Biographer Michael Korda compares Ulysses S. Grant as president to another highly esteemed general who also became president 76 years later, Dwight Eisenhower. The parallels are compelling. Grant and Eisenhower managed huge egos and forced armies stuck in the mindsets of earlier wars to move into the modern era. Grant, in particular, thought little of the military hero of the day, Napoleon Bonaparte. Eisenshower knew that the radical changes brought on by World War I were already out of date by the time Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
But whereas Eisenhower had a somewhat successful presidency, guiding the nation through the earliest days of the Cold War and keeping several arrogant American generals’ egos in check, Grant was good at only one thing: Soldiering. He was horrible student at West Point. He was hapless at business, almost pathologically incapable of closing a business deal. But he knew soldiering. And he understood that the old ways of conducting war, almost a gentlemen’s agreement on forces and how to attack, would not end the Civil War in any reasonable amount of time. His solution was to throw as many troops at an enemy as he could with the sole intent of destroying them, accepting only unconditional surrender.
So, the man who led the Union to victory was also the perfect man to run the country during Reconstruction. Right?
Um… Not really. Both Grant and Andrew Johnson had the unenviable task of succeeding Abraham Lincoln, a man whose personal charm and shrewd political mind guided America through what is still its darkest hour. Johnson was intractable and combative, which put him on a collision course with the Republican Party’s radical wing. Grant, on the other hand, was wholly unsuited for civilian leadership. At a time when the President of the United States was expected to speak out on the issues of the day, namely black suffrage and Southern reintegration into the Union, Grant held his tongue. Many took this silence to mean that Grant was simply pondering an issue deeply. In actuality, he was confused.
The problem stemmed from Grant’s mindset. A general gives orders and can reasonably expect them to be carried out. The president needs to build bridges and network extensively. Like Andrew Johnson, Grant lacked this ability. He was also too trusting of his advisers. Grant’s tenure in officer was the most scandal-ridden to date, not to be outdone until Warren Harding in the 1920’s.
But was Grant’s presidency a complete failure? Probably not. Think of the presidents of the past 100 years that are held in high esteem today. Wilson (thought his racism has tarnished his reputation), FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, and to a lesser extent, Clinton, all wildly popular during their terms in office. Then there are those whose legacy grew after their time in office: Truman, Eisenhower, and the older George Bush, mainly because they instituted unpopular policies that did not payoff for the average person until after they left office. But that is only seven presidents out of 13 since 1911. If you look at the previous 100 years, you have Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and that’s about it. It’s hard to really consider the first five presidents as they were all Founding Fathers, who still viewed the republic as an experiment. Indeed, Jefferson and Adams remarked in their long correspondence in their latter years that it would surprise them if America survived beyond 1876, but that the successor states would be better off for that 100 years they expected the Union to exist.
So what does this say about Grant? Well, Grant was as weak a president as his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, but he had something Johnson could never achieve standing in Lincoln’s shadow: stature. This is the man who not only brought the Civil War to a close on the battlefield, but he handed Robert E. Lee back his sword, a powerful signal for the reconciliation the nation now needed. Johnson’s fiery revenge rhetoric might have jibed with the Radical Republicans’ revenge platform, but it clashed wildly with the eventual modified policy based on Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction. Grant, never the politician, just kept his mouth shut, letting his stature become a rallying point for both North and South. One might say the most important act of domestic policy in Grant’s Administration was his handling of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox four years before he took the oath.
But Korda’s comparison to Eisenhower is not completely hyperbole. Eisenhower showed a similar reluctance to speak out in the face of Joseph McCarthy’s borderline treasonous witch hunt during the fifties Red Scare. What likely kept the nation from devolving into the same paranoia that had turned Germany and the Soviet Union into police states was the quiet man at the helm who had proven himself on the battlefield. So it was with Grant.
But where Grant and Eisenhower parallel the most is in foreign policy. For Ike, the big threat was the Soviet Union. Recognizing that Kruschev was no Stalin – the Soviets in fact no longer had a stomach for Stalin or his ilk – Eisenhower walked a tightrope to keep the Cold War just that: cold. Grant, on the other hand, recognized that the US’s best friend was Britain. This had been true since after the War of 1812, when the two nations began having a grudging respect for each other and started aligning their agendas. By Grant’s era, the Revolution was something grandpa experienced as a kid. Victoria sat on the throne, and America no longer resembled the 13 rebellious provinces on the East Coast. Grant permanently ended America’s notions of annexing Canada, now a nation in its own right. Also, beginning on Grant’s watch, the armed forces began to modernize. Yes, those Union and ex-Confederate soldiers out on the plains battling the Indians didn’t look all that different from those forces he commanded under Lincoln, but the Navy began to modernize. Ocean-going fully steam-powered warships began to appear, with sails going the way of the buggy whip, which eventually would put the United States on equal footing with Britain, France, and Germany, the three major European powers.
Still, chaos reigned in Grant’s cabinet, and his indecisiveness out of uniform made Grant less than a good president. But it would be another quarter century before anyone would approach Lincoln’s skill in the White House.