Thursday, July 23, 2015

More on the Resurgence of U.S. Grant

Huffington Post has a little feature on the rising reputation of U.S. Grant as both a general and a president. A new generation of historians blames his bad reputation squarely on southern racists:
Grant's critics were "determined the Civil War would be interpreted from the point of view of the Confederacy," said John F. Marszalek, a historian and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. "The idea that Grant would do things that would ensure citizenship rights for blacks was just awful and so he had to be knocked down."

Grant's "presidency was basically seen as corrupt, and it took place during Reconstruction, which was seen as basically the lowest point of American history," said Eric Foner, a civil war historian at Columbia University. "Whatever Grant did to protect former slaves was naïveté or worse." . . .

"We now view Reconstruction ... as something that should have succeeded in securing equality for African-Americans, and we see Grant as supportive of that effort and doing as much as any person could do to try to secure that within realm of political reality," said Brooks Simpson, a historian at Arizona State University. "We see him as on the right side of history."
Between 2000 and 2009 Grant jumped 10 places in C-SPAN's ranking of U.S. presidents, which is based on a survey of historians; he now sits at 23rd.


David said...

It seems to me that the way the Civil War was understood in the US during the first 2/3 to 3/4 of the twentieth century is one of the great counter-examples to the idea that it's the victors who write the history. For several generations, it was the defeated who shaped Americans' understanding of that war.

G. Verloren said...

I used to dislike Grant - I actually knew little about him, but his reputation for heavy drinking and his stern demeanor predisposed me against him. It was in reading Mark Twain's autobiography that I realized both how ignorant I actually was of the man, and how much I had been negatively assuming in lieu of real knowledge.

I find that Mr. Clemens' opinion commands a great respect from me, and so I was quite moved by his passages on Grant's character and personality. I can't help but wonder if, had Twain not requested his autobiography remain unpublished for a century after his death, might his commentary not have had a profound positive effect on how Grant would be remembered in the 20th century?

Grant's presidency wasn't exactly a glamorous one, nor terribly effective at mending the broken nation - but the man himself turns out to be fascinating figure, deeply flawed yet ultimately good hearted and noble. Such a description seems to apply to a number of the more notable figures of the period, but Grant in particular seems to be the epitome of such a contrast.

I do take heart that the general opinion of Grant seems to be improving so very much - it gives me hope that the same might occur for other figures of that and similar eras. So much of our historical understanding of modern American history seems to originate from the contortions of turn of the century biases - the age of the Robber Barons and Yellow Journalism, with the accepted chronicles of history being written by the loudest and the most ruthless.