Shame on the 14 Republican congressmen who last week proposed substituting Ronald Reagan for Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. Their action suggests they need a history lesson about the Northern general who won the Civil War and went on to lead the country.
Having enjoyed brief acclaim during the Mexican-American War, the onetime farmer was toiling in obscurity when he answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861. He rapidly won fame in the Western theater, scoring decisive and morale-raising victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. When Lincoln tapped him in early 1864 to be the leading general, Grant directed victories that vindicated his strategic vision and guaranteed his president’s reelection.
Although rumors of Grant’s drinking circulated during the war, evidence showed he rarely imbibed and never when it counted.
The Union’s hero was praised for the magnanimous terms of surrender that he offered, and Robert E. Lee accepted, at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Shortly afterward, he became the first four-star general in U.S. history, remaining as head of the Army until nominated for president by the Republican Party in 1868.
Aided by newly enfranchised Southern blacks in states reconstructed by Congress, Grant swept to victory with his famous campaign slogan, “Let us have peace.” As president, he worked tirelessly over two terms to bring about Lincoln’s vision of a unified America. He embraced emancipation, working to bring rights to African Americans that even went beyond those envisioned by Lincoln.
Later, though suffering from cancer of the throat, Grant wrote his two-volume “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.” Regarded by many as the greatest military memoir since Caesar’s “Commentaries,” and standing alone as what many scholars say is the best presidential autobiography ever published, Grant ensured his legacy as one of our greatest generals and most essential presidents.
Although Grant commanded immense prestige at the time of his death in 1885, a campaign by historians sympathetic to the South whittled away at his reputation beginning in the late 19th century, wrongly portraying him as a drunk, a general who recklessly sent his soldiers into danger and a corrupt, incompetent president. All those images are distorted, reflecting a larger historical amnesia afflicting many citizens. The GOP should defend the former leader rather than trying to oust him from the $50 bill.
There was a time when Republicans did celebrate Grant. In a speech delivered in 1900, for example, Theodore Roosevelt maintained that among the past presidents, the trio emerging as the “mightiest among the mighty [were] the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln and Grant.” Roosevelt’s deeply appreciative comments reflected the widespread respect of his generation for Grant, and for good reason.
Yes, Grant’s administration was marred by corruption and controversy. But Grant himself remained steadfast in his belief that the goals of the war -- unity and freedom -- should be preserved even as the country’s enthusiasm for biracial reconstruction of the South faded away.
He proudly signed off on the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, describing the law enabling black suffrage as “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
Grant’s final task as president hearkened back to his first and perhaps most important achievement: to ensure a stable transition, this time in the disputed election of 1876. He succeeded, and the country reconciled for good.
By the time of his death on July 23, 1885, Grant was an icon in the historical memory of the war shared by a whole generation of men and women. They believed that an appreciation of Grant could come only with the recognition that he was both the general who saved the Union and the president who made sure that it stayed together.
Rather than shunting Grant aside, Republicans should not only unite to keep him on the $50 bill but work to rekindle awareness of his stellar legacy.
Joan Waugh is a professor of history at UCLA and the author of “U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.”