This Day (Rethinking Grant Edition)

Published:July 23, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe


On this day in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, that prolific smoker of cigars, died of throat cancer. In the years since, he has often been called one of America’s worst presidents, and the Lost Cause has long dismissed the quality of his generalship during the Civil War.

A reconsideration by historians is well underway, however.

One of the reasons for the change in Grant’s reputation is an increasing acceptance among historians that Reconstruction pursued worthy goals.

“We now view Reconstruction … as something that should have succeeded in securing equality for African-Americans, and we see Grant as supportive of that effort and doing as much as any person could do to try to secure that within realm of political reality,” said Brooks Simpson, a historian at Arizona State University. “We see him as on the right side of history.”

Many historians now point to Grant’s decision to send U.S. troops into South Carolina to crush the Ku Klux Klan as particularly praiseworthy, [the historian Eric] Foner said.

“You have to go almost to Lyndon Johnson to find a president who tried to do as much to ensure black people found freedom,” [the historian John F.] Marszalek said.

IMAGE: Detail of a photograph of Grant working on his memoirs in 1885 (Library of Congress)