The United States midterm elections take place on Tuesday, November 6. If you have not already done so, you should review the candidates appearing on your ballot at www.vote411.org. This website provides useful summaries of platforms and policy positions, in addition to highlighting those candidates who do not even bother to answer simple questions (automatic disqualification from my perspective).
As I’ve read and watched news coverage and stories about the midterms over the past few months, I could not help but view them through the lens of a book I recently finished by Ron Chernow, “Grant.” Apart from the man himself, the book paints a grim picture of a political environment that epitomizes instability, especially during Reconstruction following the Civil War. The book serves as a reminder that America has overcome brutal disagreements and periods of vast internal conflict. It also shows how great leaders can harmonize our differences and bring us together for a common purpose.
One of America’s most underrated and underappreciated Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant was a leader who was both incredibly ordinary and absolutely extraordinary. Interestingly, his middle name did not begin with “S” – it was a typo that stuck with him for life. In his early life, he lacked an acumen for business and almost every endeavor he tried until destiny brought him to the epicenter of the Civil War. A graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican-American War, Grant had the qualifications to make an impact as a Union officer, but he was often overshadowed by generals who fought in the eastern theater, mainly George Meade and George McClellan.
While he did not receive the early recognition bestowed on the Army of the Potomac, Grant performed valiantly in the west, capturing strategic forts and cities that crippled the Confederacy, including Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Shiloh. His army almost single-handedly gained control of the Mississippi River, effectively dividing the Confederacy in two. He gave hope to Lincoln and the Union when they needed it the most. Having been plagued by a series of decorated commanding officers (e.g., McClellan) who proved hesitant to fully engage the enemy, Grant was the workhorse and man of iron the Union needed. Some may call him a butcher who relied heavily on the Union’s outsized numbers and who oversaw an unprecedented loss of life, but by most accounts, it was his military genius that was unmatched even by the venerable Robert E. Lee. As Chernow describes in the book:
“Perhaps the person who best explained Grant’s strategic superiority was Sherman, who stated that while Lee attacked the front porch, Grant would attack the kitchen and the bedroom. In his earthy way, Sherman expressed the view that Grant engaged in total warfare that eroded enemy supply lines and infrastructure, while Lee remained tightly focused on the battle at hand, without a long-term strategy for winning the war.”
In the end, Grant was credited with defeating six Confederate armies, capturing three, and securing surrender from Lee (and his once formidable Army of Northern Virginia) at Appomattox Courthouse.
While his achievements abounded during the Civil War, arguably his greatest successes came at its end and in the immediate aftermath. Grant was insistent on acting magnanimously toward Lee and the South when setting the terms for surrender. With Lincoln’s empowerment, Grant permitted Lee and the men under his command to return home without prison or prosecution for treason. He extended this magnanimity into his eight years as President, constantly fighting for a smooth transition and return of the South back into the Union. Reconstruction was far from easy, especially when efforts faltered to enforce the Civil War Amendments in their entirety.
Grant was a champion of black suffrage and the 15th Amendment. He referred to it as the “most important event that has occurred, since the nation came to life.” As President, he oversaw the trajectory from slavery to full-fledged freedom for four million black citizens. When the Ku Klux Klan rose to power and white supremacy threatened to rule across the South, Grant made it clear he would not tacitly watch what he saw as an unacceptable double standard – a country that tolerated terror by whites, but not blacks. Grant fought endlessly to dismantle the Klan, and was the greatest Presidential proponent of equality in the years between Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Unfortunately, most of the South gave way to Jim Crow, Black Codes, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other vile methods of voter suppression to deprive African Americans of the right to vote – efforts we still see in different forms today under the guise of voter identification or voter fraud laws. Although Grant was not completely successful in the efforts to counteract unequal treatment and the failure of the South to enforce Federal law, he tirelessly fought for equal protection and voting rights, often sending Federal troops to areas of conflict and massacre when southern states failed to intervene.
Frederick Douglass and the black community revered Grant for these efforts, with Douglass quoted as saying:
“That sturdy old Roman, Benjamin Butler, made the negro a contraband, Abraham Lincoln made him a freeman, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant made him a citizen.”
“In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”
Grant was a savior in many ways. A Lieutenant General of the Union Army and a two-term President who advocated for Reconstruction during a time when it was often perilous to do so (even in the North), he protected America’s democratic ideals and helped the country survive tumultuous times. While not infallible, he was able to overcome alcoholism essentially “cold turkey” and provide for his family by writing the masterful Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant after falling victim to a Ponzi Scheme and losing what little money his family had. Written in a simple and straightforward style, similar to the way he lived, his Memoirs stand as some of the best writing in the history of the English language (Mark Twain, who published them, would tell you so himself).
Grant was unassuming, not overly-gregarious, and the antithesis of a showman. He was, in a nutshell, the archetype of an American leader. In a modern age where we can easily fall prey to social media showmanship and politicians with all style and little substance, we should aim to elect leaders like Grant who live by true moral codes and clear policy convictions. We should also never forget what was sacrificed to guarantee equal protection for ALL citizens, including voting rights. We should be mindful of the seductive power of hate and vie to root out domestic terrorists at every turn who try to undermine America’s democracy.
If America was able to overcome difficult conflicts of the Civil War and Reconstruction past, it should be able to persevere in the divisive times of the present. We need more leaders like Grant – leaders who are magnanimous, fight for equality, act with conviction, and embody the democratic American spirit common to us all.
As Walt Whitman perfectly described in summation on Grant: “A common trader, money-maker, tanner, farmer of Illinois – general for the republic . . . in a war of attempted succession – President following, (as task of peace, more difficult than the war itself) – nothing heroic, as the authorities put it – and yet the greatest hero.”