Consensus among historians is hard to come by, but the disastrousness of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency has proved a reliable unifier over the years: The former Union general was a drunk who handed his scandal-prone pals the keys to the country, and he was hopelessly at sea at navigating the economic upheavals of the time. When Arthur Schlesinger asked historians to rank each president from “great” to “failure” in 1948, Grant beat only the hapless Warren G. Harding, who once actually admitted, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
Now comes a rousing defense of Grant’s much-abused legacy in the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, in which presidential historian H.W. Brands suggests that drunkenness aside (Grant did enjoy his whiskey) Grant inherited an unprecedented financial catastrophe and handled it with notable sophistication.
When the Panic of 1873 hit -- one major Philadelphia financial firm crumbled, pulling down other top firms and dozens of banks, and prompting mass layoffs by factories and railroads -- there was no reason to think that President Grant, a Civil War hero and a failed businessman, would be equipped to handle the first country’s first national depression. Brands admits it’s hard to know how much Grant’s decisions had to do with the country’s eventual recovery, but in his agonized decision to veto a bill that would have pumped quick cash into the economy to boost inflation, he sees evidence of “a more subtle thinker than he was deemed by contemporaries and most historians since.”
Brands sketches out how Grant’s reputation rose, and more often fell, according to political moods after he left office in 1877. For various reasons, his standing dropped as the soldiers who served under him began to die, again when Woodrow Wilson boosted the Klan, yet again during the Civil Rights movement, and again when superstar historian Eric Foner dismissed his approach to Reconstruction in the late 1980s.
Just about the only piece of Grant’s reputation that has survived the last 125 years intact is the brilliance of his memoirs, written as he was dying of throat cancer in 1885 and published posthumously by Mark Twain. Today he just may be poised for a comeback, thanks in part to few sympathetic biographies. Brands’s The Man Who Saved the Union is out in October.
Now, who’s the brave soul who’ll rescue Warren G. Harding?
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.