POLITICS
07/23/2015 12:01 am ET

Ulysses S. Grant Died 130 Years Ago. Racists Hate Him, But Historians No Longer Do.

Why everything your teacher told you about the Union general and U.S. president was wrong.

After Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, died 130 years ago today, a million and a half Americans watched his funeral procession. His mausoleum was a popular tourist attraction in New York City for decades. But for most of the 20th Century, historians and non-historians alike believed Grant was corrupt, drunken and incompetent, that he was one of the country's worst presidents, and that as a general, he was more lucky than good. 

A generation of historians, led by Columbia's William A. Dunning, criticized Grant for backing Reconstruction, the federal government's attempt to protect the rights of black southerners in the 1860s and early 1870s. Black people, some Dunning school historians suggested, were unsuited for education, the vote, or holding office. 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."

In recent decades, that's all changed. The Grant you learned about in school isn't the one your kids will read about in their textbooks. And that's because historians are in the midst of a broad reassessment of Grant's legacy. In just nine years, between 2000 and 2009, Grant jumped 10 spots in a C-SPAN survey of historians' presidential rankings, from 33rd to 23rd -- a bigger jump than any other president. His reputation as a military leader has risen, too. 

"Public opinion is behind what historians are saying about Grant," Marszalek said. "Too many people in the public hold the old Lost Cause view that Grant was this butcher and incompetent and corrupt and a drunkard, which wasn’t true."

One of the reasons for the change in Grant's reputation is an increasing acceptance among historians that Reconstruction pursued worthy goals.

"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."

You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom. John F. Marszalek

Many historians now point to Grant's decision to send U.S. troops into South Carolina to crush the Ku Klux Klan as particularly praiseworthy, Foner said. 

"You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom," Marszalek said. 

Grant also suffered because of inevitable comparisons with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. He was accused of running a "war of attrition" that required "no real military talent," Foner explained. But "as those older views have abandoned, Grant's reputation has risen, especially among military historians."

Grant is now praised for having a strategic view of the war, rather than focusing solely on the area around Virginia, as Lee so often did. And he gets credit for believing in civilian control of the military. When some of his officers were upset about black soldiers serving in the Union Army, Grant "said, 'Look, this is the policy of the government, and the Army has to carry it out. ... If there's anyone who can't deal with it, resign right now,'" Foner said. 

Foner also thinks increased praise for Grant's memoirs has boosted the president's reputation. Simpson doesn't buy that, noting that famed literary critic Edmund Wilson was praising Grant's memoirs as a "unique expression of the national character" in the 1960s, when Grant's reputation as a president was at its nadir.

As the Confederacy's reputation rises or falls, Grant's rises or falls in the opposite direction. Eric Foner

The big question now is whether public opinion will follow that of historians. Simpson thinks the shift is starting, noting that Grant is now portrayed more favorably in high school and college textbooks and television documentaries. His memorial in Washington and his tomb in New York have been repaired since the 1980s. And he's been shown in a positive light in popular media, including the 1999 Will Smith vehicle "Wild Wild West," in which he was played by Kevin Kline. On Wednesday, Rick Perry -- the governor of a state that fought against Grant in the Civil War -- praised the Union general in a speech, saying he had "come to symbolize the healing of our nation campaigning under the banner, 'let us have peace.'" 

"We’re always re-evaluating past historical figures in light of present events, and those changes take a lot of time to fix themselves in the public mind," Simpson said.

Perhaps the best way to track Grant's popularity will be monitoring the image of his foes.

"As the Confederacy's reputation rises or falls, Grant's rises or falls in the opposite direction," Foner said.

"As we get more critical of Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, Grant's reputation is going to go up," Simpson agreed. "Grant's reputation says as much about us as it does about his time, because it's about what we value." 

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