but once before the war (for Buchanan), and having always regretted that,—he enjoyed the excellent privilege of having nothing to unlearn. The crisis found him without prejudices, and he took in all its elements dispassionately as comprising the true situation with which he was to deal. Even that conservative bias, of which a few good Republican supporters are still absurdly suspicious, was in his favor, for while it has been observed that the descent from youthful liberalism has often been as swift and extreme as the apostasy of a Strafford, the contrary tendency, as illustrated in the lives of men like Peel and Gladstone, gives the finest fruits of genuine progress. Hence it happened, that, while antislavery men of many years’ standing were worrying over the future relations of the institution they had so long fought and feared, Grant calmly foresaw and announced its extinction; and, more than that, every stage of the extinguishing process can now be traced in his military orders, in advance of the action of Congress and of the Execution. The same remark may be made respecting the reconstruction policy of the government; its germs are all to be found in the record of his field measures, while toward the maturing of that policy he gave his valued counsels and his profoundest sympathies. Of all the great questions which appear to demand settlement during the incoming administration, it maybe truly said that those are older than General Grant’s public life, while most have already touched him at many points in his career, and engaged his earnest attention. For the last three years in particular he has reflected upon the political juncture, perhaps with the prescience that he would be called to deal with it practically; he has conferred with the acutest statesmen of the day, and has mingled with his countrymen in every part of the Union. It would not be strange, therefore, if the whole situation bearing upon the Presidency, comprising policies, men, and measures, should be at this moment as accurately mapped out in his mind as were his great campaigns before he fought them in the field, and should be followed by national results hardly second in value.