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
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