Remarks at Grant’s Tomb for President Grant’s 188th Birthday

Written by Frank Scaturro for Congress on April 27, 2010, 02:52 AM

We gather here to commemorate President Grant’s birthday every year, and this year’s ceremony comes as our 18th president is in the news.  It so happens that early last month, there was a proposal in Congress to replace President Grant on the $50 bill with President Reagan.  Now I should say at the outset that I believe President Reagan deserves to be featured on currency, but President Grant does not deserve to be dropped from it.

I have to admit I was not surprised that Grant would be a target of this sort of proposal.  Currency is one of the most prominent memorials to Ulysses S. Grant today. Besides the $50 bill, there is an equestrian Grant Memorial that stands in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, yet this aspect of one of the nation’s most recognizable landmarks has itself gone largely unnoticed and unmaintained.

And then, of course, there is this Tomb, one of the largest mausoleums in the Western Hemisphere.  It once was the most visited site in New York City through World War I, yet it was a struggle in recent years simply to maintain it.

An unsettling thought occurred to me during the effort to call attention to the disrepair of Grant’s Tomb during the 1990’s: Maybe memorializations to Grant like this monument reflect a level of esteem he enjoyed once upon a time, but no longer.  Now in his time, he was, like Lincoln, credited with saving the Union. Like Washington, he once was called “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  He was regarded as the equal of both men for many years, and it is questionable whether anyone in American history ever dominated his era as he did.  Yet the 20th century witnessed a battering of his reputation from which he still suffers in the eyes of so many Americans.  The question is why, and was it deserved?

After six American wars and 26 presidents, his story remains unique: The sheer magnitude of his service as principal author of Union victory and two terms as president at the advent of modern America is staggering.  The Civil War was this nation’s most trying period, and in campaign after campaign, General Grant brought success—with decisiveness and on a scale comparable to history’s greatest commanders—where so many others had met failure.  During a war the country needed to win for its very survival, he was never defeated.  Yet for years, this perspective was distorted by the Myth of the Lost Cause, which deified Confederate generals, shortchanged the ability of Union military leadership, and downplayed the role of slavery in the war.  Inconvenient facts were cast aside, and Grant was dismissed as someone who won by sheer superiority of numbers.  Even his unimpeachable character, integrity, and an often unnoticed sensitivity gave way to a baseless caricature.

For a number of years, Grant’s reputation as general has been coming back—to the point that he is commonly viewed among scholars as not only the greatest Civil War general, but as a military leader unsurpassed in American history.  And think about it: Many of you know the story of how general after general in the Eastern theater of the war proved inadequate to the task until Grant came along.  If a detached observer were told that the Union's eastern command fell short of its goal under six commanders, only to succeed under the seventh, that seventh commander's success would appear anything but the inevitable result of a numerical superiority that his predecessors had also enjoyed.  The old myths, however, still endure among casual students of history.

Grant’s image as president may be even more disturbing, considering that the polemics of his opponents applied a reckless definition of corruption in a way that diverted attention from a rich array of domestic and foreign policy achievements.  When he reached the White House, he appealed to the national conscience to support the prosecution of Reconstruction, and he made some of the boldest moves a president has ever made during peacetime to protect the rights of former slaves.  Frederick Douglass asserted, “To him more than to any other man, the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy.”  When the Alabama claims dispute threatened war between the United States and Great Britain, President Grant not only secured a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but he did so with such success that the world was given an unprecedented taste of the power of the principle of international arbitration.  As he intended, a movement followed from this example that culminated in attempts toward international cooperation to find alternatives to war.  Moreover, the president’s monetary policies, once they were given time to take root, laid the foundation for much of the prosperity during the late nineteenth century.

Such was the rich legacy of the soldier-statesman regarded by some at the time of his death as the “Second Father of His Country.” Tragically, it is when the nation fails to meet the aspirations of those great leaders who work to bring out its very best, especially after they have left the stage of history, that we learn most painfully the price of forgetting.  W.E.B. DuBois seemed to recognize this when he lamented in 1935 the “attack and libel” from which “[n]ot a single great leader of the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction has escaped” in the history books.  The Civil War and Reconstruction marked in many ways the Second American Revolution, yet only two figures from that era are found on our currency today: Lincoln and Grant.  Our awareness of that period, especially the postwar efforts to protect civil rights, is sadly limited.

This nation forgot part of President Grant’s lesson when it retreated from Reconstruction and allowed Jim Crow to take its place in the South.  Perhaps it was symbolic that Grant’s remains were placed in this Tomb less than a year after the Supreme Court decided the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which legitimized racial segregation in railroads.  When he was president, Grant had secured a Civil Rights Act that desegregated transportation.  By 1897, our nation seemed to be unwittingly burying part of President Grant’s legacy just as it was entombing his physical remains.

The process of correcting the historical record has been slow, which perhaps explains the recurring threats to monuments of Grant (stone or paper) that seem deceptively outsized to modern eyes.

Yet the day he retired from the presidency, a congressman named James Garfield wrote in his diary, “No American has carried greater fame out of the White House than this silent man who leaves it today.”  And just this month, there was a Marist Poll that said 79% of Americans oppose dropping Grant from the $50 bill. People are not quite ready to cast U.S. Grant aside.  There has been a growing sense that he is making a comeback.  His legacy surpasses not only the petty critics of his time, but also generations of historians and other naysayers who followed in subsequent years, despite the supposed benefits of hindsight.

So many Americans who aspire to leadership positions in this country hope they can say at the end of their careers that they bequeathed to the next generation a better country than the one they inherited.  Ulysses S. Grant not only bequeathed a better country; his leadership saved its very existence.  Today’s generation of leaders stand on the shoulders of his legacy.  And so we gather here every year with the deepest respect and gratitude to say on his birthday, General, we remember.

U.S. Grant belongs on the $50 bill as a reminder of the nation’s greatest achievements and highest ideals—and of why we should not allow ourselves to forget.