President Ulysses S. Grant.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 10 2002 10:49 AM

President Ulysses S. Grant

He's not a Lost Cause anymore.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

The Good Man theory of history has supplanted the Great Man theory, and the latest beneficiary is President Ulysses S. Grant. In the Good Man theory, presidents are judged as much by their private character as their public actions. So, LBJ is impugned because his laudable civil rights accomplishments were driven by ambition more than compassion and because he treated some blacks shabbily within his inner circle. Likewise, JFK is maligned for his extramarital affairs, and Thomas Jefferson is tarnished by his likely affair with Sally Hemings.

In place of these figures, Good Man theorists elevate the pure of heart, men who possessed character and dignity. Men like John Adams, whom David McCullough lionized as a decent, honorable man who was faithful to his wife and refreshingly blunt. Or Harry Truman, whom David McCullough lionized as a decent, honorable man who was faithful to his wife and refreshingly blunt. Or Ulysses S. Grant, whom David McCullough hasn't yet lionized as a decent, honorable man who was faithful to his wife and refreshingly blunt.

President Grant has no need for McCullough, though. The nation is in the midst of an astonishing Grant boom, culminating in a two-part PBS American Experience documentary that concludes Sunday. The 18th presidency, once thought of as a failure on the scale of Warren G. Harding's, is being reconsidered. In 1997, the National Park Service, prodded by a Columbia University undergraduate with a preternatural interest in reviving Grant's presidential reputation, rededicated Grant's tomb in Manhattan after years of neglect. A couple of years later that student, Frank Scaturro, published a defense of Grant's 1869-to-1877 presidency, President Grant Reconsidered , and Grant's acclaimed Personal Memoirs were republished in a new edition. Several admiring biographies have come out in recent years, including Geoffrey Perret's Ulysses S. Grant: Solider and President, Brooks D. Simpson's Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (the first volume of a two-volume work), and most recently Jean Edward Smith's Grant, which came out in paperback last month. Later this year, William McFeely's more critical Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 Grant biography will be reissued. And the Grant boom has extended beyond history, with three recent novels about Grant and even a management book, Cigars, Whiskey & Winning: Leadership Lessons From General Ulysses S. Grant.

What's in the water? Why the Grant boom, and why now? The national Civil War obsession kicked off by Ken Burns has much to do with it, as does the post-Clinton interest in Good Men. At its worst, the Good Man theory is presidential history as George W. Bush would tell it. Adams? "Good man." Truman? "Good man." Grant? "Good man. Wife. Four kids." But at its best, the Good Man theory as embodied by the Grant revival reflects our ongoing national redefinition of what it means to be good.

Unlike the Adams boom kicked off by McCullough, the Grant boom is tied up in a reassessment of a president's public actions. Although Grant's private character is one reason his presidential stock has gone up, his public character has been reassessed, too. "There's a sense of Grant as a decent guy who tried his best, and there was corruption, but he wasn't involved personally, and he trusted people too much," says Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University. "But with Grant there's a combination of character and policy. With Adams it's the opposite. You've got to kind of excuse his policies."

In the second half of the 20th century, historians reassessed long-held views on Reconstruction in light of changing views toward race and an increasing interest in black history. It's only natural that the man who presided over much of Reconstruction would be reassessed, too. As David W. Blight tells it in Race and Reunion, a book on the Civil War in American memory, two central visions of the Civil War have long coexisted. One is the "reconciliationist" vision, which urges that both sides were morally equivalent and focuses on the valor of individual soldiers. The other is the "emancipationist" vision, focused on abolitionism and black liberation. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the reconciliationist vision triumphed. But with the coming of the civil rights movement, the emancipationist vision has been given new emphasis. (So much so in the popular mind that Al Gore declared during the 2000 presidential campaign that all of American history is one long effort to "expand the circle of human dignity.")

In this light, some of Grant's policies look surprisingly good. He secured passage of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited Southern states from barring blacks from voting based solely on race, and then he enforced it. According to Princeton historian James McPherson, the presidential election of 1872 was the South's fairest election until 1968. Grant used federal troops to crack down on the incipient Ku Klux Klan. He even has decent multi-culti credentials on the Indian question, where he pushed for a policy of assimilation in the face of popular support for wars of extermination. (Grant doesn't bat 1.000 on these issues, though: As a general, he issued an order barring "Jews as a class" from his military department, because he believed they were involved in cotton smuggling with the Confederacy.)

Ironically, however, the civil rights movement of the 1960s initially made Grant's presidency look worse, not better. He was blamed for the Northern abandonment of Reconstruction and for the century of Jim Crow that followed. McFeely's 1981 biography criticized Grant for not doing enough for blacks, near the end of a century in which many historians had criticized him for doing too much. But now some historians suggest Grant did as much as he could. "No one has pointed out how someone else could have done a better job," says Arizona State historian Brooks Simpson. "His limitations were also the limitations of his countrymen." That's not a Goldilocks "just right" position, but it accepts the difficult circumstances that Grant faced while in office.

Grant will never get an "A" for effort, since the presidency is not the Special Olympics, where everybody wins. In the presidential ratings that are periodically issued by historians, Grant has risen from "failure" to "below average" over the past two decades. At best, he may someday be considered an average president, a popular two-termer who tried hard, had good intentions, and did his best. That's not No. 1 with a bullet, but it's a spectacular improvement over the previous consensus of a corrupt incompetent.

The one area of Grant's life where he was not average (or worse) was the battlefield, but even there his reputation has been resurrected from where it once stood. The Southern historians who denigrated Grant's presidency also attacked his generalship and sentimentally celebrated the aristocratic élan of Robert E. Lee. Grant was not the brutish drunk that Lost Cause historians portrayed him as, though he did drink too much during the 1850s, and he may have binged once or twice during the war. After Vietnam, Grant faced new criticism from anti-war voices who were appalled by the Civil War's enormous casualty rates.

But in addition to reminding Americans of the horrors of war, Vietnam showed that resources and industrial might don't guarantee victory. As America's views on war have changed, America's view of its greatest general has changed, too. Gen. Grant was as much the slaves' liberator as Lincoln. "It grows out of an awareness that the United States has won the wars it has won by using its overwhelming power to attack the enemy's infrastructure, and that it was Grant who pioneered this and anticipated in many ways the United States policy in World War II," McPherson says. Grant may not have been a great president, but he was a Great Man, not merely a good one.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.