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July 04, 2006

Ulysses Grant: Our Greatest President?

In 1854, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison led a crowd celebrating Independence Day by burning the Constitution, denouncing it as "A Convenant With Death and an Agreement with Hell." His worthy point was that the founding fathers of the nation had make a mockery of their own words with the stain of slavery and deserved scorn for the constitutional product of their labors.

So as we celebrate the founding of our nation, maybe we should think more about the true founding of a nation with the Civil War where all men were to be "truly created equal" and the President who worked to make it so. No not Lincoln-- who didn't live to finish the job--but the General, Ulysses Grant, who won the Civil War and went on to be the President who would oversee the ratification of the 15th Amendment and enactment of the civil rights enforcement laws that -- after the interregnum of disuse under Jim Crow -- to this day are a backbone of civil rights in this nation.

It is odd that when liberals list the greatest Presidents, Grant rarely makes the list. Roosevelt of course is a worthy option, Kennedy gets the charisma-addict vote and Lincoln deserves respectable mention.

But why isn't Grant more honored?

In his own day, Grant was wildly popular. Grant was the only President to be elected by a majority of the voting population for two terms in the hundred years between Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt. (Other Presidents like Lincoln, Cleveland and Wilson elected for two terms in that period did not get a majority of the vote in one or both of their elections.) Grant's memoirs published just as he died met such critical and popular praise that it left his family a fortune due to its mass sales in the country.

If Grant is not more respected, it is because the fight for racial justice and Reconstruction that he oversaw has been so rawly defamed over our history to the point of almost being forgotten. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote “[n]ot a single great leader of the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction has escaped attack and libel.”

But Grant's accomplishments should be remembered. (Some of the following is adapted from a semi-scholarly piece I co-wrote, A New Birth of Freedom: The Forgotten History of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.) Even as Grant was being elected in 1868, he faced Klan-based racial terrorism fighting to manipulate the vote throughout the South. The first result was the 15th Amendment to protect the right to vote but as importantly was the creation under Grant of the Department of Justice in 1871 and a series of "Enforcement Acts" to eliminate Klan violence. The language was sweeping in its defense of black voting rights:

Congress made it a crime for “two or more persons [to] band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with the intent...to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
Grant used his new authority to crack down on Klan terrorism in nine South Carolina counties in 1871 and essentially destroyed the Klan there and then throughout the South. Hundreds of Klansmen were convicted between 1870 and 1873 of violating the voting and other civil rights of the new freedmen in the South.

The result was the election of 1872, the only election not undermined by racial terrorism until the late 1960s. In his second inaugural address, President Grant declared that racial segregation was unacceptable and called for federal legislation to assure equal rights in access to transportation and public schools. Following Grant’s lead, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, banning segregation in public accommodations, transportation, and entertainment facilities. Majorities in both houses of Congress even voted to make school segregation illegal throughout the country, but filibusters blocked enactment of those later amendments, but it is a testament to Grant's dogged pursuit of civil rights that so encompassing a legislative and administrative agenda of racial justice was pursued.

And Grant's view of racial justice extended to the native american population. Instead of the mass murder that was typical of his predecessors and many of his successors, Grant sought what was known at the time as "the Quaker policy" in which he denounced past "wars of extermination" as "demoralizing and wicked.. A system which looks to the extinction of a race is too horrible for a nation to adopt without entailing upon itself the wrath of all Christendom." While not perfect in execution, his policies stand out in a century of American genocide against the American Indian population.

As Frederick Douglass would write much later:

To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indians a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party.
Unfortunately, his successors abandoned those commitments, but it is striking that Grant is so little honored for what can only be considered one of the most courageous policies of racial enlightenment of any President in American history up until Lyndon Johnson (who saved his Presidential mass murder for a different continent.)

So what went wrong and why isn't Grant more honored. Basically, both his policies and reputation were murdered by Klan violence supported by the United States Supreme Court. For more read, the piece I wrote above, but the short story is that in 1873 there was a new surge of racist violence and this time the courts blocked the Grant administration from enforcing the new civil rights laws.

Racist violence ran wild as the courts blocked prosecution of the ringleaders. The key legal case was based on an incident in Colfax, Louisiana where more than a hundred people defending black voting rights were murdered by a white mob, yet the prosecution against the leaders were thrown out by lower courts and the Supreme Court in 1875's Cruikshank v. US would affirm that decision, saying that the federal government lacked any power to prosecute private individuals for racial crimes against other individuals. According to that Court, the 14th Amendment “adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another.” (BTW that is still, slightly modified good law, as one hundred twenty-five years later, the Rehnquist Court quoted that very sentence in declaring parts of the Violence Against Women Act unconstitution in a case called United States v. Morrison).

With civil rights enforcement shut down, Reconstruction governments were driven from office throughout the South. Violence destroyed the Republican Party in Mississippi. Taking advantage of the void, Democrats recaptured the legislature and impeached the Republican governor and lieutenant governor, driving them from office by force of arms. Similar violence would “redeem” every state in the region, to use the term adopted by
white supremacists. In 1876, Confederate General Matthew Butler led a white mob to murder an opposing black militia defending the South Carolina government – and was then elected to the United States Senate by the new, “redeemed” legislature. The effects on the federal government were almost as dramatic, as pro-civil-rights Republican representatives and senators were replaced by anti-civil-rights Democrats-- enough that they could then filibuster any restoration of civil rights legislation for the next hundred years.

The economic depression starting in 1873 no doubt contributed to this resurgence of Democratic power as well, as economic downturns invariably strengthen the opposition, but without the Supreme Court, the Democrats never had the votes to shut down civil rights prosecutions. The sad reality is that if Grant had been able to continue his anti-Klan policies into his second term, there is little question that the elections of 1876 would have been a decisive victory for the Republicans and we would not have seen the end of Reconstruction. And American history would have been completely different.

But with the end of Reconstruction, we have seen history written to bury most memories of the period and assassinate the reputations of those who led it-- including Grant. There were real accusations of corruption among Grant's cabinet, although no one believes Grant himself was corrupt, but those charges of corruption appear relatively minor in light of far worse corruption in many administrations to come. But saying Grant was "corrupt" became an easy offhand way to dismiss his Presidency and Reconstruction at the same time. Even today, there are NO great films honoring reconstruction, just racist anti-Reconstruction films like Gone With the Wind and even modern documentaries like Ken Burns' Civil War only mentions accusations of corruption In Grant's administration -- without a single mention of his vigorous fight against Klan Violence.

Even liberal legal scholars seem to have unconciously buried Reconstruction, since while even many laymen can mention the Plessy v. Ferguson case decided decades laters upholding legal segregation in the South, even most lawyers haven't heard of the Cruikshank decision which licensed the Klan to commit mass murder for the next century. Partly, it's because some modern liberals have an attachment to court power and don't want to remember the shame that those same courts spent the 19th and early 20th century abetting first slavery, then Klan violence, then corporate power.

The other legacy of the collapse of Reconstruction was the Republican Party itself forgetting its own legacy of racial justice in favor of an expanded alliance with the emerging Robber Barons. Since the Radical wing of the Republicans lost their electoral base as black southerners lost their vote, the pro-corporate wing took over. This corporate wing of the party was embodied by Rutherford Hayes, elected in the divided election of 1876, who agreed to pull all federal troops from the South as part of the pact that settled that election.

But within three months of the end of Reconstruction, Hayes deployed federal troops to break the Great Strike of 1877. The federal government, having dismantled military operations in the South, built armories in the North to ensure that troops would be available for future labor conflicts. Former President Grant acidly remarked that this anti-labor wing of the Republicans were the same people who had resisted using federal troops “to protect the lives of negroes. Now, however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens.”

So as corporate American sought new alliances with Southern Bourbons, the legacy of Ulysses Grant and Radical Republicans became an inconvenience, so a new consensus emerged that it had all been a mistake overseen by a corrupt and incompetent man best forgotten by history.

But here's why it's important to remember and honor Grant. While Grant didn't succeed in creating the racially just nation that he sought, his legacy was a memory of a short time when blacks did have equal rights and elected their own representatives to state and federal government -- a memory that would fuel a new civil rights movement in coming years.

And it's worth remembering that it was the democratic will of the country to have that equality, that it was only anti-democratic racist violence and a rightwing court system that frustrated that American ideal. Too many liberals buy into a myth that Jim Crow was democratically supported in this nation which just feeds its historic legitimacy.

What we should honor and remember by honoring Ulysses Grant is that his vision of racial justice was the will of the American people-- all its people -- and that the following hundred years of segregation was an illegitimate betrayal of that democratic will. In that, Grant was the true founder and implementor of the modern American nation of equal rights and if the flowering of that nation was delayed for a century with his departure from office, that's all the more reason to remember his original vision and courage-- and defy those who try to bury that memory.

Posted by Nathan at July 4, 2006 09:58 AM