Fearless and firm under fire, unflaggingly modest despite reverent acclaim, and always practical – these outstanding qualities of Ulysses S. Grant are acknowledged, whether begrudgingly or enthusiastically, by the many critics of his presidency as well as by his defenders. Grant was quintessentially American, and yet as a leader he proved that his particular mixture of quintessentially American qualities represented the best of us, which might explain why his soldiers trusted him, the northern people adored him and the southern people respected him.
In the election of 1868, Grant accepted the nomination of the Republican Party for President of the United States when the party’s national platform affirmed its determination to secure “equal civil and political rights to all,” and to make the principles of the Declaration of Independence “a living reality on every inch of American soil.” But Grant was not always a Republican. In 1856 he voted against the Republican presidential ticket, and on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, for the unionist Democrat, Stephen Douglas. His second choice was Abraham Lincoln; his least favored candidate was the proslavery John C. Breckenridge.
Grant’s political positions before and after the war reveal the logic of a quietly principled mind that is slow, deliberate and fair in forming judgments, but firm as iron once decided. Before the war, he was for compromise to preserve the Union, and eschewed the sectionalism of both antislavery Republicans and “fire-eating” Democrats. The war changed Grant. In “Chattanooga,” his last published writing before his magnificent, posthumously published memoir, Grant confessed that throughout the war the source of our national calamity was clear to him – the southern ruling class that had made a wreckage of our free, prosperous American way of life in the South, for both ruled whites as well as ruled blacks. Northern victory, he believed, would liberate and benefit the South.
Grant was mugged by reality. Lincoln and the Republicans had been right all along; now Grant understood that his “unionism-at-all-costs” political sentiment was the product of misguided patriotism. Taught this lesson, Grant accepted his nomination in 1868, knowing that he would be waging war again, a political war against those who resisted making the principles of the Declaration of Independence “a living reality on every inch of American soil,” or in other words, those who resisted regime change.
His opponent in the election of 1868 was former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat. The political positions of Seymour and Grant before the war were barely distinguishable. Seymour urged conciliation and compromise between North and South to prevent southern disunion.
But the war did not change Seymour. Though professing to support the northern war effort, as Governor he continued to blame the war on both North and South, especially the North. He opposed the Union Army’s confiscation of southern property as a war measure, criticized the arrest of the traitor Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, and was a prominent opponent of conscription, which probably helped light the fuse of the destructive New York draft riots of 1863. Seymour’s critics noted that he leveled harsh rebukes against the Lincoln administration’s war-time restrictions of civil liberties in the North, and fretted about Lincoln’s prospective overthrow of constitutional government, while saying nothing about the southern leaders’ actual overthrow of constitutional government and decades-long oppression of the southern people’s liberties.
The point from where the differences between Grant and Seymour arose was their war experience. While marching and fighting through the South, Grant saw first-hand the southern leaders’ end-game, the way of life for which they had risked all. He came, he saw, and he overcame the former moral equivalence that shaped his view of North and South. Seymour never interrogated a Confederate private taken prisoner of war on the battlefield, and never heard how little these common soldiers knew about the contest in which they had been dragooned, that to them, it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Hence, Seymour remained in thralldom to the constitutional sophisms of antebellum southern leaders, which were intended to conceal and advance their oligarchic system of government and way of life that had broken from the republicanism of the American founders.
This difference sharply distinguished them in 1868. As the Democratic nominee in the campaign of 1868, Seymour extended President Andrew Johnson’s attacks on Congressional attempts to reconstruct southern political society. Since the end of the war the Republican-dominated Congress had enacted a host of legislation aimed at vindicating equal civil and political rights in the South, and had sustained them over President Andrew Johnson’s veto. To Seymour, reconstruction legislation was “revolutionary and not simply unconstitutional,” because such measures encroached upon the right of the states. Yet, not even Johnson had maintained, as Seymour had, that the southern states had a constitutional right to secede, which was pure southern doctrine, invented and repeatedly used by antebellum southern leaders to extract concessions from the North. In 1868 Seymour’s candidacy was a vehicle by which the aims and ambitions of antebellum southern rulers might survive the war and lead the nation.
Victorious in the war, Grant and the Republican Party could no longer be coerced by southern threats of secession to obey southern wishes. And they had disabused themselves of the late constitutional doctrines intended to protect and advance southern oligarchy. They saw clearly that for decades before the war, southern government had not aligned with Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution, requiring all state governments to be republican in form. According to their constitutional view, the Fourteenth Amendment that declared citizenship equality and forbade state assaults on citizenship equality, was a redundancy, although it was politically necessary to clear away the false constitutional doctrines of the past.
The task faced by Grant and the Republican Party was monumental, due to three years of serious political deadlock in Washington that had allowed the South to escape the surgery of regime change. Though President Johnson had hated the ruling class of the South before the war, he also expressed antipathy for the emancipated after the war. In opposing Congressional Reconstruction, Johnson played into the hands of the old oligarchy. Post-war politics made them strange bedfellows. Johnson pardoned rich and high-ranking rebels, restored their landed estates and winked at the southern states’ black codes that almost returned the emancipated to the condition of slavery. An infuriated Congress and the President became locked in a political showdown that might have become violent, testing legislative supremacy in the same way that the English civil war between the King and Parliament had tested Parliamentary supremacy. Just as the Parliament tried Charles I, Congress impeached and tried Johnson.
Still a general in those years, Grant stood with the Republicans in Congress, and there was only one other man in all America whose military prestige rivaled his. President Johnson therefore created a new standing army, the Army of the Atlantic, headquartered in Washington, D.C. and nominated William Tecumseh Sherman to its command, equal in rank to Grant, reporting to Johnson alone. But the trust, moderation and friendship shared by Grant and Sherman diffused the budding conflict. After conferring with his friend, Sherman refused the nomination, averting the possible renewal of hostilities. Johnson was impeached and barely acquitted.
On the campaign stump Republicans waved “the bloody shirt” of the fallen to persuade the American people to vote against false constitutional doctrines of antebellum southern leaders, and to vote for the man who intended to press on with Reconstruction. The American people responded and voted for their hero over Seymour. Amidst the terrible difficulties in Washington, Grant took up his duties as President of the United States.
The results were mixed. Division in Washington for three years had given southern leadership time and space to regroup and resist. The southern people, who had much more at stake – their inherited way of life – than the northern people, fought to reconstitute the remnants of their political society. But Grant crushed the life out of the Ku Klux Klan before it was resurrected in the Twentieth Century, successfully championed the Fifteenth Amendment that prohibited the denial of the vote on the basis of race, and presided over the peaceful resolution to the contested election of 1876, which also threatened to re-inaugurate war. Although the Reconstruction Era fell short of the lofty ambitions of the Republican Party, Grant prevented worse calamities, and preserved the possibility that someday, the principles of the Declaration of Independence would become “a living reality on every inch of American soil.”
Forrest A. Nabors is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, a founding partner of Alyeska Venture Management, and a political news commentator. He has recently completed The Great Task of Reconstruction which is now under review for publication.