Saturday, July 3, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth 2

Oh, Ta-Nehisi Coates is gonna like this...guess which president's stock has improved the most since the last Siena College survey?  That's right, it's Ulysses S. Grant. 

Grant was close to the bottom in the first three Siena polls (1982, 1990, 1994), beating out just three presidents each time.  In the 2002 edition, he moved up the 35th (of 42).  Now, he's escaped the ranks of the failed presidents entirely, rising to a respectable 26th.  This matches what other surveys have been showing.  The very first such study, conducted in 1948 by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., had Grant second-to-last, and up until recently he was invariably a bottom-five choice.  Now, with Siena joining the crowd, he's a mid-pack president.  Siena's respondents docked him for his executive appointments and executive ability, and didn't really give him strong marks anywhere, with it all averaging out to 26th place.

I have to admit that I probably know more about the historiography here than about the actual history of the Grant presidency.  The historiography is straightforward: Southern-dominated history cast Grant as the scapegoat for pretty much everything.  Grant was uncouth and brutal while Lee was civilized and tragic.  Grant spent eight years drunk while crooks raided the treasury and crazies took revenge on the South.  Something like that.  Lincoln was sainted -- that almost couldn't be helped -- but his death left the presidency in the hands of buffoons who allowed the greedy carpetbaggers and clown-like (at best) ex-slaves to punish the South even more over that tariff-dispute thing that tragically divided honorable Americans. 

Of course, that was all nonsense, and it's finally starting to recede, and with that Grant's ratings are improving.  I have only the vaguest of notions, however, about where he really should be in this sort of ranking.  My geuss is that I'd probably wind up putting him somewhat higher, somewhere in the broad range of 13th-22nd, if I was doing a ranking right now, but I'd be stabbing at it..

The obvious recommendations for Grant are his memoirs, which I haven't read, and TNC"s recent series of posts as he was reading the memoirs, which I have (links to the last one, I'm not aware of any index, alas).  But really, since what interests me in this post is the historiography, there's only one place to send you: you really have to watch Birth of a Nation.  It's all you think it just have to watch it, and understand that it was White House-sanctioned history, of a piece with most grade school and high school American history texts, and not the ravings of some loony remnant faction. 


  1. I would put Grant in the Top Fifteen, although presumably he would be in the #10-15 area.

    On one hand, he played an invaluable role with Reconstruction and the freedmen, cracking down on the KKK and the para-military thugs under the guise of "Democrats" in the South who would eventually take control of the state governments there with fraud and force. He had some useful foreign policy successes, like the Treaty of Washington. He even took a more lenient and tolerant line towards the indigenous population.

    On the other hand, he had the bad luck to run smack into the Panic of 1873, and his response to it wasn't particularly effective (although it's important to note that he had much less power to affect the overall economy than Presidents and Congress have in the present, along with much less understanding of how the economy worked).

    More problematic, of course, were the scandals that wracked his presidency. Grant is pretty much the Poster Child for Bad Choices in Associates and Subordinates.

  2. I think Grant is cast as a poor president because he was a poor president. I don't know who the Southern-dominant historians are, but Henry Adams, a Massachusetts republican and historian, called Grant a horrible president. In his autobiography, he said that Grant was a general of millions, thus it was assumed he could administer the federal government. Adams' implication was that he couldn't. He ended his description of Grant by saying that Grant was the opposite of evolution; his administration represented devolution. If a Republican historian of the Guilded Age/Industrial revolution said Grant was a failure, then I think Grant was a failure.

  3. Henry Adams was a snob who didn't like Grant because he was not a member of the east coast elite.

  4. Grant is one of the toughest presidents to rank, along with Cleveland and a few others, because of the enormous gulf between the quality of his first term and his second. Having said that, I would still rate him as above average because his first term was excellent. And most of the issues surrounding his admittedly very rough second term were not directly his fault. He was the best the GOP had in those days and for some time to come.

  5. Some of Grant's rehabilitation has come about through the assiduous work of historian Brooks D. Simpson. Try his "Reconstruction Presidents".


  6. Chester Arthur: The posterboy for predsident nobody has anythning good or bad to say about; mr irrelevant... and yet... under his admin that we got Federal Civil Service, which was a pretty good reform.


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