A Vote for Grant

Article excerpt

EARLIER THIS YEAR there was talk in Congress about replacing the picture of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill with a picture of Ronald Reagan. What I knew about Grant was that he was from Illinois, that he was known as a hard drinker, that he was the general who won the Civil War, and that he was a mediocre president who was buried in upper Manhattan near Union Theological Seminary.

But--on my brother's recommendation--I read a biography of Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and was chastened to realize that what I took to be conventional wisdom about Grant had little basis in fact. Grant never allowed alcohol to interfere with his responsibilities. His reputation as a corrupt, inadequate president is also wrong, or at least incomplete. Grant's corrupt behavior was limited to naively accepting gifts from grateful northern industrialists. His error in judgment was to trust his appointees too much and to be loyal to them in the face of evident scandal and corruption.

I came away from the book with an appreciation not only for his decisive military leadership, which turned the tide for the Union, but also for the fact that his presidency occurred at a time when the nation and the Constitution were fragile. …

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